Notes from the empty nest...

Notes from the empty nest...
Mom, before she Mommed

Mother’s Day.

Mine is gone, and I miss her.  She had 6 kids in 9 years, raised them in 1800 square feet. Fed us enough starch that we were never hungry, even when there was only a shred of meat. Made a dessert every day while we were at school.

She had us trained like Maria trained the Von Trapp kids.  Every Monday, we would strip and change beds before breakfast.  (It was laundry day).  My sister and I started folding diapers when we were 7, and by the time we were 10 we were expert ironers, having learned on hankies and sheets, progressing to the 30 uniform shirts we accrued every week.  Babysitting was a given.  First girl home from school would “set the table for dinner.” (I was a dawdler) The girls had weeks, marked on the calendar, for dishes.  In our house, that was quite a chore: 8 of us, no electric dishwasher until the “diaper cupboard” was freed up for such a miraculous machine, compliments of Granny J.  Even after the dishwasher arrived, we had to wash all pans in the sink, dry and put away, sweep the floor, wash the countertops, degrease the stovetop, set the table for breakfast and come down later and unload the dishes. Praise God we had 4 girls to dilute the responsibility.

My brothers fared better in our matriarchal household.  They  had 2 chores: take the garbage out on Thursday and cut the grass in summer.

Summer.  Mom must have hated summer. Her strategy of “if you are here, I have chores” was brilliant, and we escaped the ironing dusting, vacuuming, cupboard cleaning by scattering to the four corners of Royal Oak. We all got bikes at age 9, and we skedaddled. She rang a school bell for lunch, dinner, chores and it worked so well it was copied by other neighbors.  The Joliat family had to adopt a special ring- DING-DING (pause) DING.  God help you if you were out of earshot when she summoned the troops. When we were young, she installed room darkening shades, and put us to bed at 8 to reclaim the house.  We could hear our friends playing flashlight tag, but our day was over.  Mom was in the den, reading her paper, savoring the peace.

I inherited none of my Mom’s disciplined techniques. I keep a s0-so house. Example: I never had silverware dividers until Mom was coming for a visit.  (It was easier to unload the dishes)

I am an ambivalent cook.  Mom’s baking was legendary, and to be honest, I never even tried to learn.  She was a solo act in the kitchen- now I realize that this was her creative corner.  She did the work, and Lord knows, Dad would not allow us to leave the table until we complimented Mom on the meal.  Those “Thank you for the good dinners” must have provided a tidbit of validation after a day of servitude. I know that now.

The daily duties of a Mother are menial.  There is no sense of accomplishment to dropping off a girl at work at a theater and picking her up 4 hours later. Packing lunches for 6 kids is not artistic expression.  Having school supplies at the ready, shampoo in the bathroom, and clean clothes are expectations, not celebrations.  When I graduated from college, I got a high school teaching job, but had no car.  So at age 21, Mom was dropping me off and picking me up daily- still, in service.  She never complained. I doubt I accorded her the proper gratitude- she was so steady in her service that we took it for granted.  I hate that part.

All those little sacrifices, knit together and multiplied by six kids made mom’s days hiccup in fits and starts.  They also made our childhood precious and secure.  There was never one moment when I doubted that Mom loved me.  She showed it by lopping a piece of lettuce on my peanut butter sandwich (only mine) and buying grape jelly for me. She carted me me to three cycles of swimming lessons after I almost drowned. Made chocolate pie for Thanksgiving because I hated pumpkin.  There were five others pulling at her, and I know they got their special treatment, too.  By the end of every day, Mom was stretched like taffy. No wonder she sent us to bed.

Like most kids, we whined about what we did not have- pop, vacations, a rec room, TV on school nights, loafers, phones in our rooms, Villager clothes.  She was able to tune us out. ( and once per summer Dad went to the pop depot and brought home a couple of cases of O-So pop. Also, we were allowed to watch Ed Sullivan on Sundays if our homework was done.)

Adulthood (and children) provided an awakening to the rich life we DID have. We were cared for, supported, encouraged, disciplined and most of all, loved. And we had bakery quality desserts!

When all of us had moved on, my Mom was lonely. Sad, really sad.  She had provided a launching pad and was left watching contrails.  But those contrails brought her grandkids, and in them, her life was complete. It was all she dreamed of, everything she set out to be. She died too early, going blind, bad heart, hobbled by arthritis.  Still, we had enough time to make up for our youthful ambivalence;  she knew each of us appreciated and loved her.  We had a chance to do some things for her, pay back her unending dedication. But the job description of Mother implies a life of with a bad give-to-get ratio.  That’s why Mother’s Day is such a big deal.

And it should be.

Today’s Mom will navigate a more complex maze of jobs, marriage, and  childcare.  Informational overload is the devil, giving them far more child-related worries, along with far more rules.  I honor them today, and wish them fortitude and faith along the way.  And a Happy Mother’s Day.

But if I can part with some universal wisdom, learned long ago from Elaine Joliat- it would be that your kids will remember what you do for them far more than what you give them.  They will appreciate your presence more than presents.  They will forget your lectures, but your actions will live in their memory forever. You will have to be patient to see the fruits of your labor, but you will.  Just hold on.  Love your spouse, don’t quibble over bedtimes and bath techniques.  You will peck each other to pieces.  You are in this together.  A sturdy marriage is the best gift you can give your kids.  Relax. Enjoy. Things calm down and even out in the long haul. What you obsess about will be ridiculous in a matter of days/months/years. Get room darkening shades, put the kids to bed. Read the paper and have a glass of wine. Don’t compare your kids to others. Get a babysitter. Breathe.

BUT- I have to warn you- it really does NOT get easier, (with the possible exception of ages 8-10…) it just gets different.  You are signed on for the long haul.  Like forever.  I have to tell the truth.  Bigger kids, bigger worries, long life, constant concern. It comes with love.

Enough truth.  Now deal with it. Celebrate yourselves, and the Moms who helped you along the way.





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