“A woman is like a tea-bag: you don’t know how strong she is
until you put her in hot water” ~Eleanor Roosevelt.
One day recently my mother wondered out loud: “How did I get such strong daughters?” I am not sure what had prompted this comment, but I could only reply: “Look who raised us!” Sometimes we are unaware of our own talents and abilities. She had never seen herself as strong. But parents set an example by the way they live their life, as well as the memorable sayings that remain singing in our ears long after they are gone.
There was something about that generation: a determination to face life head-on, and tackle whatever was thrown your way. My parents were young adults during World War II, a time when life in Europe was subject to random acts of violence; air raid warnings meant rushing to underground shelters to avoid the bombs. All windows had to be completely covered so that no light showed at night. Rationing meant that clothing was recycled; if you saw a queue (line) you joined it, not knowing what scarce food item might be available. War was and still is, ugly. A frightening time when life can change in an instant. My mother lost an uncle in World War I; her only brother in World War II. So her generation grew up appreciating the fragility of life. But they didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it. They just got on with doing what needed to be done. There was no PTSD, no talk shows, no sharing and analyzing.
My mother was also a problem solver. She assumed that people would appreciate her eye for efficiency, and accept her unsolicited advice. This did not always go over well. In Jamaica in the early 60’s, the post office would close for up to two hours each day, to allow the post office employees to sort through the mail. There was no delivery in Chapelton, mail was alphabetized, and you had to go to the post office and ask for it. People would line up and wait until it opened again. One day my mother was one of those people, and she wanted stamps to buy. She couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t have one window open for those who wished to do transactions other than collecting the mail. And she strongly recommended to them that they start that practice. They just rolled their eyes at the white woman. And continued to shut down for two peaceful customer free hours each day.
In the week since she died, we have been inundated with an outpouring of messages of condolence, and memories of this one-of-a-kind lady. Her impact as a teacher continues to this day. Habits she instilled in her shorthand-typing classroom remain with her students, and have kept their backs straight, their nails short (well maybe not so much!) and their wrists elevated off the keyboard. Her expectation of perfection meant that students went out into the world able to present themselves as the best candidate for any job.
And she expected the same quality from the world in general. She was a letter writer. She once wrote to the Prime Minister to complain about something (I forget what). When she received the letter in reply, she held it up to the light to see how many corrections had been made. Just as if she was checking her students’ work, she folded it in half vertically and horizontally, to see if the margins and centering was done correctly. Apparently she was not satisfied. She wrote to the Prime Minister once again to inform him that his secretary was not representing his office well, and she could recommend several people who could do a much better job! Once again, her best intentions were not well-received! Most likely that second letter went straight into the waste paper basket!
So yes Mum, you were strong. To the end. You inspired us with your no-quit attitude. You expected the best of others and yourself. And so it is easy to be strong in your absence, although there are of course moments of weakness. Last week, fresh with the news of her death, I continued with my plans to travel to Orlando to spend Thanksgiving with my sister Pam, the one who joined our family as a teenager. I traveled by train for the first time in this country. I was gently rocked, like a baby, wiping away tears as I tried to get used to the new reality. Yes, she had a long and richly blessed life. Yes, we can be thankful for her 92 years of life. Yes, in the end it was quick and peaceful. Yes, she has left a legacy to be proud of.
So this Friday morning I will try to demonstrate that steely strength that she showed through her own life challenges. I will keep my head up, shoulders back, spine straight, and put a brave face to the world. For that is what we do in the face of the unexpected and the expected. We cope. We strive. We put one foot in front of the other, even when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are human.
Have a wonderful weekend Family. And thanks for all of the love I have felt through this week. May you also feel the love and support of your friends and family when you need it.