In high school and college I studied French, attaining a reasonable level of proficiency. For the past three years I have been learning Spanish and can now converse on a basic level. But the language I recently mastered was one I didn’t even know I was studying.
I spent the first weekend of this month visiting my mother in Washington, D.C. It was her 90th birthday and seven siblings, two spouses and one grandchild were on hand to celebrate along with a slew of old friends.
During the year leading up to her birthday, Mom fought the idea of a party. She dislikes being the center of attention but moreover, worries that we won’t get along. Seven siblings who have differing viewpoints (each of whom believe theirs is the correct one) often butt heads, as you can imagine.
When she finally agreed to a party, it was on her terms. She chose the venue and the menu, sent out invitations and even hand-wrote place cards for the 26 guests attending. Mid-way through the meal my mother stood up and made a remarkable speech, mentioning each guest at the table, how she had come to know them and during which decade. Her toast was succinct and eloquent, highlighting the joys of living a long life and enjoying the riches that each decade provided. Her 90-year-old mind is as sharp as it ever was.
But then, when I thought she was finished, she talked about us, her children. “Each one of you is different,” she said. “I recognize and love your for your differences.” And she thanked us for making the effort to be with her on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
That was a wow moment for me, not because I didn’t think she loved me I have always known that my mother loved me. But years of critique about my appearance, my political leanings, and my personal choices have caused confusion and pain. More often than not, I interpreted the words she spoke as disapproval and, worse, dislike. You can love someone you don’t like. And I thought I had fallen into that category.
But here was my mother, telling us that she accepted us for who we are. This woman who has never been a mushy, snuggly mom and who shied away from overt and emotional expressions of affection was telling us in so many words that she loved us in spite of — or because of — our choices.
Coming from the same parents and growing up in the same environment does not create sameness. One sister, who is deep into ancestry research and DNA testing, shared during the weekend that those of my siblings who have done gene testing learned that they carry genes tracing back to different ethnicities from one another. How fascinating! I always assumed that we had identical ancestry. But if we carry a different genetic code, then we also must carry a different predisposition to our view of and functioning in the world.
After my mother’s toast, I looked around the table at my siblings and felt a new love for them all. By the end of the weekend, I had found a genuine acceptance for who we are as individuals. It was a beautiful, healing weekend, inspired by my mother’s talk.
At the end of the weekend, as I was leaving my mother’s second floor apartment to head down the hall toward the elevator, Mom held my arm with one hand and with the other, pointed her index finger straight ahead “Press 1,” she reminded me, looking directly in my eye. That instruction might have once elicited an eye roll and an annoyed response such as, “I KNOW, Mom.” But I understood what she was saying. My mind translated her instruction to, “Goodbye, Irene, I love you.” And my response was a smile and, “Okay, Mom.” And we laughed, both aware of what was being communicated.
Mothers speak a language all their own. Each mother has her own version of this language, which is, ultimately, a language of love. It can be difficult to learn, hard to translate and all too easily misunderstood. And until one learns the language one’s mother speaks, it can cause pain and confusion.
If only I had studied that language years ago I would have saved myself many hours and hundreds of dollars in therapy. And I would have learned to accept the differences among my family members and set aside judgment around those differences. What a better place from which to spring forth into the world!
The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. If I can do it, so can you. Get on that elevator and, “Press One.”
Irene Panke Hopkins (irenehopkins.com) is a freelance writer and essayist. Recent work has appeared in Real Simple Magazine (https://www.realsimple.com/work-life/dramatic-change) and on the website, BetterAfter50.com. To comment on this column go to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.