My mother and I had a strained relationship. She has disapproved of many of my life decisions. There has been anger. Her anger. My anger. But the most precious gift I have ever received was something my mother taught me. She taught me what it means to live a life of courage. She never spoke about it. In fact, she would probably have said, she had no courage at all. She was a fearful person. She feared making mistakes. She feared failure. She feared what others would think about her and her family. She instilled this fear in me. But she also showed me what it meant to rise above your fear. She showed me that there is no courage without fear.
My first lesson in courage came when I was 7 years old in swimming class. I never really took to swimming because I refused to open my eyes under water. I learned enough to enjoy going to the pool and ocean and that was enough for me. One day the swimming teacher said that we would all take a turn jumping off the diving board, swim to the side and get out. We were ready, he said. I remember thinking I was absolutely not going to do that. I marched over to my mother sitting by the side of the pool and told her what the teacher had said and telling her I didn’t want to do it. She said, “Is everyone going to do it?” Yes. “Did the teacher say you had to do it?” Yes. “Well then you will do it too.” I was shocked that my mother was going to make me do this really scary thing. She was terrified of water and she was going to make me do this?! I remember I was crying, but then I became angry. I stopped crying, turned around, and stomped to the end of the diving board line. Terrified and angry at the same time, I marched to the end of the board, jumped, desperately swam to the side and climbed out. I did it! I was happy! My mother had forced me to be courageous. To do something despite being scared out of my mind to do it.
I learned decades later that my father had taught my mom about courage. She told me many stories about how he made her do things that she was terrified to do. She said he had faith in her that she didn’t have. One of her favorite stories was how he told her to go up on the roof of a house they were building and start nailing in the roofing tiles. She balked, she argued, she wasn’t going to do that. He looked at her and said, “You can do it.” And she did.
When I was 15, my father died. He was everything to my mother, to my family. I watched my mom enter into a fear the likes of which she had probably never felt before. For many months after his death, she would often say, “There is no one to take care of us now. We have to take care of ourselves.” She would say this out of the blue while driving the car or while watching t.v. She wasn’t saying it to me, as much as she was saying it out loud to herself. She was terrified. But then something beautiful began to happen. My mother stopped crying and marched to the end of the diving board and jumped off.
We started traveling. She took me to New York City. During the ‘80s, NYC was a pretty scary place to visit. It was dirty and rough around the edges even for New Yorkers. For my delicate, naive, sheltered Southern-belle of a mother, it was pretty crazy. But she wanted me to experience it and so we did. We took a cab everywhere. When we took a cab three blocks to see a broadway show, the cabbie turned around and said, “Honey, you can walk back, it’s okay.” So we did. She held my hand so tight. I remember the exciting feeling of doing something scary. Many, many years later when I decided to move to NYC and I reminded my mom that she was the one who gave me the courage to do it, I think she regretted it!
Our first Christmas without my father, we traveled to Korea to visit my sister and her family stationed there. Our flights got messed up and we ended up having to stay one night in Tokyo for a layover. Way before cellphones and internet, we had no way to call anyone to tell them what had happened. The airline handled everything so we just did whatever they told us to do. Actually there didn’t seem to be much English spoken so it was more like a lot of motioning. They motioned for us to get on a shuttle bus, we did it. They motioned for us to go to a room in a hotel, we did it. As we laid down to sleep in the darkened hotel room, my mom whispered, “No one in the world knows where we are right now.” Courage.
There were many more times over the years that my mother took courage and lived an exciting and full life. She went overseas to work with refuges. She forced herself to learn about the lives of people so different from her own. She witnessed courage and was awed by it. She drove a van filled with other women with a large trailer hooked on the back. They went all over the Deep South to hold self-improvement workshops for other women. My mom taught a course for step-mothers about how to build a united family. I remember her telling stories about driving through ice storms with all these lives depending on her. Courage.
My mom and I never fully reconciled all of our differences, all of our anger before her Alzheimer’s became severe and she forgot who I am. But I know she was proud of the life I had finally created. The first things she forgot about me were all the things that she disapproved of over the years. The last thing she remembered about me was that I was a teacher in NYC. She was proud of that. I told her that she taught me courage. She just shook her head and said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” But I know.