Four Things I Learned from My Mother

I lost my mom one year ago today. She died just a year after Ethan and two years after my dad. I feel like I was thrown into the deep end of the grieving pool and I’ve been treading water ever since. Losing my parents has certainly been a different experience than losing a child, but each loss has left its mark on my heart.

We are all shaped, from day one, by the people who raise us. Parents show us a way of living, and as we grow, we can internalize or discard the pieces of our parents that have become pieces of ourselves. In a way, our parents’ death is their final lesson. The final push into adulthood for their children. There are no more do-overs, no answers to questions we never asked.

As the oldest sibling in my family, we joke that I’m the matriarch now. My mom was the matriarch before me. She was the oldest sibling and lost both of her parents before she was forty. I’ll step into her old role, hopefully carrying the best parts of the mother who shaped me.

Here are just a few bits of wisdom my mom left for me to aspire to:

  1. ACCEPT—Accept everyone on their terms. There are no such thing as outsiders. In my home growing up, everyone was welcome. My parents had friends from every imaginable background. If you can think of a category of humans, I’d bet we celebrated a holiday with someone from that group. I’m sort of kidding, but not really. My parents took people in: friends, foster children, pregnant teens who needed a place to stay, you name it…. Our door was always open. It was a wonderful and immersive way to grow up.

    Accept, in fact, is the bare minimum we should do. What my mom taught me is to care about people. All people. Don’t patronize people, don’t pity people, don’t pat yourself on the back for being nice to people. Just open your heart and your door and let people bring their strange and wonderful selves into your life.
  2. READ—Read alllll the books. Read everything you can get your hands on. As a child, the only building I knew of that had more books than my home was the library. Every year, my mom would box up dozens and dozens of books to donate, yet our shelves were always full. Both of my parents bought books, and read books, and cherished books.

    There was never a time when books were not part of my life. The bookmobile parked up the street once a week, and then there was the school library where I had permission to take out books from the middle school section from the time I started first grade. Weekends almost always involved a trip to the bookstore in the mall. We wore cheap clothing, sat on shabby furniture, and we didn’t eat at restaurants, but my parents never had a problem spending money on books.

    My mom was an English teacher who loved books of every type and genre. She let me read her “grown up” books or whatever else I wanted to read from the time I was very young. When I was 13, she gave me a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker for Christmas. If you’ve ever read that book, you know it has some heavy themes. The book opens with the heartbreaking confusion of a teenage girl who can’t understand her brutal reality. The language is true and sharp. And as an 8th grader, I was a little shocked that my mom would give me a book like that. But my mom didn’t shy away from heavy topics, and she didn’t believe in sheltering us from life or literature.

    Today, I teach books and poems with difficult themes. There’s no hiding from life or literature. I’ve learned it’s best to read it all, then find someone safe to talk about it all.

    When in doubt, read some more.

  3. PRAY—Whatever that looks like for you. For my mom, a devout Catholic, praying was a way of life. In particular, she had a devotion to the Virgin Mary. She said the rosary every day, went to church every week. Her faith brought her comfort, but it also gave her purpose. She believed 100% that prayers were meaningless litanies if she didn’t back them up with acts of devotion. She lived a simple life of service. Her life was her prayer.

    A person can pray on her knees, or on a rug, or on a walk in nature. Prayer can be a surrender or a plea or an act of kindness. Some people chant, some people sing. Some talk to a god, or The God, or all the gods. Those breathtaking pictures from the Webb telescope show us that some sort of magic is at work in the universe. If you can’t find your version of a higher power, talk to the sky. Release your gratitude and intentions and fears and let them find their way into the world.
  4. LAUGH—Holy hell, life is hard. There are a million reasons to be angry, afraid, and sad. And it’s okay to feel all of those things. Cry your eyes out if you need to. Scream into a pillow, and stand in the streets and fight when it comes down to it. But never forget that it’s more than okay to step back and laugh. Laugh at the truly funny and laugh at the absurd. Laugh if it’s the only way you can keep from curling into the fetal position in despair.

    My mom came form a large, LOUD Irish family. When a bunch of McDonnells are in the area, you’re going to hear us. And the loudest, most distinctive thing about us is our laugh. I grew up in a house where we laughed at the funny things, then we laughed even harder at the things we weren’t supposed to laugh at. No subject was treated too seriously for too long.

    Through the grief, through the darkness, through the uncertainty, I still find reasons to laugh all the time. Ethan was the same way. He had a devilish laugh that I miss so, so much. He was always finding reasons to laugh. He learned that from me.

And I learned that from my mother.  

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