Lessons from My First Teacher--My Mother
By Sandra Fischer
Lessons from my mother came in many ways. Some through her larger, skilled hands cupping mine and moving my fingers, helping me form sewing stitches or knead dough. Others came through messages--spoken and silent, which reverberate in my memory with vivid recollection even today. Still others were more subtle, taking root in me like small seedlings searching for a place to grow. Some lessons I mastered and accepted easily, without question. Others I challenged. All served to mold and shape me through the breadth and depth of her love.
Motherís presence was a given. She was there after school, listening to my account of the day between bites of brown sugar sandwiches and gulps of milk. She was there to remove a piece of glass from my knee, because the doctor who made house calls was unavailable and hospitals were reserved for more serious hurts. She was there when I tried to hide the matches after a reckless dare, when I unintentionally set my sisterís hair on fire. She was available--to listen, to comfort, to correct.
As the middle child of five, some sociologists would have doomed me to be overlooked. In addition, my father worked away and was only home on weekends, so my mother was deluged with household and parenting responsibilities. Despite such overwhelming challenges, she made us feel special. Somewhere between the chicken plucking, garden tending, food canning, floor scrubbing, and wringer washing, she gave us individual attention.
One vivid memory is of her asking me to model a flowered robe she was "making for the neighbor girl, who was about my size." What a surprise to find the robe under the Christmas tree with my name on it. And, who would have thought she had time to plan a surprise birthday party for a curly-headed six-year-old, complete with first-grade friends, paper dolls, cake and homemade ice cream?
All of us soon learned that we were the focus of motherís life, her "career," her 24/7 vocation. She was fully devoted and dedicated to making our home a place where we would be nurtured into adults, ready to face a formidable world.
As a subscriber to the work ethic, she taught a class called "Responsibility." Sharing the load at our house was a privilege to which we were automatically entitled at birth. We learned to do most household chores, which included everything from hanging laundry on the clothesline, to filling the canning jars, to the lowly task of emptying and cleaning the chamber pot. Even now, the smells of sun drenched cotton, steaming tomatoes, and human waste assault my senses when I recall those tasks.
Age ten was a hallmark in our household, marking our initiation into the local workforce--delivering morning newspapers. Each day at 4:00 a.m. Mother would awaken us and ply our sleepy senses to life with milk-diluted coffee. After folding the dailies into neat little squares, weíd fill our bags and head out for designated routes. Off weíd go, trudging through rain, sleet, snow or whatever weather, to serve our patrons the latest news. We learned how to keep sales and expense records, budget and save. Out of our earnings we bought our own shoes, motherís idea of allowing us another family privilege--helping to underwrite the meager wages of our hardworking father, while learning to appreciate the fruits of honest work.
Motherís life required inner strength and physical stamina, since she carried the daily load of training and discipline. She was tough. When we deserved to be punished, she used a small, leather strap across our behinds to impart a single, stinging reminder of who was in charge when Father wasnít there. Fortunately, those occasions were rare and the corrections done in the spirit of "tough love." She also spent a great deal of time encouraging us to do our best, whether in school, a 4-H project, or simply playing a game. She believed in us.
Our father planted a large vegetable garden each year, but the majority of weeding, harvesting and preserving fell upon Mother. We had fresh tomatoes, cabbage, green beans, onions, carrots, potatoes and corn in season, and canned extra for our winter table. We also gave produce to widowed neighbors or folks who had no garden.
While I know it took management ingenuity to provide for a family of seven, my mother never hesitated to share or to show hospitality to others. Many times I would hear a voice outside our back stoop saying, "Thank you, maíam." Peeking out, I would see one of the vagrants, who rode the nearby railroad freights, munching on food my mother had given him. Sometimes they might offer to split wood or bring a hopper of coal up from the bin, but mother fed them whether they worked or not. She said anyone could fall into hard times and might need a helping hand. Caring for others, whether family, friends or strangers, was natural for her.
In Motherís "character development" classroom, we learned other lessons, two of
which I remember well: "Donít gossip about othersí mistakes, they may come to roost on your own doorstep" and "Donít give up trying to achieve your goals, success may be on the very next rung of the ladder."
She was our biggest cheerleader, whether we succeeded at what we tried or not. She encouraged us to read, to think, to find our own answers to lifeís many questions and to be prepared for its many tests. And when she perceived that, like fledglings, it was time to vacate the nest, she gently nudged us out into the world. By doing so, she was doing what wise mothers do--allowing their children to graduate, fly away, and make their own lives.
For me, that solo flight was over fifty years ago, and while my mother is deceased, her legacy lives on. As I consider my life, and the lives of our three daughters, I can see the threads of Motherís lessons weaving themselves into the tapestry of our family. They continue to appear in various patterns, uniquely sewn into the fabric of who we are.
It has been said that daughters "become" their mothers as they grow older, and many times I see myself reflecting the qualities of mine. I feel good about this--particularly when the positive aspects of her character show forth. Nothing would please me more than to have my own three daughters say they see the same qualities in me--availability, steadfastness, devotion, diligence, encouragement, faithfulness and love. To pass these lessons on would be a blessing to see--a fruitful legacy in them, and in their children as well.
Sandra Fischer taught high school English in Indiana and owned a bookstore for several years. Most of her writing is devoted to stories from her experiences growing up in the Midwest. She has been published in Guideposts, trade journals and more recently in FaithWritersí Magazine. Sandra is retired and lives in South Carolina with her husband, Craig, where she continues to write. You can write to Sandra through the Letters page of this magazine.