Your kind of love, once given, is never lost. You are alive and luminous in my head. Except when I fail to listen, you will speak through me when I face some crisis of feeling or sympathy or consideration for others. You are a curb on my natural impatience and competitiveness and arrogance. When I have been less than myself, you make me ashamed even as you forgive me. Wallace Stegner, Letter Much Too Late
As the progeny of two (much) older parents, I grew up in a sheltered environment. When I arrived at college, my freshman roommate joked that I had been “raised in a baggie”. I am an only child, and my parents worried about what could happen to me. I loved them dearly, and we were very close so I complied with the rules, albeit with a fair amount of grumbling at times.
When my parents drove away from freshman orientation, my mom said, “She’ll be home to visit next weekend.” The next time they saw me was Thanksgiving vacation. I loved college, and I took full advantage of my freedom to make up for lost time.
Despite her fretting, my mom was an adventurer and a risk taker at heart. Born in 1922, she went away to college in the 40s and then to graduate school at Berkeley, earning a master’s in library science. She took a job in Washington D.C., working for the State Department. She spent five years living in Copenhagen, running the U.S. embassy’s Information Center, before returning to California where she met and married my father.
After Dad died in 2003, Mom planned a six week trip to Europe to research her ancestors and off she went, much to the chagrin of the rest of the family. I loved it. I knew she’d be fine. Mom had a way of connecting with people and a kindness that drew others to her. She believed in tipping well and leaving money for the housekeeping staff at hotels, the kinds of acts that you do because they’re the right thing to do, not because anyone is watching.
For all that Mom worried about what could befall me, she encouraged me to learn and grow and pursue my dreams. Travel alone in Europe at the age of 20? Absolutely. Apply for a program at American University when I knew no one at AU and would miss fall quarter of my senior year? Sign me up. Accept in a job in Washington, D.C. right after graduation with no housing and no roommate? Just give me time to pack. Was I nervous? Scared? Yes and yes. But Mom’s attitude was that you say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, and then figure out the details.
Mom was 5’2″ and 100 pounds at her peak height and weight yet unafraid of standing up for herself and the people she loved. At the age of 11, I watched her confront a driver who began bumping the back of our car with his while we were stuck in standstill traffic at San Francisco airport. Mom put our car in park, jumped out, walked back to the man’s car, told him to back off and got back in the car. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face or the way that driver stayed ten feet behind us the rest of the way out of the airport.
Mom raised me to walk out into the world and take my chances. If I fell, she was there to help me back up and encourage me to try again. When I failed, she taught me to accept defeat and not let it keep me from trying again. She lived by herself in the house I was born in for twelve years after Dad died, driving herself to exercise class, art class, memoir writing and lunches with friends. She left me binders full of genealogical research, stacks of her artwork and boxes full of letters and cards that she had lovingly saved. Even now, I hear her voice. I know when she’s proud of me (and when she’s not). The older I get, the more I see how right she was … about how to treat others, when to walk away, when to fight and when to let it go. I see her grace, kindness and spirit living on in her beloved granddaughter. And although I miss her every day, I am so grateful to be her daughter.
“All you can do is try,” you used to tell me when I was scared of undertaking something. You got me to undertake many things I would not have dared undertake without your encouragement. You also taught me how to take defeat when it came, and it was bound to now and then. Wallace Stegner, Letter Much Too Late