life lessons

Happy Birthday Mom!

Today would have been my mom's 80th Birthday. She was a beauty pageant winner (The grand prize in 1956 included spending the day with Elvis), an avid fan of music and the color pink, and as warm and loving of a person as you could ever know. She had a way of connecting with people, even those she was meeting for the first time, that almost always led to a heartfelt hug. My mother worked at the power company for almost fifty years. People, most of whom were poor, had a disability or were elderly, would pay their utility bill in person so they could visit with her. She had a heart for those whom society had cast aside as useless. Service dogs knew in which desk drawer she kept their treats.

The lobby would sometimes overflow with customers because people would forgo the next available clerk in order to meet with my mother. She was so loved that the utility company adopted a new policy requiring customers to see the next available clerk. Upon her retirement, my mother's coworkers made her a poster of a cob-web draped skeleton standing in the lobby, When the next available clerk summons him, the skeleton replies, "No thank you. I'm waiting for Mrs. Quinn."

So much of who I am comes from my mother. She taught me many lessons:

  • Work hard and enjoy your work. From the year I was born until her retirement (36 years), she never missed a day of work. Not one. Even during her last year of work at age 69, she served almost twice as many customers a month as the average clerk. She loved what she did.
  • More important than your job title or any achievement is how you treat people. Shortly before retirement, my mother's boss shared with her the contents of her work file. Over six hundred messages erupted from the file, written by people who had taken the time to let the power company know how my mother had helped them and how she had treated them with kindness and respect regardless of their social or financial status.
  • When you realize that your best intentions are creating drama, own up to your silliness and have a good laugh. One Christmas my mother purchased decorative paper towels, which she dropped in a sink full of water. She was determined that we use these paper towels throughout the holidays and decided to put them in the microwave to dry them quickly. But she cooked them too long. The paper towels caught on fire. We rushed the roll outside, drowned it in a bucket of water and laughed uncontrollably.
  • Every smidgeon of life is precious. When I was a child I would admire the blooming weeds and wild succulents. When I found one I particularly liked, she would help me dig it up, pot it, and care for it on the back porch. Insects, flowers, birds, amphibians, blooming weeds...pause to appreciate each and life flows with awe.
  • Actual age is much less important than how old you act and feel.  Several years ago my mom told me how much she loved Pink's new song. I was amazed she even knew who Pink was. My mother always carried herself with a sense of youth and vital energy. At a carnival, my dad, who had failed to win my mom any prizes through his skill, had the brilliant idea to take her to the "guess your weight or age" booth. (I highly discourage this practice for any spouse who values his/her relationship...and life.) My mother, age 55 at time, approached the booth, and the attendant guessed that her age was 38. He offered her any prize, but she replied, "No thank you. Just hearing that I look 38 was prize enough." Dad dodged a bullet.
  • Little things done with love make a big difference. Every day in my lunch, she placed a napkin with a little note on it, which was also "signed" by our dog Skippy with a pen-drawn paw print. Those love notes read at lunchtime saved me on many a rough day.
  • The best therapy in the world is getting your hands dirty. My mother's therapy was working in the  yard and her gardens. Tending to the earth seemed to be her way of tending to her soul.
  • A good story is worth its weight in gold. My mother's way of dealing with a difficult experience  was to turn it into a funny story. One time she was leaving the beauty parlor and instead of putting the car in reverse, she drove forward into a dead tree that fell over on top of her car. She got out of the car and was embarrassed but relieved to see walking in her direction a truck driver, who had stopped and could help her get the tree off her car. He walked up to the car, assessed the situation, and said, "Lady, if I hadn't see it with my own two eyes I would have never believed anyone could have been so stupid." He then turned around and walked away, leaving my mother with a dead tree on her car...but with a good story to tell.
  • Give away all of your love here and now, and when someone you love dies, focus on life. Deeply appreciate and love with a full, open heart those in our lives. Even though the pain is great upon their parting, it's the only way to live without regret. When our dog Skippy died, she sobbed for a day. Then we planted a tree in the front yard to remember him with new life. Standing next to "Skippy's Tree" we remembered funny stories about him and laughed through our tears.
  • A hand-written note means more than the words it contains. With cell phones and emails dominating communication, my mother still mailed me a letter at least once a week to encourage me and share one thing going on in her life. She would usually enclose a joke, cartoon or sweet story she had read. Mostly it was just to let me know that someone in the world was thinking of me and loved me. I think I miss those letters more than anything else.

Thank you Mom for all you taught me, for the sweet notes, for your loving spirit, for oodles of laughs, and for all the love you gave me throughout my life...and even now. I miss you and love you. Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday Dad!

Today would have been my dad's 80th Birthday. He was a football star, a loan officer at a bank, an avid fishermen, and a genuinely good man. His humor and laid back demeanor made him a pleasure to be around. At his funeral, elderly men came to me with tears in their eyes saying that my father had been their dearest friend. Some told funny stories about wild college parties, mishaps on fishing trips, and practical jokes played decades ago. Others shared how his generosity blessed them. A tailor who immigrated from Mexico with his family said that no one would give them a loan to open a new business when they arrived in the U.S. My dad, however, took the time to get to know them and made the loan. The business and family thrived.

My dad taught more by example than with eloquent speeches. Here are some lessons he taught me:

  • No matter how wonderful or painful your past, the present is where to put your attention. Old stories are fun to recount, but keep creating new ones.
  • Invest time, energy, fun and heart in true friends. The return on investment is worth the effort.
  • Whatever happens, just roll with it. The phrases "I have a hangnail" and "the car caught on fire today" would get about the same reaction out of him. He approached life with a calm pragmatism that readily accepted what is (sometimes with a few expletives for good measure) and then moved forward.
  • You're never too old to act silly. I remember watching him put on my old Halloween mask of The Cowardly Lion, wrap a blanket around himself,  and roar and play with our dog Skippy, who wasn't sure if it was really a lion or dad. Personally, if I were Skippy, I would have bitten him either way.
  • The more seriously you take yourself and life, the less you enjoy it. My dad was always joking and being mischievous. When I was a baby, the police detained and castigated several neighborhood kids for shooting off fireworks illegally. They were particularly harsh, however, with the one adult in the gang: my dad.
  • When you can't do what you used to be able to do, enjoy and celebrate what you still can do.
  • Live in such as way that at your funeral, the tears flow just as much from laughter as from sorrow.

Thank you Dad for all you taught me. I miss you and love you. Happy Birthday!