My Mother’s Birthday

My mother, in a moment of quiet and bemused reflection, the summer before her death.

Today is my mother’s birthday.  She has been dead now for more than a quarter century, but many days I think about her and wish I knew what she’d think about something or another, usually something related to language.

She was an English teacher, in love with language, both from the perspective of a writer and from the perspective of a “technician,” the latter evidenced by her fascination with the mechanics of grammar.  She was a stickler about correct grammatical usage, an old school teacher who believed it necessary to properly diagram a sentence (at least mentally) to understand it. The sentence diagram gene didn’t make it to me, her sixth child.

Even 30 years ago, the autonomy of teachers in their classrooms was under attack, a deeply upsetting situation for my mother, who for most of her teaching career had been in control of her classrooms with no undue interference, neither from school administration nor parents.  So, when she could retire, she did.  I think she had some bitterness about what she perceived as the disintegration of the quality of education in light of giving administrators, children, and their parents more choice in educational content and delivery. Though she was a believer in individual rights, those rights had limits.  Children did not have the experience nor the wisdom to know what they needed to know.  And somehow, parents and administrators had decided children’s immediate desires should take priority over the opportunity to have an educational foundation that would serve them for the rest of their lives.   She had no hope of winning the battle, so she left the war.

Hers was a retirement into tight finances, having reared and funded at least part of the education and mobile lifestyle and post-teen living expenses for some of her children, on top of the enormous expense of simply having to provide for six children for 18 years each.   She and my father chose to spend their very meager incomes on getting by with their six kids.  Witnessing the  absence of vacations, the needed home repairs going undone, the lack of little luxuries, and the miniscule savings account they built over a lifetime contributed, in large part, to my decision not to have children.  Having children and the lifetime commitment that entails did not correspond with the life I saw for myself.  She never scolded me for my decision, early on, to forego having children.

The year after my father’s death, she finally began to come out of her self-imposed geographic isolation in South Texas, joining friends for a cross-country trip or two.  My brother, who lived in Alaska at the time, had convinced her, I think, to finally board a plane to go visit him, but she died before that came to pass.

Every year on her birthday, I gave my mother flowers.  Since she died, I have acknowledged her passing on her birthday.  I think each year of getting her flowers.  This year, this realistic remembrance will serve as the flowers.  I think she would approve.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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3 Responses to My Mother’s Birthday

  1. roger says:

    a nice remembrance of your mother. i too think she would approve.

  2. Robin, thank you so much for your comments. They really mean a great deal to me. The Yahrzeit candle is such a civilized and healing tradition; I just may adopt it.

  3. robin andrea says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your mother, John. She sounds like a wonderful woman. I’ve always been rather partial to English teachers! I loved diagramming sentences when I was young. Hah! For many years after my father died (20 years ago now), I would scatter flowers for him in the sea or in a creek that flowed to the sea. Sometimes, I would scatter petals, sometimes whole flowers, tossing them in one a time and telling him how missed and loved he still was after all these years. In the Jewish tradition, we burn a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of the death. It burns for 24 hours. We light it at sundown the day before, and let it burn until sundown on the anniversary. It is a way to mark the day, the grief and to contain it in 24 hours. I watched my father do that every year for his mother.

    Your reason for not becoming a parent is much like mine. I made a very conscious choice when I was young. My mother tells me that even as a child I told her that I would never have children. My decision was based in part on the feeling that I could not promise a child a future where their lives would be safe and enriched. I have never for a moment regretted that decision.

    Happy birthday to your very lovely mother.

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