My mom has given me so many gifts that it’s hard to know where to start. She introduced me to several of the great loves in my life: music, the beach and most of all, books. As a schoolteacher, she taught me to read before I went off to kindergarten. In her own version of the MadLibs game, she tricked me into weaving together adjectives and metaphors long before I understood what any of those things actually were. We simply told each other stories and put them on paper.
She also sparked my love of libraries. While we didn’t have much, we always had a library card. That meant I could go to places around the world, even though I couldn’t pronounce them or afford a plane ticket to physically get there. I went along as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys solved mystery after mystery and stretched my imagination beyond any of the real world boundaries we had. I spent hours alone, curled up with a stack of books. That was—and still is—my happy place.
You could say I was a nerd, with my face always buried in the pages of another adventure. My mom knew that once she taught me to read, I’d be able to learn just about anything else.
“What’s Sweden like?”
“Check out a book!”
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“Are ghosts real?”
“I bet the library has something on that.”
“How far away is the sun really, Momma?”
“Let’s go find out.”
My life-long love of reading and learning points straight back to my mom. Like any good teacher, Mom also had rules—and she wasn’t afraid to enforce them. This is a woman who was thrilled to find a plaque at a garage sale, which read: Meanest Mom in the World. She was even more proud to hang it in the kitchen. When your mother is strict by default and she teaches at the same school you attend, there’s bound to be a good deal of friction.
I couldn’t stay up late. I had chores. I couldn’t call boys. We didn’t have cable TV or junk food in the house. Sheer madness! I always wanted to sleep over at my friends’ houses because I could break all of these rules in a single 24-hour period. Yet as much as I sighed, rolled my eyes and threatened to run away, Mom never backed down. She often referred to The Strong-Willed Child as her favorite book.
Really, we were kids growing up together. She was a young wife, soon afterward, a mother and just as quickly, no longer a wife. We lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment in a building my grandparents owned on the beach in South Florida. Nearly every memory I have of those days is a happy one: sunshine, sparkling blue water, simple dinners with my grandparents—and always, a book. I used to pick flowers (probably weeds) out of the small patch of green grass that we had and tried to braid them into flower crowns. They always wilted before I could figure out the formula for crafting them into what I saw in my mind’s eye, but my Mom praised my efforts anyway.
I’m sure her life then was a struggle, as a young teacher and mother trying to manage everything on her own. But I never doubted her love for me or that we would somehow be okay. She taught me by example: hard-work, perseverance, and the commitment to always doing what was right even if it was hard. Looking back now, I see how much she sacrificed. She never hesitated to step out and help people who had an even tougher time than we did.
Her compassion still knows no bounds. Over the years, that’s meant strangers joining us for holiday meals or Sunday dinners, some staying for months. If you have a baby or slip a disc, my mom is the first one to show up with a casserole. And if she says she’s praying for you, it’s not idle talk. She’s probably up long before you start your day asking the good Lord to watch over you and bring you peace.
Now that I have plenty of perspective on the years my Mom spent raising me I realize how right she was about so many things (and how much trouble she kept me out of). Call me old-fashioned, but playing hard to get is a good strategy—personally and professionally. A hot fudge sundae has healing powers. And a truly great book really can change your life.
Featured Image: Jinny Kwon; Author Photo: Barry Morgenstein