Live today in a way that makes tomorrow better.
My mother nightly carried me to this magical corner of our yard to check the progress of the little green imposters that gradually swelled and blued over the summer until fat and fragrant indigo-purple grapes. I learned to eat them right off the vine, my mom lifting me so I could clutch the clusters in my chubby little fists.
The grapes would end up in the jams and jellies born of canning on hot August nights, or in the strange Swedish concoction called “bärkräm” (or “krem”) that my mother made, which was the equivalent of grape pudding.
Beyond memories such as these, my mother’s influence takes on a new shape and meaning with each new phase of my life; it dims and glows, ebbs and flows, but like the ever-changing, never-ending tide, it’s always present.
In recent weeks, I joyfully acquired another new grandbaby, which has prompted me to be more reflective: What did I receive of value from my mother? What have I passed on to my children? And, now, what will I pass on to my grandchildren?
Thelma Cairns was adopted, and when she was four-years-old her adoptive mother died. Enduring not one primal wound, but two is a rough start in life! Next her father moved her from pillar to post and then dumped her with distant relatives, where she was molested and emotionally abused. How she ever found the legs to stand on, to move forward, I will never know.
But, out of this crucible, a passion was forged: she married my dad and embraced the idea that being a homemaker was a woman’s highest calling in life. As a result, she learned everything there was to know about home economics.
She was thrifty, creative, and committed to feeding a family of four (which grew to six) on $20 a week. She planned menus and shopped with a $20 bill in her “pocketbook,” crafty about which products to choose, and calculating unit pricing long before it was mandated. She added her bill in her head, item by item, frequently removing things and putting them back on the shelves. Without the aid of a calculator, she was still dead accurate when we checked out. If there was a dime leftover, she let me buy a Women’s Day magazine. Rarely did she miscalculate and go over her cash budget – it was too embarrassing to have the clerk remove items from the bill. Can you do that kind of math in your head with kids in tow?
She sewed beautifully and made our clothes, darned socks, and canned our garden’s bounty. She saved everything, recycling stuff into other useful forms before recycling was a word. We teethed on the rubber rings from canning jars, and saved string, newspapers, paper bags, and aluminum foil. The notion that anything was “disposable” or “single use” didn’t exist.
What did I learn from her?
How to be poor: As Mae West famously said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.” When I’m broke, I know how to make a budget and live within it; I learned how to do without; and I learned to track finances and eschew debt because these habits pay off.
How to make a penny squeak: From finding fine art at Goodwill, to making my own curtains, to knowing how to evaluate fabric, produce, or any other item based on its intrinsic value in comparison to its price – I learned it from my mom.
How to look like a million bucks doing it: My mom had a fabulous sense of color and flair and could doll up a cheap T-shirt with a scarf or put a new ribbon on a hat to make it look completely new. I learned that I am a palette to be creatively splashed with color and pizzazz each day.
How to be content doing it: My mom didn’t complain about our lowly circumstances. Living creatively and well on a budget produced great satisfaction and contentment for her, and I learned that creativity and hard work are among life’s greatest satisfactions.
How to embrace the lovely ordinary of daily routines. Mom delighted in making the bed, washing the dishes, and doing the laundry. I never heard her complain and I rarely saw her sit down. She had no goal to get it done so she could rest – she got it done so she and her family could enjoy the fruits of her labor. She found beauty in the soap bubbles, the first lilacs, a straight seam, and an orderly house.
How to create order and love it: Order propels forward progress. Order frees you to be creative. As Julia Cameron says, “When we open ourselves to exploring our creativity, we open ourselves to God: Good orderly direction.” More than anything – really at the very top of the heap of things I learned from her – is how to create order and how important order is for the smooth running of a household.
How to conserve: I learned how to conserve everything, re-use, turn off lights, and make everything from scratch because it matters. I find caring for creation to be a natural outgrowth of who I am because my mom laid that foundation.
How to live today in a way that makes tomorrow better: Whether spiritually, mentally, vocationally, emotionally, or physically at the core my mother’s gospel was to live today in a way that makes tomorrow better. I will happily embrace, adopt, and transmit that gospel.
I’m not claiming that these are the most important values in life: I’m telling you what stands out in my memory of what I learned from my mom, and as I’ve reflected on them, I have decided these habits and mind sets are worth passing on. May I be graced with the ability to do so and pass on an appreciation for the lovely ordinary.