My nearly 81 year old mother is an opinionated, strong and resilient woman that has seen a lot of change in her life. She and I were able to spend a few days together these last few weeks, and she is even more sharp and engaged than ever. I have always thought that she had some unique insights and advice that did influence my choices in life. I have tried to pass them onto my sons and daughters but thought I would write them down. But first, a little about her.
My mother was born in 1934 and grew up in the Netherlands. Her earliest memories were of a carefree, comfortable and happy life. That all changed when she was six and Germany rolled over Holland at the beginning of WWII and started the occupation. Her life was defined by those years. She and her family suffered and witnessed many hardships that are very difficult for any of us to even comprehend. From watching the family shop having to close, to living in cramped housing with extended family members to make ends meet, to blackouts and curfews, to seeing your friends neighbors hauled off to camps never to be seen again, to starving during the hunger winter of 1944/45 in Amsterdam – none of us can truly appreciate how frightening and impactful this was for any of the children that survived this time period. My mother not only survived, but also now tells her grandchildren very vivid stories about this time so that we can all remember.
She is a creative, an artist. She worked as an illustrator before she got married and had a short career working for an advertising firm drawing ladies clothing ads. Her drawings are beautiful. She also took night classes, always trying to improve her skills. When she married, she quit her job and her education. She and my dad moved a world away almost immediately after their marriage to California where they started a new life. They became US citizens and were so proud to be Americans. They moved the family from one state to the next and also moved back to Holland for a short period. My parents seized the opportunity that America gave them. They raised four successful children and had a very good life. They started with knowing very little English and little money in the late 1950’s to today where my mother can live a very comfortable life without any financial concerns.
Above all, my mother adapted and encouraged her children to strive, to seize the opportunities in front of them, to never settle, to fight for what is right and to be happy. My mother spoke from experience and her insights were spot on, and her words ring in my ears almost every day.
- Get an education!
As my sister and toiled away late into the night during middle school, high school and college, our mother drove us on. She never really understood everything we were learning, but she kept saying to us over and over that we needed to keep learning, keep trying, and to keep getting an education. Without education, she told us, we would not be able to take care of ourselves and would never be independent. She kept stressing that education was the key to opportunity, to our opportunity. Education is something, she said, that no one could ever take it away from you. She valued independence through education. She was so right.
2. Work Hard!
Being a first generation American, the work ethic in our family was very strong. We all had jobs early in our lives and had to spend our own money to even buy clothes and supplies as teens. We had no money. Everybody pulled their weight and contributed to the family (chores around the house were mandatory). We all did what was expected. We hauled dirt, made gardens, dug holes, mowed lawns, washed cars, fixed cars, cleaned house (every day!), sewed our own clothes, the list just goes on and on. We were encouraged to get jobs and earn our way.
3. Have a Career (and never rely on anyone)
My mother gave up her career when she married, something she wishes she had a choice about. She encouraged all of her kids to have a career and make our own way. She wanted us to be independently successful so that if something went wrong in life, we could be self-sufficient. She kept saying that we should never rely on anyone else. That may have been her way of protecting us from an unknowable future, but she was so reliant on my dad, that she felt trapped. She never wanted us (especially her daughters) to be trapped.
4. Exclaim! (see the beauty)
My parents showed us the world. My mother would laugh at my dad because as she said, “Exclaim! Exclaim!” He was always over the top exuberant. We were taken on hikes in the mountains, taken to beautiful cities, listened to classical music daily, shown every day that the beauty of the world is all around us – in flowers, in gardens, in the mountains, in cities, in music, in art, in history, in monuments, in mountains, in museums, in stories, basically in the world. So, please “Exclaim!” (BTW: this drives my kids crazy!)
5. Keep it Simple!
Ok, this is really one of my dad’s insights, but my mother has fully embraced this especially since he passed away two years ago. We all deal with too much clutter and stuff. Let it go she would say. Throw it away! Get rid of it! Yes, she uses a lot of exclamation points when speaking and I use them a lot in writing. Makes me laugh!
6. Quit the job! Play hooky!
Whether we were in school or working, she wanted us to have fun. She would start some school days with this: “who wants to play hooky?”. She wanted to have us stay home and play. She wanted us to not be so serious and enjoy life. She also is very direct today if she hears that your job is no fun. Her advice, “quit the job!”. She always encouraged that the job should be fun, or why stay?
7. Never marry someone for pity. (find your equal)
Sometimes I wonder on this one, she said it so many, many times. She recommended that you find a partner that was your equal. This means that you and your partner must have an equal education, upbringing, background, religion, intelligence, morals, interests and passions. She stressed time and time again not to fall in love with someone because you felt sorry for him or her, and for goodness sake, do not marry someone out of pity. Do not marry someone that isn’t your equal. “It will end up all wrong.” Yes, mom.
My mother was a stay at home mom. This was great for us, not sure if it was great for her. But she did exceptional things for and with us. Every week we went to the local public library. We would ride our bikes to the library and we would each check out stacks of books. We went home with our new treasures ready to enjoy the next adventure or learn something new or read history and become more and more knowledgeable. (Ok, then she would wash the book covers so we wouldn’t catch germs!) She read everything about Lincoln and the Civil War when we lived on the East Coast. She became immersed in Lincoln and still to this day can talk about Lincoln, the Civil War, his Cabinet, everything. She taught us all to love to read. Dream through reading and read for the pure joy of it.
9. Be an American.
My parents were emigrants and were intent on becoming Americans. They applied and became US Citizens in the early 1960s. They were so proud. They believed we needed to be patriotic and celebrate everything about America. My dad was a big believer in Veterans and gave to the Veterans. It really was his way of thanking them for liberating Holland. My parents both believed in all the Freedom that we Americans enjoy. They believed that we should only speak English in our home. We visited Washington DC many times and took an East Coast tour of significant historical sites when I was a teen. They believed deeply in America and the opportunity that they enjoyed as being Americans. They voted. They hung the flag with respect. They were true Americans.
10. Exercise! Be Healthy!
My mother was always on the run, literally. She was and still is in great shape. We were shown that we should move and keep a healthy active lifestyle. We hiked the Sierras every summer and we played tennis, soccer, baseball, rode bikes. We were told to run – my mother loved to walk – FAST, and she talked about running. She maintained her pre-marriage weight throughout her lifetime. She ate small portions. Over eating in our house was simply not done. We did not have that luxury. No snacks. No junk food. None. To this day, we all are pretty healthy and active. Thanks mom!
I feel like I could write so much more, but these are the key insights and wisdom that I learned from my mother (and my dad). My mom still has her ups and downs as we all do, but overall she has great insights on what is good, what is right, and what we should all do.