Thursday, January 19, 2012

Happy 75th Birthday to the Hippest, Coolest Mom Ever

Today is my mom’s 75th birthday. I would be in Los Angeles celebrating with her, but instead I am in New Orleans attending the American Booksellers Association Winter Conference as a guest author. I feel very privileged to have been invited to this conference, but I feel even more privileged to have been raised by such a great mom. I probably wouldn’t even be at this conference – hell, I may not even still be alive – if not for my mom and all the values, wisdom, strength and grace she instilled in me.
Can you even tell which one is my mom? Didn't think so!
I write a lot in my book, Making Piece, about my relationship with my dad. That’s mostly because my book centers around pie and my dad and I share a love for pie. But in this blog, I find I write a lot more about my mom. That is because as I try to make sense of this confusing life by writing these soul-searching essays, I constantly hear my mom’s helpful, calming, sensible voice as my guiding force.

Which is why, for my mom’s birthday, I am giving her this gift of a “Birthday Card Blog” to let her—and the rest of the world—know just how amazing she is and share a few of the invaluable tools she taught me. And I believe I speak for my four siblings too.

Dress Well – My mom is one of the hippest people I know. She has outstanding taste in clothes, she puts them together well, and she always looks “smashing.” Her wardrobe is so covetable I always raid her closet when I come to visit, borrowing something cute, like a BCBG sweater or a Banana Republic skirt. Lucky for me we are about the same size. And, on occasion, when falling in love with some piece of her clothing she will utter my favorite four words: “You can have it.” I don’t know anyone who gets and even begs for hand-me-downs from their 75-year-old mother!

Dine Well – It was my mom who introduced me to high tea, the very elegant British tradition of drinking tea and eating scones at a table set with delicate china and shiny silver. But my mom also taught me that high tea must be enjoyed properly by wearing a hat and gloves and a flowery dress. (Kudos to my mom for being able to get me out of my overalls!) My mom also knows the art of gourmet cooking. When I was in grade school she and her friends formed a food club and took turns hosting elegant home-cooked French meals. She once sent me to the store to get pearl onions for her Coq au Vin and I came home with the smallest yellow onions I could find. She didn’t get upset. She made do with the “wrong” ones. To this day whenever I see pearl onions I appreciate my mother’s culinary skills, her lessons to me about fine dining, and her flexibility in ingredients.

Mind Your Manners – I wish that kids today were able to be raised by my mother. I see so many rude, inconsiderate little monsters running wild in restaurants, screaming at the top of their lungs, and whining to their parents. Parents who think their kids are perfect. My mom would not tolerate bad behavior and for that I recognize that I am so very very lucky. She taught us to say please and thank you. And send thank you cards. She taught us to hold the door open for someone or help an elderly person to cross the street. She taught us that if you can’t say something nice about someone then don’t say it at all. And she taught us table manners – something that seems to have vanished in our society – basic functions like chew with your mouth closed, don’t talk with your mouth full, and push your knife and fork together to signal you are finished eating. She wasn’t following Emily Post to the letter, but pretty close. If only that “Book of Etiquette” could be handed out in hospital delivery rooms today.

Don’t Whine– When I was 22, living in Chicago and complaining to my mom about not being qualified for a certain job I wanted, she said, “If you don’t have the skills, go get the skills.” It may have seemed a little tough love-ish at the time, but these words have propelled me forward again and again over the years, resulting in quite an eclectic and useful set of skills. Now, whenever I hear people whine (including myself) I realize how unattractive it is and how blessed I was to have a mom that wouldn't indulge me in my self-pity.

Be Considerate – My mom didn’t just teach manners, she also excelled in teaching the lesson of being considerate of others. Having awareness of those around you is an all-important life skill. When you are mindful of others that means you are paying attention. And when you are paying attention, you are absorbing everything life has to offer. You are also doing things instilled in you by your mother, like calling when you are going to be late and checking in when you arrive at your destination after a trip to say you made it safely. Or else! So many people don’t realize how important these little gestures can be. Think about this the next time you walk into a building and the person coming out not only doesn’t hold the door to let you pass, they don’t even acknowledge your existence. You will be wishing that there were more moms out there like mine.

Be Yourself – When I was 19 and everyone but me seemed to know what they were going to be when they grew up, I cried to my mom, “Why can’t I be like Liz?” Liz was my best friend who even at 19 seemed steady and sure of her course. To this my mom replied in the way that only the wisest of mothers could, “Because you’re special. Your life is going to be more difficult than Liz’s but it’s going to be so much more interesting.” I guess she was prescient because Liz went on to become a drug addict, then a born again Christian, and eventually unhappily married. My life has indeed been challenging (though apart from Marcus’ death usually due to self-inflicted reasons). And my mom was right, my life has also been infinitely interesting. And still is. I credit this to my mom who didn’t insist I follow the crowd and always take the “safe” path. She encouraged me to step to the beat of my own drum, no matter how wild the rhythm.

Be Independent – I am more fiercely independent than may be good for me, but then…maybe not. I think “self-reliant” may be a better term here. And there is nothing wrong with that. My mom let me and my siblings have free run of the kitchen, allowing us to make cookies and no-bake cheesecakes on our own. Taking it a step further, she let me and my sister take the bus downtown to shop for our own school clothes. We were not older than 8 or 10, but we were granted both freedom and trust. She granted me an extra dose of that freedom and trust when I wanted to run away to the Oregon coast at the age of 16. Instead of me having to flee without permission, she took a deep breath and said, “We trust we’ve done a good job raising you. It’s time for you to test your wings.” She didn’t exhale until I returned home safe and happy a month later. I don’t know of any other parents who have that much faith in their children. I credit my mom and her confidence in me at that tender young age as one of my greatest life-shaping moments.

Be Creative – My mom signed up all five of us kids for just about every lesson and activity known to mankind. We had lessons in ballet, tap, gymnastics, jazz, tennis, golf, swimming, diving, cello, violin, guitar, piano, pottery, painting, knitting, sewing. We (well, my brothers) competed in sports of football, track, baseball, basketball, wrestling. We were cheerleaders. We were in school plays. We were camp counselors. We were busy. My mom not only encouraged us to try everything, she also drove us there. I am grateful for being so well-rounded, exposed to such a variety of activities, and for being given the opportunity to choose which, if any, I wanted to pursue. She didn’t push, she merely offered the path. This alone makes me acutely aware of how privileged my upbringing was and how dedicated my mother was to making sure we had a good life.

I could go on and on about how much I learned from my mom and how grateful I am to her. But I have to go autograph some books now. And while I’m here in New Orleans talking to book store owners about my forthcoming memoir, my mom will be riding in the back of a limousine with my siblings and my aunt and uncle. They will be on their way to her birthday dinner in Los Angeles. And if all goes according to plan, my sister will open my blog on her iPhone and read this story to my mom. The greatest, hippest, most generous and caring mom in the world.

Happy Birthday, Marie Howard. You rock.
My parents on their 50th anniversary last year.