Today is Mother’s Day for me, my mum’s birthday. Though Mary passed away on May 27, 2001, following a painful battle with cancer, I still take time every Dec. 12 to honor her. I miss my mother, but today, as I do on every birthday of hers, I smile at the many wonderful memories, and thank her for all she gave to me.
That is my beautiful mum, with, yes, a chubby me in 1960.
I remember — and only because she told me – of walking to preschool on a day that my mum knew was cold, but certainly seemed manageable. I waddled to school only to find out classes were cancelled … because of the bad weather. The manageable cold hovered somewhere between -70 and -80 degrees Fahrenheit accounting for wind chill. Fortunately, there were some other parents who didn’t listen to local weather reports and also bundled their children off to school, so I stayed warm and safe until my mum arrived to pick me up at the appointed time, still blissfully unaware the weather was deemed by authorities to be unsafe. My mum grew up during WWII in Britain, which certainly gave her a tough spirit — one that never let a spot of weather deter from what needed to get done … like going to school. I inherited that sense of not letting things stand in my way and a strong dose of mental and physical toughness from my mum, and I rely on it to this day.
I also learned not to let my fears hold me back, or allow them to influence my own daughter as I raised her. My mum was deathly afraid of flying, a fear that was made worse when a propeller flew off the plane as we were taking off for one of our annual summer pilgrimages to Great Britain from my birthplace of Calgary, Alberta, Canada (where we lived ’til I was six). But she never let me know about her fear until I was in my teens. She told me the reason she’d hidden her fear was that she didn’t want me to be afraid of flying simply because she was.
Car packed and off we go to spend a summer in Banff where my Dad taught at the Banff School of Fine Arts and my mum and I spent countless days hiking and wandering together.
Seemed funny to me that my mum could be afraid of anything – a fright list that included spiders and rodents – because my mum was an adventurer at heart. She used to regale me with stories of her childhood, of pouring over maps and getting lost in travel books, dreaming of adventure in jungles and mountains across the globe. She was always one to encourage my dreams and desire to wander.
My wife, Therese Iknoian, with my mum and dad.
This was a woman who enrolled in university, once I graduated high school, to earn her master’s degree in social work. I heard tales from her associates at Washington University in St. Louis of my mum, a spritely 50-year-old British woman, no more than 5 feet tall, walking through East St. Louis to visit some of her patients … because they needed her. At that time some of the streets she was walking were not considered all that safe, and yet she had no fear then … at least none that she let on.
Mum also never shied away from an energetic debate if she were standing up for something she believed was morally right. Women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights… my mum was passionate. She left the Catholic Church, a church she loved, because women were not allowed to become priests simply because they were women. I am quite certain that had the Pope ever sat down with my mum, she’d have given the Pontiff a piece of her mind he’d not soon forget.
My mum was also a thorn in my side, firmly reminding me at every turn, even in front of friends and once even in front of a date, that “he” was not a universal pronoun and the word should only be used when referring specifically to a man. She taught me to cook (and survived numerous culinary disasters), sew and clean up after myself because not one of those things were in her mind a woman’s sole work. They were simply chores that needed completing and I better do them if I ever wanted them done.
Over the years, my mum taught me the subtle difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul. She showed me that love doesn’t mean leaning on someone and that company doesn’t mean security.
Through her firm but loving guidance, I learned to accept my defeats with my head up and my eyes open so that I could, “learn from them with the grace of an adult and not the grief of a child.” Both she and my father loved to tell me, sometimes in unison, “It’s not the mistake or failure that matters one bit. It is what you learn from the experience that counts.”
And it was through my mum that I have learned to embrace my successes with humility and humor. She once told me after I was preening just a bit too much following a win at a big track meet that “resting on one’s laurels serves only to crush the sweet bouquet of success beneath an increasingly weighty posterior of pride.” Yes, mum had a lot of sayings.
But it was her example that spoke to me the loudest. The way she lived her life fully, never backing down from a challenge, working for everything she earned, never taking anything for granted, standing up for those less fortunate, and dreaming of traveling to far away places ’til the day she died. Those qualities have influenced me the most.
Mum and my dad, hiking in damp weather to view elephant seal in Ano Nuevo in 1998. Her smile could illuminate the darkest day.
Excellence and recognition must be earned, not simply bestowed. And challenge is simply an opportunity to excel, not a roadblock to hide behind. My mother gave me my life over 57 years ago. It is by living my life with integrity and charity toward others, traveling often, and never shying away from challenge or adventure that I honor her. Today, on my mum’s birthday, I will miss her a lot, but love her a little bit more, forever.