The Greatest Gift My Mother Gave Me

My beautiful mom, my precious daughter on her princess day, and myself. Photo courtesy of Rebekah Albaugh Photography

My beautiful mom, my precious daughter on her princess day, and myself. Photo courtesy of Rebekah Albaugh Photography

Mother’s day is nearly here and I wanted to share a bittersweet story about my mom, and me, and how memories of long ago are really lessons for life today.  She taught me more than she will ever realize, not through her words or directions on how to, but by her being her.  She provided me a place of wonder and exploration into my imagination, a place to stare and dream into other worlds that took me inward to secret places called my own.  She did this without intention or planning, without notice or understanding the enormous gift she gave to me.  

My 7-year old eyes would be fixed on a particular print hanging in the living room, an old bearded man with his head bowed, hands praying over a loaf of bread, his spectacles (as I am sure he would call them) placed over his closed Bible. I would wonder what he was praying for, was he sad or pleased, was he grateful or hungry? He reminded me of my great grandfather Paul, Croatian and kind, but a man of few words.  Around the Christmas season I would sit in a gold tufted chair next to a small table where a simple white ceramic nativity was carefully arranged, figurines placed inside a wooden stable, little pieces of straw glued to the top as if it were thatched. It had a small light hidden in its rafters that my mom would turn on at night, or I turned on during the day.  Looking at these glossy pieces of hardened clay that my mom had carefully chosen to glaze and fire, I would imagine that these beautiful figurines would come to life; the sheep, a donkey, the kings along with a simple man and a woman, a little baby in a manger, arms outstretched as if to say "pick me up".  Juxtaposed on the other end table were the Life magazines that so brilliantly displayed to me life outside of my world... Looking at the same Life photographs over and over I allowed them to sink deep within my formative mind; there was no need for discussions, no comments - the photographs did the talking. Its pages spoke to me about the civil rights movement – fire hoses spraying water on people and dogs angrily showing their teeth while being held back on tight leashes; the Amazon came to life with magnificent colors bursting from the page; a Vietnam girl running naked - I could hear her screams… I couldn’t look away.  I wanted to jump into those magazine pages, I wanted to help, I wanted to explore, and I wanted to understand.  All of these memories came from a corner in the living room, a space I secretly laid claim too, no toys, no games, just solitude. I’ve since learned that the print of the praying man was titled “Grace”, that the baby in the manger is my ultimate life’s guide who is always with me and who I love and adore, and the little girl from Vietnam... her name is Kim Phuc, born in the same month and year as me; we were both 7-years old as she looked at me and I at her. 

I knew of my mother’s painting talent as a little girl.  I remember a beautiful oil portrait she painted of a regal woman with eyes that drew me into her space and time; her dress looked like velvet and her hair short dark blonde with soft curls.  The wooden frame was ornate and the strong predominant hues of blue on the canvas left lasting impressions of brush strokes.  In my little girl world she was a beautiful princess from long ago whose portrait belonged in a castle.  Staring at her my imagination would be sparked; my mind would drift off to fairytale lands - far away from my city home.  This is when I discovered that getting lost in a painting was both magical and freeing. 

I never got to see my mom paint – to create magic.  I would secretly and selfishly wish that there was a studio, her studio, full of canvases and oils and an array of brushes in every size and shape with paint drips and splotches all over drop cloths strewn on the floor. This place would be full of windows that displayed trees and flowers and everything green and alive.  I wonder if she dreamt the same dream.  I suppose she gave up painting for a number of reasons that are complicated and difficult, but it likely came down to the reality of having four little ones to care for.  I often wonder what her life would have been like had she kept her paint brushes, canvases and oils always within her reach.  What kind of pieces would she have created in the secretly held studio? Could her creative outlet have helped her in those difficult times in life? Could we have had special times together... painting and creating magic?

How could my mom have known to provide all of this for me; images that would imprint on my very core, magic that took me to places of wonderment, regrets that would plant the seed for my courage to grow... that I would be forever grateful for life lessons that were quietly placed in my childhood.  I had a powerful revelation a few days ago - the most important and lasting life lessons are the ones that are present even when life feels difficult and dark...and far away.  I’ve realized that when I focus on the ugly I miss the beautiful, the important, the special - not because they are hiding - important, special and beautiful do not hide; I have merely failed to see what was there the whole time.  As I refocus on what is good and true and real, the ugly becomes a little less scary, it’s not so big anymore, it doesn’t rule my day, it becomes more insignificant.  

My parents were not college educated, rarely went to church and struggled desperately in their marriage and yet in those difficult times my mom unknowingly revealed her true self to me. Mom, after all these years, I see the beautiful… you taught me to be true to myself.  By knowing that you discarded your brushes, canvases and oils to be a mama to us four makes me sad in knowing we disrupted your creative journey... but from the sadness and regret comes a life lesson that intertwines with the many other lessons that were quietly presented to me in the corner of our living room.  Mom, in between the struggles, the heart ache, the regrets, I grabbed the pieces of you, the true you, and held them close, I cherished them, tucked away and hidden for safekeeping.  They are my golden nuggets that I couldn't have recognized as a 7-year old, but now....I do. Mom, they, you, have helped make me who I am today, who I want to be, who I dare to be - that is the greatest gift a mother can give.

Happy Mother’s Day mom – all my love.