what my mother taught me

April 12th, 2013

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.”

“Take good care of your family,” she reminded me. She reminds us all. For my mother, family was not just family. You were all in it. And her family grew in number every day. It began with her mother and dad, sisters and brothers, to whom she was, quite simply, devoted. There were cousins, so many cousins, it seemed, to fill the whole state of Texas. There were the nieces and nephews, and grand-nieces and nephews, each one special in her heart. The schoolmates and colleagues and lifelong friends. And then, of course, there were the children. Thousands of children in dozens of classrooms over 30 years’ time.

Education was her life’s work, but more than that, it was her life. She had seen for herself that, no matter where you begin, or what the conditions, if you take what you’re given and do your best, you can do anything. Her heart expanded with every single child’s achievement, and of course, her heart broke with every one of their disappointments.

At the end of her career, as an elementary school principal, she would wait for hours with the little ones, already so poor and sometimes forgotten, when no one came to pick them up from school. She waited. And soon, she retired.

Finally, there was our family, the ones at home. Perhaps this was my mom’s last mission. We were all so far along in our lives, so far apart and busy. And we have all come to see – my sisters and I – Mom’s illness as a remarkable blessing. We came together, so close, in respect, love and appreciation for one another. Mom gave us the opportunity, and we took up the task. You can speak of my mother’s strength and courage, and I will tell you that, here at the end, my father matched her mile for mile. And we are so grateful.

Finally, I want to tell you something Mom said several months ago, when we began in earnest to prepare for today and imagine how it would go. She said, “I know it sounds egotistical, but I don’t know how you all can live without me.”

I told her quickly then, and I know it to be true, that I would never have to live without her.

I ask you today, in your everyday kindnesses, in your bright hopes, your easy laughter, your generosity and your own good hearts, to help me keep my promise to her. Be yourself, and take good care of your family, and we will keep her with us forever.

My eulogy to my mother, who died on April 13, 2001, delivered at her service on April 17, 2001.

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  1. Tears running down my face.
    Thank you for this lovely, lyrical tribute. And I will gladly do my tiny part in helping you live out those last instructions.

    Comment by Lindsey — April 13, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  2. I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. But I am also delighted to hear about her life.

    There must be some sort of something in the air today, because everything I have read, randomly this morning on my google reader has been about letting go, saying goodbye, and also the very profound effect we can have on the world around us just by being us, doing what we must do and loving.

    Sometimes the universe speaks, and it’s up to us to hear the message.

    Long live your mother.

    Comment by rowena — April 13, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  3. Thank you for sharing this powerful tribute to your mother. I’ve got chills right now.

    Comment by Melissa — April 13, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

  4. Thank you for giving us a chance to embody her in our lives.

    Comment by Chris — April 13, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  5. thank you for sharing her with us and reminding us of what is true.

    Comment by stef — April 13, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

  6. Tears. They won’t stop. Thank you!

    Comment by Julie — April 13, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

  7. This was beautiful. I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother lately, who I am still luckily enough to have around, because I’m going to interview her about her life on my blog on mother’s day (inspired by the fact that she has many unanswered questions b/c her mother passed away when she was 19).

    Comment by Grace (Graceful Simplicity) — April 13, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  8. I remember your speech like it was yesterday. And still so true.

    Comment by gertjan — April 13, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

  9. Funny that we need to be reminded: Be yourself. Take care of your family. But we do. And what an amazing world it would be if we all did just that, every single day of our lives. Thank you for sharing your mom with us. No wonder you turned out so well yourself!

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — April 13, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

  10. That was truly wonderful and yet so simple. Thank you.

    Comment by Kelly Olson — April 13, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  11. So much emotion, so overwhelmed, for many reasons that I cannot discuss here. Suffice it to say that you are a very lucky woman, as was she to have you. This is an amazing tribute to her. Beautiful.

    Comment by Christine LaRocque — April 14, 2010 @ 12:32 am

  12. It was beautiful then, and it’s beautiful now.

    Comment by Tricia — April 14, 2010 @ 1:00 am

  13. My sister Tricia, my Dutch brother Gertjan, and so many kind soulsisters and brothers. If you haven’t yet experienced this I assure you it is true. It is a kind of missing that is not absence, but complete fullness. Continuity that is never lost, and gives birth to everything.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 14, 2010 @ 1:10 am

  14. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And love.

    Comment by Mani — April 14, 2010 @ 1:52 am

  15. Thank you for sharing. May all that your Mother taught live on in all the lives you touch.

    Comment by Jeans — April 14, 2010 @ 2:03 am

  16. Back in the early 90s, my mother had surgery in her lungs for possible cancer which, fortunately, was not the case. But she was laid up for quite awhile, and many people sent her get-well cards. The tops of the dressers were covered in them. She was greatly moved, too, by all the love expressed just to and for her.

    Comment by Kathryn — April 14, 2010 @ 3:41 am

  17. Early morning here in Ireland. Tears running down my face. I will try to hold both yours and your mother’s truth and authenticity in my herat today. Thank you.

    Comment by Edith — April 14, 2010 @ 6:33 am

  18. Thank you. As someone who struggles (still) with living life without a mother, I find it heartening to know that this kind of relationship exists – and always will. She clearly was a treasure, as you are, to many. A beautifully written eulogy, and a wonderful memory for you…

    Comment by Christa — April 14, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  19. four years after your beautiful and wise mother’s passing, my daughter was born. she is herself and takes good care of her family. and inspires me to do the same. your mother’s spirit is truly alive. thank you for sharing this intimate story…my heart swells with love and gratitude.

    Comment by melissa — April 14, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  20. Extraordinary, beautiful, powerful. Our parents teach us in so many ways – in ways they don’t even realize, and maybe never even intended – and this is a good reminder to always be grateful for those lessons.

    Comment by Swirly — April 14, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  21. “A kind of missing that is not absence, but complete fullness.” I don’t think I have experienced it in the sense that you write about your mother, but I can feel it in the complete fullness of every day that live simply being myself and taking care of my family (and my family can get pretty big, because everyone is my people).

    Thank you Karen.

    Comment by Marianne — April 14, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

  22. What a powerful tribute to your mother and what a blessing to all who knew her to hear your words. I aspire to be like your mom. Thank you for sharing this here.

    Comment by elizabeth — April 16, 2010 @ 12:43 am

  23. What a beautiful tribute to your mother. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Comment by scrapper al — April 17, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

  24. You always touch my heart and I thank you for it.

    Comment by Mary P. — March 7, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  25. beautiful! :’)

    Comment by kathleen — April 8, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  26. Hannah Arendt famously wrote of the banality of evil, but I’ve always also been impressed by the corresponding ordinariness of good–which these observations about your mother brought to mind for me. The “good” generally aren’t heroic or flashy. Oh, if they need to be, they’ll risk their lives to hide Jews from Nazis and all that, but there’ll be an ordinariness to their heroic acts too. You make tea because you get up in the morning. You wait with the kids who’ve got no one to pick them up from school, because…well, they’ve got no one to fetch them. And this ordinariness is–as you notice–naturally attractive to those who come near it.

    Comment by Dave O'Neal — April 8, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

  27. A beautiful tribute! I hope my daughters will speak so kindly of me.

    Comment by marilee pittman — April 12, 2013 @ 6:15 am

  28. Wonderful.

    Comment by Neil — April 12, 2013 @ 6:44 am

  29. How very beautiful.Thank you Karen.

    Comment by Marcea — April 12, 2013 @ 7:34 am

  30. Dearest You ~ Thank you for this beautiful sharing. My Mom passed 5/26/2012 and she has been with me every day. Her love ~~ so complete, full of richness, and generous. I suspect, that she loved me SO WELL, every nook and cranny in me was nourished so that even “distance or absence” doesn’t touch the fullness of her gift. Even when my Mom was alive, I would say, “She created a Legacy of Love.” Her childhood far different and yet, she found the way to blaze a new and beautiful trail that showered everyone in her presence. I am so grateful you received this too. And I celebrate LOVE through Mothers this day. Thank you ~ With Love

    Comment by heather — April 12, 2013 @ 7:42 am

  31. Thank you!

    Comment by Jane — April 12, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

  32. How I hope there will be a “Legacy of Love” remaining after I am not ~~~ with the “distance and absence” within many families it takes “Love” to keep us together.
    Thank you for sharing again!

    Comment by Mary P. — April 12, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  33. Karen, Thank You for sharing this. I found Momma Zen after the birth of my 2nd son in 07 and right around the time my own Mom passed away. I remember reaching out to you via email and my Heart was filled with Joy and Gratitude when you took the time to personally write me back. Your writing speaks to me like an Old Dear Friend. Thank You!

    Comment by Beth — April 13, 2013 @ 4:09 am

  34. Absolutely wonderful instructions, thank you for sharing them. I’m SO glad you are a writer!!!

    Comment by Colleen — April 13, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

  35. With tears in my eyes I concur. I think of my mother every day and what she taught me. I will never forget. Thanks for the reminder.

    Comment by Trish — April 13, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

  36. There can never be so wonderful a love as that of a mother. Thank you.

    Comment by Jude Smith — April 14, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  37. I am also thinking of my father, a great ‘family philosopher’. He often said to me that whatever happened to him, he would always be on my shoulder, and then he would pat my shoulder, “Right there” he would say. How poignant is the remembering after they have gone.

    Comment by Jude Smith — April 14, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  38. Thank you Karen. Your words always arrive right on time for me — especially the part about never having to live without her. My Dad passed away unexpectedly on Friday, April 12th, and it’s a comfort to know that he will always be with me.

    Comment by Sheryl — April 15, 2013 @ 8:03 am

  39. I love this, and I love you, and I love how much love I feel reading this. I hope on that day — and every day — you felt all that love of her with you, and wow you sure are doing both of those things. Thank you for sharing yourself with us, Karen. You help me know and remind myself its ok to feel all of what’s in my own heart.

    Comment by Katie Murphy — April 23, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

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