When my mother died, her daughters had the unenviable task of going through her things. It was something my father would not really have been up to, even though when she was alive he itched to help her purge things around the house. Oh, the irony.
Mom kept things more than she threw them away. But “things” as in practical bits—recipes to try, magazines to read, wrapping paper for future holidays. Sentimental things were not really in my mother’s wheelhouse. By the time she passed, I’d long ago been given back the misshapen purple ceramic owl I made for her at a young age, or the note I’d written her at a retreat.
It was telling, then, when my eldest sister went through her drawer—the drawer where she kept a few very special things—that my mother had saved just one thing that pertained to me, her youngest. Tucked away in that drawer was my first published feature article.
It’s not that I hadn’t been published many times before, but my first feature was big, bold, colorful and a decent number of column inches. And there, just under the headline, was my name. Even as I type this, I’m smiling. I remember getting up at 4 a.m. without an alarm (a feat for this sleepyhead) to buy the early edition, so excited my hands were shaking.
It was the first of many features, but as a freelancer I did not know that. Nothing was a given. Everything had to be earned. Over time, I was asked to write more and more as the editors said readers were responding to my “voice.” If nothing else, I have a voice. Always have, always will—which works to my benefit and my detriment, depending on the situation and audience.
But I digress. The point is that at a time when most mothers kept their daughter’s wedding invitation, prom picture or heartfelt letter, my mother instead kept my achievement. Something I had earned. Something I had written after years of her redlining my school papers. After years of my nose in books because I could never get enough of the written word. Decades after I had begged her, at the age of three, to teach me to read. It was my achievements, more than anything else, that made her proud.
She had taught me to be an intellectual, to value knowledge and insight above all things. And I had bested her in her core suit–writing. As much as that smarted for her, it also made her proud. Hence the article saved in a drawer that was kept for a select few special things.
My mother raised six daughters in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. She had a master’s degree from a tough university before most women even contemplated that concept. She was an executive when women weren’t. I was raised to choose a career, not a man. To earn money, not a meal ticket via marriage. If I was to marry, it was supposed to be for true love and partnership.
While it appears more girls are raised this way today, it was rare when I was growing up. Thank God for Mom. What she lacked in sentiment she made up for in pure grit, instilling the same in her girls.
As a result, I have razor-sharp clarity around what true female strength looks like. It is a model that allowed me to give myself time to be alone after my divorce, rather than chasing man after man looking for the security blanket I had lost. So many women my age don’t have the courage to do that. A select few do. While I have friends on both sides of that equation, it’s no surprise I spend more time with those in the latter camp.
What we save, what we keep, speaks volumes about who we are. If you peeked inside my bedside drawer, you would see not my boys’ accolades but rather a sweet note or two. “I’m sorry I was a stinkbug this morning, Mommy.” And a few years later: “You’re the best mom in the multiverse.” Their rough, crayoned attempts at crafting treasures for their mother. These still make me swoon a bit in the way only mothers do.
I am glad my mother pushed me to achieve. But in the end, I have discovered that very few ever love us like a mother does. I try to live in the balance, tempering strength with a soft heart for those I love best.
I hope my boys end up the better for it. I surely have.