Courage: For my Mother

May 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Posted in running, Uncategorized | 20 Comments

I signed up to tackle the Five for Ten blogging “challenge” — I’ve never done anything like this before but (a) could use a kick in the butt in terms of posting more often and (b) it’s always nice to be given a subject. Today’s subject is COURAGE.

I had wanted to post my “courage” piece yesterday, for Mother’s Day, but struggled a bit with the vagaries of the word. On a sparkling, crisp, windy Sunday, then, I set out on a long run thinking about the word and, probably because it was, in fact, Mother’s Day, my mind kept coming back to my mother.

I do not consider myself a courageous person at all. I cannot even call the plumber to schedule a repair. I am still scared of thunderstorms (for real). To an outsider, certain decisions I have made perhaps seem courageous. Arguably it takes courage to end a long relationship in which you have invested everything. Or it takes courage to restart your life at 30 and go to law school. For me, however, these decisions had nothing to do with being courageous. They were simply right, and, at the time, there were no other decisions that could have been made. Instead, I see courageous as having a connotation that leans more towards “principled” than “brave” — because sometimes the line between “brave” and “foolish” is just too porous.

Still, I knew intrinsically that these decisions would be supported by, if no one else, my mother. Her own decisions regarding her marriage, career, and most important her children, were made as much out of principle as they were bravery — and, as such, are to me the definition of courageous.

My mother is one of the few people I know who has never veered from a set of core principles about fairness, equality, and love. In our yuppie New Jersey suburb we were one of the few families who didn’t belong to the country club. My mother would not join a club, she said, that did not admit Jews, blacks, or Italians, to name a few. “You can have an exclusive club, I don’t care,” she said. “But I cannot condone excluding people on an external bias.” (At the time, I was kind of peeved that I couldn’t join all of my friends poolside, ordering grilled cheeses and fountain Cokes all summer long.) Or, for example, when my father’s law firm held its annual dinner dance at an exclusive men’s club in the city, the wives were made to wait in the ladies room until their husbands arrived. My mother refused. These principles gave her the courage in spite of public opinion, even if that public was only the small worlds of our town and my father’s colleagues, to act in singular way. Later, during my parents’ rather scandalous divorce, these same principles morphed into pure courage, enabling her to hold her head high as she walked through town while all other heads leaned together to whisper about her. Ultimately, she emerged as the woman to whom every other housewife in town, as their marriages fell apart, sought for advice.

At the same time, in addition to her stances for what is inherently “right,” a deep, unwavering, principled love for family is gave her the courage to get out of bed when the entire town was talking about her. It gave her the strength to herself go to law school in her 40s (with three children at home). It gave her the courage to open her heart again to love and marriage.

A friend once said to me, “Your mom is the quintessential mother.” (At the time I probably quite literally said, “Whatever” or some other similarly dismissive response.) This comment was made after my mother had taken a group of college friends out to dinner in Washington, D.C., where I was on an extended visit with my father, who was dying. My parents were no longer married, and all of the surrounding stresses were taking their toll on me physically and emotionally (obviously). My mother drove down just for a day. She took us to dinner and we ordered wine and laughed about college, and for a time I was buoyed. I now understand what my friend meant — my mother sometimes glows with her unshakeable love and faith in her daughters. It is so obvious to anyone who knows her that there is absolutely nothing she wouldn’t do for us.

Do you know what it is like to go through life with that sort of faith and love behind you? It gives you, yes, courage.

Though I was a heady, selfish, precocious teenager who made some stupid decisions, I did know — as much as I thought I hated her at the time — that my mother loved me and would stand by me. And, I must say, reciprocally, she had the courage to do so, even when she didn’t know whether I’d ever have a good relationship with her.

So when I went through my “decade of troubles” (I just made the phrase up now — doesn’t it sound sort of Gothic?)  — the death of my father, the end of a major relationship, the uncertainties of my future — I didn’t so much tap into any sort of courage of my own as look to the path she had blazed before me. Her actions taught me that by holding fast to one’s principles — equality, love, hope — one could create a good life out of adversity or even a new life, of sorts, if necessary.

Most important, when I became pregnant with my daughter — a bit more quickly and surprisingly than I would have planned — I knew, once again, that I’d have her support. (I tucked my daughter in last night and thought, “My God, what if I hadn’t had her?”)

As I ran up and down the hills yesterday, thinking about this post, and courage, and, of course, my mother herself, I thought, “This is all I want for my children.” For them to have the courage to make mistakes and to live by their principles and to know that, no matter what, I will always love them and support them and help them.

My mother might argue that she did not have courage. She might tell you that she tried to hard to pretend that things were alright when they weren’t or that our lives were still perfect when, clearly, they weren’t. She might not forgive herself for this. And, consequently, now she might tell you that the most important thing you can do when you raise a child is to teach her to deal with adversity.

Still, while she may have not thought she was teaching us these lessons at the time, through her comport and manner — her graceful bearing, her calm, her ability to listen without judgment, her articulate words, her protectiveness, her humor (which, of course, we often did not find funny) — we nevertheless learned them and have them as our touchstone for our adult lives. It is my fiercest hope as a mother that, if nothing else, I can live in a manner as principled as she does and teach my own children that adversity is something to be tackled — with courage, sure, but I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you know that someone loves you no matter what, perhaps you don’t need to pretend things are perfect. I think it took both my mother and me a long time to realize this, but I wouldn’t change a day of my past in exchange for this epiphany.


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  1. This is an amazing tribute to an extraordinary woman who I feel privileged to know. Thank you for sharing it. I can’t imagine a better legacy to leave one’s children either.

  2. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. She sounds amazing and the way you write about her, so do you.

    I’m glad I found your blog. And look forward to reading more.

  3. Lovely post. Helps keep our day-to-day mothering struggles in perspective when we think about what we want to pass on to the next generation.

  4. Wow. This is so beautiful. How luck you are to have the mother you have. So much that you wrote about her, I always wished I had in my mother. Although we are close now, and know NOW that she would do anything for me, I wasn’t quite so sure in my younger years. And you’re right, to be taught early how to deal with adversity, knowing you have the support of a loving parent behind you is incredibly important.

    You have dealt with a lot in your life. And not only did your mother have courage… so did (and do) you. Your children will benefit greatly from that for sure.

  5. Beautiful. A wonderful tribute.

    • {I’m actually giggling in nervous sympathy over not being able to call the plumber… I hate hate hate calling people about things like that! Or ordering take out…}
      Beautiful post, what an incredible source of courage and life – an example for a strong woman – to have behind you.

  6. Happy Mother’s Day one late for you and your mother. Who both embody motherhood in the basest of ways. Glad to have come across today’s post via Momalom!

  7. One of the sane Mother’s Day quotes I heard was if you are lucky to have a great mother you are VERY lucky (the quote was better, I wrecked it in memory). You have a great mother. I would venture to say it’s courageous to tell the story you just did. I think, as women and daughters, it’s also hard to realize the value of our mothers because we do so much to separate/have our own thing. And I tend to do my best thinking while running, I see you do too.

  8. What a beautiful post! I’m reading EVERY LAST ONE by Anna Quindlen and the theme of mothers/daughters and courage resonates. I’d recommend it to all of your blog readers!

    • Oh, Amy, Anna Quindlen is my absolute hero. She is the reason I went to journalism school (I wrote about her in my application essay!) I really want to read her new book, but the reviews seem so dark… what do you think?

      • So I just finished Every Last One (AQ’s latest book) and the reviewers were absolutely right. It was so dark and not at all, I think, like her other novels. I still loved it nonetheless but it was unimaginable. I felt so awful for the main character. Not at all a book to read on vacation! I’d love to know what you think if you decide to pick it up!

  9. Wow. You paint such an amazing and full picture of your mama. Having an amazing bond with my own mother, I totally get it in any way. But what I love most about this is how you come back to your mother’s undying sense of doing what is right. Right. Justified. RIGHT. And yes, doing this is on the one hand, just doing it…because it needs to be done. But on the other hand, bloody brave!

    Wonderful post. And so so so glad to have you along. And glad that you like being given a topic!!!

  10. I just read a post at Nicki’s Nook about having the courage of one’s convictions and it sounds to me like your mom epitomizes this quality. Not only does she provide you with the unwavering support and love mothers are expected to, but she also models moral and ethical courage. Like you, I don’t feel courageous at all (for me, it’s the electrician, not the plumber, but still…). I think I’ve got the support and love part of parenting down, but I will keep your mother in mind as I try to act with the courage to stand up for what I believe in – not only for myself, but for my kids too.

  11. Wow and thank you. An amazing mother–I covet the conviction of her values. I would like to emulate her strength AND courage. I love this post–all of it, and esp this quote,”I see courageous as having a connotation that leans more towards “principled” than “brave” — because sometimes the line between “brave” and “foolish” is just too porous.”

  12. This is a gorgeous tribute to your mother! I immediately thought of my own as well. In fact, I’m going to forward this post to her.

    This part:

    “I thought, “This is all I want for my children.” For them to have the courage to make mistakes and to live by their principles and to know that, no matter what, I will always love them and support them and help them.”

    …is so much what I want for my children as well. So many parents want everything to be perfect for their children. Perfect is impossible, no matter how hard we try (I have to tell myself that all the time!) Then when perfect doesn’t happen, their children don’t know what to do.

    Our job is to be there for them when they do make mistakes. Thanks for this beautiful post!

    • Thank you for your visit — and for singling out this particular passage. I have struggled my entire life with perfection issues — something I’m quite sure my mother never, ever would have wanted for me, and, growing up, she never put any pressure on me (it was all self-imposed). How can I make sure my daughter doesn’t fall into the same striving-to-be-perfect trap, even if I’m so acutely aware of it?

  13. Another beautiful post. I already knew your mother was remarkable, but this just fills out the picture as to why!

  14. Really lovely post. Such a nice tribute, full of real admiration and respect. That’s an amazing gift for both of you.

  15. Kathryn! I am so glad you came to visit me. It’s so much fun to discover kindred spirits.

    First of all, I so want to meet your mom! She sounds like such a fireball. Love that. Second, from what I can tell about you (which, admittedly, is not much YET), I think courage runs in your family.

    This post really resonated with me. This in particular has stuck with me: “It is my fiercest hope as a mother that, if nothing else, I can live in a manner as principled as she does and teach my own children that adversity is something to be tackled — with courage, sure, but I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you know that someone loves you no matter what, perhaps you don’t need to pretend things are perfect.” I could not agree more. Love covers a multitude of shortcomings and imperfections. Which is why there is no need for perfection where there is love. And where there is love (the real, I’m-with-you-no-matter-what, I’m-in-your-corner kind), there is courage, because love inspires courage. When we know we’re loved, we have the courage to be courageous. It makes us brave.

    Five For Ten really is incredible, isn’t it? All these connections and conversations. I feel so privileged to be a part of this incredible circle.

  16. I LOVED this. Wow. One of my favorite things you have written. You have to save this — for your mother and for E.

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