Sunday, May 9, 2010


Hearing from my mom is such a treasure. When I was young and on my own, I didn’t look back much. The first big move away was to college. And, while I was a little scared to be on my own at first, Bloomington, IN quickly became my home. I became involved with a new group of friends, thinking ahead to a new life. There were weeks at a time when I didn’t talk to my folks. I got along just fine on my own I thought.

Coming home for the summers became a chore. It was time away from my cronies, and my summer employment was not very fun. I worked in a steel mill, which allowed me to graduate from college debt free, but it was hot, hard, fairly miserable work. One summer I worked a different shift every week and it seemed that I never got a decent night’s sleep. I couldn’t wait to get back to college.

When I was away at school, I would call person-to-person for myself and my folks would call me back. They were pretty touchy about phone bills. We didn’t speak very often and that was sort of OK with me. I was gone and that’s where I needed to be. Of course I loved them both, a lot, but I never told them much. When I called and my dad would pick up, he would quickly hand the phone to my mom, as if he couldn’t really think of anything to say.

After graduating and landing a teaching job is southwest Michigan, I would dutifully go home for holidays and my parents would come up to see us a couple times every year. They were both working too, of course; my dad at Inland Steel Co. where he had gotten me my summertime employment. My mom was a schoolteacher. We had this status quo relationship. We loved each other but from a distance.

I don’t know when our relationship changed exactly. All these years later, my mom is one of my best friends. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. But now she really is. Maybe it is because we are older and we don’t have as much time left. Maybe it is because Heidi and I are going through some of the same things my folks went through when they were raising my six siblings and me. Maybe I have gotten beyond looking at my mom as an authority figure/matriarch and see her as the truly beautiful person she is beyond those roles. That wonderful, smart, funny person has always been an important part of my life – but now I appreciate her and cherish our friendship in a way I never have before.

Her kindness – even in the face of cruelty or meanness.

Her generosity – beyond measure. My mom always has a giving project going. When I was a kid our house was filled with plants my mom started and potted and repotted. These were sold to benefit the Lake County Association for Retarded Children. Until very recently she volunteered in a store whose profits benefit battered women. In Mexico she adopted an orphanage and became involved with Ninos Incapacitados, an organization dedicated to helping handicapped children. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t working hard for someone else.

Teaching – My mom has always worked with challenging kids from mentally handicapped children to fairly rough high school kids, many of whom were on their last chance in school.

Humor – I never spend time with her without laughing. A lot. Her wit is dry and deep. She is not a joke teller per se, but can find humor in the mundane.

She is self-deprecating and modest and hard working. This winter when western North Carolina had a terrible ice storm, my mom and her husband were iced in. Their driveway was covered in two inches of solid ice with a few inches of snow on top. Broken branches were everywhere. I brought up my chainsaw and went to work chipping ice, piling up wood. It was hard. I was at it for hours. My mom was there working with me the entire time.

My mom taught me to read. She let me have the Kindergarten year off to spend it with her and my baby brother, Dan. She read to me in her bed every day. I remember reading Danny and the Dinosaur for the first time. Really reading it. By myself. My mom had probably read it to me fifty times. And Hop on Pop, and Go Dog, Go and Ten Apples Up On Top, and The Cat in the Hat. She surrounded me with books, bathed me in story. I could already read in first grade when Mrs. Redding was pushing us through phonics workbooks and “See Spot run”.

My mom taught me to write. I have long letters from many years ago. Some of what she wrote was about work, or my brothers and sisters. Some was about the natural world and what was happening with the trees and birds. All of what she wrote was seasoned with love. We have changed over to emails a lot now, but even these are sweet and deep and meaningful.

My mom gave me music. When we were little, she made my brother Pat and me be in the CYO band. Pat played brass, I played clarinet. From second grade to grade eight, we practiced every Saturday morning and played three or four concerts every year. I resented it pretty much of the time when I was young, but what a gift that was. She listened to show tunes and we sang along with “Music Man” and “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Brigadoon” and “My Fair Lady”. And when I got old enough to play guitar and write my own scrawny little songs and sing to her with my breathy little voice, she listened. Like no one else. She still does.

My mom loves nature and has passed that on to me. When we were young we spent summers in Michigan City, IN on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. We played in the dunes and water all day, every day. At the time I would have rather stayed in our neighborhood and hung out with my friends, but those endless summer days at the beach in our little ski boat are treasured memories.

My mom has this sense of social justice, of knowing what is truly right and wrong and acting on it. Through her work as a teacher, through her politics and willingness to actively campaign for the best candidates, through the very outspoken bumper stickers on her car, and her work on social causes – she shines.

I am who I am today largely because of her influence. I could never list all of the ways she has positively affected my life, all of the gifts she has given me. I could never live up to the goodness and humility she has. I want to be like her when I grow up. I want to be like Ruthanne Hill O’Keefe Engdall Burns. I am so blessed to know this good woman and to have her for my friend.


Kelly said...

Sounds like your mom is a great person,I'm glad you've become friends as well as mother and son. Moms are pretty cool, huh? Anyway, great post as usual, I'm glad your mom taught you to write, my mom and I have enjoyed your blog immensely.

Kelly said...

Meant to also say thank you for the 'happy birthday,' I just found it (haven't really been on the blog in a while), but it made my day so thanks! Give your sisters a belated happy birthday for me! As far as the twin/triplet thing, math has never been my strong suit, so I could very well think that 'twins' means 'three.' Anway, thanks again!

Chris Hass said...

You've done it again. After spending quite some time pounding out the final paragraphs of a post that, despite bouncing around my head for a number of weeks now, is fairly superficial and meaningless, I come over here and see you've written this really nice post for your mother on Mother's Day that is kind and sweet and touching. DOH! Why couldn't I have seen this coming? It was Mother's Day after all. My only solace is that a few months ago I posted a substantive story around the same time you did the Sky Mall story. It must all balance out. Unfortunately, though, my mom reads both our blogs and she may not agree.

Ruth said...

Nice way to talk about our Mom.