The piece below was written for a competition entitled “My Mother, My Hero.” My mom even corrected it factually and edited it for me. After she died, since it was “mom approved,” I thought it appropriate to read at her funeral.
She emerges from the airplane door, pauses and raises her hand to her brow shading her eyes. She scans the crowd to locate her family. Giving up the search, she makes her way down the steep aluminum stairs. While trying to manage the boxy blue overnight case, she walks carefully to avoid catching her heel on the grated steps.
We wait patiently for her on the tarmac. The early morning sun shines from behind us illuminating the scene with a brightness that is almost blinding.
“Our mother is so beautiful,” my big brother, Mike, says with a sigh.
This moment in 1958 was pivotal for me because, before then, I had never seen her as anything other than “Mom.” I hadn’t seen her as an individual who might stand out in a crowd. In that moment, her Scandinavian visage, round and pale, shined with more than just the morning light. It was the glow of true inner beauty.
My beloved mom, Esther, married to my dad for over 50 years and mother to five of us, recently celebrated her 93rd birthday. Although slowing down and increasingly more forgetful, she is still vibrant and an inspiration. She is known as Grandma by seven and G.G. by five. Too much of a mouthful, “great grandmother” has aptly been shortened to this cherished nickname.
Esther was born in a small remote village in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She was the youngest of eight children raised by a single mother. In spite of this, she beat all the odds. Growing up she endured hand-me-downs and hard times. When their house burned to the ground, all the family had left were the clothes on their backs. Her most vivid memory of that cold night was that she lost Blanche, the doll she had gotten from her sister Elvira–her precious doll with the brown curly hair and tiny little teeth.
The impression I had of her that day on the tarmac has stuck with me. She still shines brightly in so many ways.
Esther glows with intelligence. Even as a child living in an isolated farmhouse, she knew there was a world beyond her own. While in high school, she came up with a plan. Nursing school could be her ticket out. Whether the motivation was guilt or pity, her older siblings cobbled together the money to make that dream possible. She is both left-brained, with her science aptitude, and right-brained with her love of the written word. She quickly conquers NY Times crossword puzzles. Her creative writing is stunning. She is a master at capturing and expressing ideas and reflections. A collection of her poems and short stories were published in a book entitled The Stars as My Compass.
Esther glows with endurance. In spite of the fact that she quickly realized nursing school was not for her, she stuck it out. Over the years, that career meant working nights at the hospital, doing home care for the housebound and finally working in medical records. Even today she perseveres–keeping at that short story until she is completely satisfied.
Esther glows with a giving spirit. Although she was burdened by being a working mother, the welcome mat was always on display in our house. We had exchange students living with us from time-to-time. These foreigners and other out-of-towners were ubiquitous at the dinner table. We vacated our own bedrooms and slept in the living room to accommodate these guests. Her trait of generosity taught us that “to give, is to receive.” All our lives were enriched by these acts of kindness and inclusion.
Esther glows with cleverness and frugality. Want to save a dime? When we were growing up, it was automatic in our house to find a way to stretch what we had. Recycling, so fashionable today, was the unspoken rule. Wrapping paper was reused season after season; to throw away ribbon was practically a sin. She and my father carefully saved money and bought property on an island in the straits of Michigan. The cedar log home they personally built served as a wonderful getaway for family and friends. The absence of civilization made this place a summer retreat resplendent with nature. She recently learned that scrimping and cutting corners has been instrumental in building a nest egg that will allow her to move to a comfortable independent living facility whenever she is ready. It was not the riches of my parents’ careers that made this possible, it was because she had been careful about every acquisition they ever made.
Esther glows with a fit body. Probably through the example of her no-nonsense mother and nursing training, she knew about healthy nutrition. We learned to love Brussel sprouts, Hubbard squash and broccoli thanks to the fact that they appeared on our table without fanfare. On brisk fall days, under the auspices of seeing the fall colors, we would pile into the two-toned blue station wagon and head out to West Lake to hike the trails. The hunt for just the perfect leaves to hang in our windows was partly a cover to get us all out and moving. When we all gathered in St. Pete’s Beach to celebrate her 90th birthday, she headed out down the strand on a 4-mile jaunt the morning of her big day. She was sure going to show us! And that she did, outpacing her 70 year-old son-in-law, Bill. After trying to keep up with her, he returned breathless, while she was still raring to go. Even today she heads over to the mall to do her fitness walk–nothing can slow her down.
Most of all, my mother, Esther, glows with creativity in her perception of the world. This is the lifeblood of her joy. Seeing things through a different lens than the masses is her best attribute. And, I am so grateful, that she has passed along this gift to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
To me, my mother is still the woman at the top of those stairs, squinting into the sun, panning the crowd in search of us. Her beauty simply glows–from every angle, in any light. She was and still is brilliant.