Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mothers Day ...

On this Mothers’ Day, I want to talk a bit about the important things I learned from my Mom. Although she transitioned to the next world two and a half years ago, the things I learned from will serve me through this life time and hopefully into the next.
Even when I was a teenager, I knew my Mother was one of the smartest people around. She had a calm and patient way about her that just engendered calm in those she was around. This was good since I was one of those mercurial teenagers whose mood swings were similar to a ride at a major theme park - - except they did not feature any safety harnesses or seatbelts. It did not help matters that I was a decidedly square peg surrounded by a plethora of uniform round pegs. Regardless of what went on in my life I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my mother was on my side and that she had my back.
In fact, her unwavering support started in first grade. There were 2 classes of first graders in my small town school in 1967. For some reason, someone got the bright idea that we should switch teachers for our math class. Now, I had pulled a lucky straw and gotten Mrs. Neilson as my teacher. She was the kind of old fashioned teacher who treated her students with a firm gentleness. We knew she was in charge, but she never lorded that fact over us or used her power as 'power'. She loved us and we knew it. It made even the most challenging of us want to learn.
The other teacher, who I will just call Mrs. "L", was the other kind of old fashioned school teacher. One who believed most fervently in 'spare the rod, spoil the child'. Remember, these were the days when the Strap was still a fixture in the public schools in Canada. What was even more disturbing for me was her tendency to shriek at her students. Perhaps she was having personal issues or perhaps this was just how she was, but she would routinely yell in class as if raising the volume of her voice would help my less quick minded classmates catch on to the nuances of counting to 20. I had never been exposed to an adult who yelled and screamed - - although my siblings assure me that my father did, he died when I was 2 1/2 so I had no clear memory of him. My mother rarely raised her voice and, when she did, it was generally to inspire us to get to the dinner table from whatever we were doing.
This new form of communication, which did not seem to have any predictability or logic to it, was most distressing for me. I'm sure it was even more so for the individual children who were the target of her wrath on any given day.
After several weeks of watching Mrs. L take out her frustrations on my classmates, I told Mom that I did not like her class. Apparently, I explained to Mom that all the yelling was giving me a headache and it was hard to concentrate on my schoolwork with a headache.
What did my mother do?
Well, if this happened today, the parent would probably charge into the principal's office and threaten to sue the school for traumatizing little Suzy. My mother's approach was much more subtle and, as I recall, more effective.
She wrote Mrs. L a note. It said simply:"Dear Mrs. L: Could you please not yell in class as it gives Elizabeth a headache. Sincerely, Patricia Odell"
I handed it to Mrs. L and, while I cannot recall the look on her face, it is my recollection that math class was a bit quieter after that.
I learned a valuable lesson from my mother's approach: Sometimes just asking will get you the result you want. Mom was not trying to 'fix' Mrs. L. She was not worried about why she was yelling at us - - it did not matter whether the reason was because we were the biggest group of imbeciles to enter the classroom or because Mrs. L was experiencing the mood swings associated with menopause. The cause did not matter. What mattered was the effect on me. Mom's message to Mrs. L was simple -- get it under control.
As I ponder my life, I realize that there was never a time that I did not believe that my Mom 'had my back.' She supported me, even when I was royally screwing up on so very many levels. But it was as though she trusted my ability to recover from a bad choice more than she ever felt the need to point out the obvious when I was clearly veering off the road in a less than safe direction.

The first time this happened, I was only in third grade. Apparently, I was a very verbal child who read and spoke well from an early age. When I was in third grade, my class became involved in a massive musical theatre production with the grade fours. I was chosen (along with 2 other third graders) to play one of the leads. Now, the drama queen in me would like to believe this was because I was cute, engaging and obviously Shirley Temple's heir apparent. Realistically, I was mostly likely selected because I was already reading at a junior high school level and had a pretty good memory.
Whatever the reason, I found myself thrust into the centre of the action. All these years later, I do not remember much of the plot. I do, however, remember how it felt to perform for my classmates. We did several shows initially for the other grades. Finally, the day came to perform for the parents, who had been invited to a special performance. That was when I experienced my first case of stage fright. I was suddenly totally terrified. Of what, I am not really sure. All I knew was that I did not want to go out onto the stage.
I broke down and told Mom. Instead of giving me a lecture about 'letting down' my classmates and teachers, she backed me up. I headed off to school with a 'note' from her explaining that I was having a crisis and simply could not perform that afternoon.
Now, I do not know if she and my teachers 'talked' on the phone. But, with much encouragement and cajoling from my teachers and cast mates, I managed to overcome the stage fright and went on stage. It was probably not my best performance, but I got through it. And, of course, Mom was right there in the audience cheering me on. Like she knew I would come through but she also knew I needed to know that she supported me and trusted me to know what I wanted. That knowledge was powerful and, in reality, gave me more courage than a guilt filled pep talk would have inspired.
Looking back, I realize what Mom did to get all of us launched into the world. Her family was her focus. She believed in each of us and knew that we would do her proud. I know some days it must have been hard to believe that, but she had faith in us even when we did not.
Mother was never big on telling any of us what to do. She was a proponent of the 'logical consequences' school of parenting long before it came into vogue. It was as though she knew her children needed to experience things to learn from them. Imparting wisdom through lectures was about as effective as using a blow torch to light a candle - - a lot damage could easily be done and the original point of the exercise is lost in the ashes.
I have always said that her approach was to give us enough rope to hang ourselves and, while we were there dangling just above the ground, she would come and cut us down. Once our feet were back on solid ground, she would ask (in her unique roundabout way), "So what did you learn from that?"

Now that I am on the edge of adolescence with my own daughter, I hope I can live up to the example I had. I pray that I will be able to back my daughter and trust HER enough to let her try it her way - - but always with the rescue squad on call to pull her from the flames and give her a safe place to figure out where her plan went awry so she can start again and be stronger in the next attempt.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Betty....that was wonderful. I miss Thu...and wish I had asked more and listened more. She was one truly special person when she was here.

    Love you. H.