Do we become our mothers? Do we fashion our lives and, more importantly, our own mothering styles after them? If we believe the mountains of literature on the subject of daughters and mothers, we might accept this theory. I don’t. We may not be able to choose our phenotypes, but we can determine the mothers we become. My concept of mothering was pieced together from all the mothers of my childhood. These women were just being themselves, just taking care of their families the best that they could. They never would have imagined how they were influencing the skinny little kid from the other side of the street, but what a difference they made.
Shirley Hoffer was a paragon of serenity. The mother of three very active children and aunt to innumerable nieces and nephew, she squelched sassiness and angry outbursts with gentle words. She remained calm and kind in the midst of chaos and even calamity. One incident stands out vividly in my memory. Shirley’s youngest child, Elaine, sliced her leg wide open on the metal seat of our new teeter-totter. I ran to fetch Shirley who calmly pulled a clean white sheet from a drawer and quickly crossed the street to our house where she wrapped her daughter’s leg securely before transporting her to the hospital. It was traumatic for all of us, but I don’t remember the blood or Elaine’s screams. I just remember Shirley — calm, collected, and in control.
Years later my eight-year-old son fell off the slide at the city park and broke his arm in three places. When the doctor pulled the drape aside and I saw that little arm, grotesquely swollen and with no discernible elbow, I felt like I had been slugged in the stomach. It was all I could do to keep from gasping, but mothers don’t do that. Mothers stay calm so as not to alarm the children. Calm like Shirley.
Ester Kaino’s house was always spotlessly clean and nicely decorated. The master bedroom (just glimpsed from the doorway, of course, as we would never have dared enter it) was magical in shades of lavender and lilac and lacy dust ruffles. Flowers grew in abundance in Ester’s yard and she let us pick them for our tea parties. The white picket fence that surrounded the neatly trimmed lawn was always pristine. Even the dog was immaculately groomed.
Although Ester must have put a tremendous amount of time into her housekeeping, I was never acutely aware of her doing so. What was overtly obvious to me at the time was the special relationship that Ester had with her daughter, Charlene. It was clear, even to a child, that Ester cherished her daughter and sincerely enjoyed her company.
Although I never would have met Ester’s standards, I strove to maintain a clean and pleasant environment for my family. I attempted repeatedly, albeit dismally, to raise flowers, and always kept my green picket fence freshly painted. More importantly, I was acutely aware that my children were precious gifts and relished my time with them.
Margaret Frost had a unique way of assigning household duties to her four children. At the beginning of each week, the kids would spin a chore wheel and where it landed would determine each one’s tasks for that week. As a child, I thought that was ingenious. As an adult, I wanted to use that design for my children, but it didn’t work that well with just two kids. Instead of a wheel, I used a white board, making a specific list for each child. As each task was completed, it was erased from the board. It seemed like a good plan; by the time I returned from work at the end of the day, the board was clear and the chores were done. There was just one little problem. My son, despite having fewer duties than his older sister, was always complaining about how hard he had to work. Little did I know that my daughter was getting up before her brother in the morning and moving half of her chores to his list!
Margaret also maintained a huge vegetable garden and berry patch. She harvested and put up all sorts of goodies for winter. It was pure misery, though, watching her put her freshly baked blackberry pies in the freezer instead on the table in front of us.
Like Margaret, I grew scads of fruits and vegetables and at the end of the season, froze, canned, sauced, jammed and/or pickled everything. Well, just about everything — my fresh berry pies never made it to the freezer!
Odessa Ekmen didn’t just make clothes for her daughter, Lenna, she made them beautiful. Every one of Lenna’s dresses was special; each adorned with ruffles, ribbons, and added flounces.
When I started sewing for my daughter, I wanted her clothes to be as pretty as Lenna’s. Every item of clothing had a touch of lace, some embroidery or hand smocking, a ruffle, a ribbon, or special buttons. Each was unique and I took as much pleasure in making the clothes as my daughter did in wearing them.
During my childhood there was a distinct line between playmates and adults, but some women surprised us. Rusty Hindbuck, mother of an undetermined number of children, could keep a hula-hoop up longer than any of us girls. Joy Paul would take us for bike rides in the rain and would dare us to jump off the Riverdale Bridge into the Willapa River and race her back to shore. These women taught me that it was okay for mothers to be zany at times. This knowledge freed me to play unabashedly with my children.
When August thunderstorms finally broke the long, hot, dry spells of summer, my kids and I would celebrate by dancing barefoot in the rain. We sought out mushroom fairy rings and crafted elaborate tales of mischievous spites. I pulled the children to the grocery store in their red wagon (or sled if it was snowing) and hauled them and the groceries back home in the same manner. One time my daughter was riding home on top of a sack of flour. The sack gave way and spilled both its contents and the child on the ground. We all thought it was hysterical.
There were other significant women in my childhood. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilde, taught us to knit and introduced us to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. My Sunday school teacher, Dorothy Lundsford, made every one of her students feel special by baking a personalized birthday cake exclusively for them. Most important of all these ladies, however, was my mother — my own sweet, dear mother. Mom instilled in me the love of books. She read to us everyday — from the comics to the classics to the bible. She started taking me to the bookmobile when I was barely three and let me pick out my own books. Oh, so many possibilities!
I was an insufferable teenager, yet my mother forgave me repeatedly and loved me unconditionally. She had a plague on the kitchen wall that read, “A Soft Answer Turneth Away Wrath, but Harsh Words Stirreth up Anger.” Mom lived by that code and I’ve tried to emulate her although I know that I often fall short. I didn’t hug her enough and I never had a chance to thank her for all that she did. This is why I’m writing this letter; I want to thank these other ladies before it’s too late. I want them to know that whether they meant to or not, they impacted my life. On behalf of my children, and myself, thank you, Ester, Odessa, Shirley, Joy, Margaret, and Dorothy.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on www.hometowndebate.com 5/20/13. If you would like to respond to this story go to hometowndebate.com