I don’t think I’m alone in saying this, but I never realized how much my mother influenced me until she was no longer here. I’ll stop myself and laugh when I find her voice reverberating in my head to “just put a little lipstick on, you’ll look so much better,” or when I see .04 seconds left on the microwave and open the door to take out the food — a signature move that drives my husband crazy, but seems to have been inherited by my sister and me.
My mom, Ellie, was the mother of three children, ages 11, 15 and 18, when she and my father separated. We moved shortly afterward to The Northfield Garden Apartments in our town of West Orange, N. J., where there seemed to be a disproportionate number of single moms raising families. Most of them were divorced and some were widowed, but there was a definite sense of camaraderie among us.
Those moms worked really hard. As an adult, I have a deeper appreciation for all the sacrifices they made in order to keep their families intact, sometimes having to take on the role of mother and father. For many of them, including my mother, there was a lot of pressure to make ends meet. Their time was spent selflessly working to make their kids’ lives better, with little concern for themselves. For my own mother, dating was not even on the radar, though she was an attractive woman in her mid-forties when my parents separated.
‘What You See Is What You Get’My mother taught us the value of hard work and independence. She worked two jobs as long as I can remember— mostly clerical during the week and sales on the weekend. Whatever she did, she did with zest. Although I’m sure she was tired, and albeit cranky at times, she powered through and never lost her sense of humor. I couldn’t wait to get my working papers when I was 14 so I could get an after-school job, assert my own independence and help buy my clothes.
Ellie was the epitome of a “what you see is what you get” person. She wasn’t educated past high school, but she had street smarts beyond many Harvard graduates. She imparted lessons large and small on my siblings and me, and values that have given us the wherewithal to be productive and happy adults.
Most importantly, we were taught to have gratitude for what we had. Ellie always appreciated the “little things,” and I remember her once going on and on about a new switchplate she bought that “changed the whole look” of our tiny kitchen. She had the ability to truly make the best of any situation. Oddly enough, I never felt envious of any of my wealthier friends who lived in nice homes with two parents.
Fortunately, life got easier as time went by, and Ellie eventually remarried. But she never lost her sense of gratitude and her values never changed. When Ellie passed away at 89, we celebrated her life as she requested, in a party fashion, with champagne and her favorite food.
Words of WisdomOn that day, we also displayed her Top Ten words of wisdom all around the house. Ellie’s sayings are simple but wise — here are a few examples:
1. If you’re feeling sick, take a shower and get dressed. You’ll feel much better.
2. Don’t make it a big deal. Just do it.
3. Animal prints never go out of style.
4. Something high-priced and low-cut always works.
5. Don’t waste time!
With regard to the last one, in her later years, Ellie would sleep in her gym clothes so she could get up and go right out walking when she woke up. Talk about not wasting time! Ellie never slowed down until she had to, and that is just what I plan to do, too. I may even adopt the gym clothes idea …
Of all the important life lessons Ellie taught me, I am truly convinced the biggest gift you can give your children is a sense of gratitude. To all those moms out there, in heaven and on earth, who sacrificed so much for us and taught us so well, thank you.
By Wendy Sue Knecht