The Things My Mother Never Taught Me

My mother never taught me to arrange flowers

There are times as I have grown older when I’ve suddenly realised I don’t know something that everyone else seems to know. Does that happen to you?

These bits and pieces of information have been many and varied throughout my life. But they cropped up constantly when I was a young adult. Usually it was the little things . . . like I didn’t know how to make smooth custard; and I also chucked out so many pots of burnt stewed apples. Lumpy custard with burnt apples anyone?

Sometimes though, there were relational issues when I had absolutely no idea. Such as how to relate to unknown males as a young married woman. One day, not long after Stephen and I tied the knot, I had a big heart-to-heart with a young man while sitting at a dimly lit table at a church coffee shop. At the end of the evening he offered me a lift home! I am not sure who was more uncomfortable when I showed him my wedding ring.

One sunny day a few weeks later, I smiled at a young workman labouring with a team in our street as they worked on powerlines. To my embarrassment, when I left the house a little later, a wolf-whistle echoed up the street in my direction. His supervisor growled at him – and I finally learned a valuable lesson about not encouraging strange young men.

Yes, I have Gaps!

I put these gaps in my knowledge down to the fact that I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was just 16. She was sick for a couple of years before that though, so in reality my learning from her probably stopped when I was 13 or 14 years old.

There were so many areas where, in a perfect world, I should have picked up the information from my Mum: child-rearing, keeping house, cooking, relating to people in general, relating to boys in particular, and these are just a few of them.

Then there are skills she had, which I would have loved to learn from her. For example, before my mother became unwell she made beautiful sponge cakes, our home was always filled with stunning flower arrangements, and her dress-sense was impeccable. I am sure she would have passed these things on to me if she had lived longer.

As it is, I’ve had to rely on others showing me, such as my mother-in-law, who taught me to make a sponge cake. Or I make things up myself, which is why I still have trouble working out what clothes suit me. Or at least I do research and figure it out – this is how I learnt about gardening. I am quite resourceful, and I’ve managed to make a success of many areas that were once a mystery. But I still am aware of the possibility of those gaps, and always wonder if there is something I don’t know, just outside my awareness.

Yorkshire always produces great cooks!

Last year while I was visiting my sister in England, I was telling a lady called Jackie about my mother’s death when I was a teen. Jackie’s mother is still alive and well, and while she was moved by my story, she couldn’t really personally engage with what I had to say.

Until I started to talk about the many places where I have gaps.

Suddenly she said, “Oh, I’ve just realised. I have gaps too!” And her story tumbled out.

It turns out that Jackie grew up in Yorkshire, “And everyone expects women from Yorkshire to cook very well,” she said. “So, people always say to me, ‘You must a be a great cook. You are from Yorkshire!’

“But I tell them, that no, I am not. I am a terrible cook! I never learnt.”

She leaned a little closer. “I never learnt to cook because my mother never learnt. And she never learnt because her mother died when she was 18!”

I don’t think Jackie had quite realised about the huge impact her grandmother’s early demise had made on her. It wasn’t just about the cooking. The big question was: if she missed out on learning to cook, what else had her mother failed to pass on because she simply didn’t know?

It wasn’t just Jackie becoming aware . . . the penny dropped for me too. Suddenly this concept of “having a gap” took another turn.  It goes much further than your own parents running out of time to pass on things they know, because there can be generational gaps. I am aware of this happening in my children too. There are things I never learnt from my mother, and so they haven’t learnt from me.

It is a much bigger issue than I first thought

The fact is, everyone has gaps!

For whatever reason, either parents run out of time (like mine), or they simply don’t know every detail to prepare their children for the big wide world of adulthood. Most of us do our very best to provide all the knowledge and wisdom we can, passing it on to our children at the right time. But often there are things we do not know – and the sad thing is, sometimes we don’t even realise what they are.

We don’t know what we don’t know.

Personally, this is where I ask God to show me. It is what I did when I was first pregnant, and overwhelmed with the task ahead. And I still do it, even today. The number of times inspiration has struck, not long after praying, tells me he has shown me an awful lot!

As a result of all this, I have begun to compile a list of things my mother never taught me. Of course, there is plenty you can work out for yourself. Google and YouTube are pretty good knowledge banks these days. However, some of the gaps take a little more skill and ability, and I am still learning. Plus, I am sure there are other gaps I have yet to realise are even there!

My blog will slowly begin to feature some of these practical realities, and stories about how I learnt them. I’ll be telling other people’s stories too. Soon there will be a treasure trove of all sorts of things that were gaps, and how to fill them.

Let the discoveries begin!

questions for you:
Are there areas where you know you had gaps and had to fill them?
Or that you still have no idea what to do?

Not on My Watch!

It was unusual for the time. As a toddler, I had my own special car seat complete with toy steering wheel.

I would watch Dad as he drove, and copy him. It’s just as well he didn’t copy me, or we would have been doing donuts and wheelies!

A few years later, before there was any Australian legislation about compulsory use of rear car seat belts, Dad installed some in our car. This was prompted by the death of a cousin in a tragic car crash – a combination of speed, poor control, lack of safety fencing and no rear seatbelts. I remember it being a huge event the weekend when Dad removed the seat from the back of our car so he could bolt brand new seatbelts in.

Later still as a teenager he taught me to drive. He sat next to me patiently showing me how to control the car smoothly and safely. One of his huge safety concerns involved keeping a good buffer zone between our car and the car in front, to protect us in case of an emergency.

“Better to be safe than sorry!” he would say.

Obviously, my Dad’s commitment to car safety was very important. There were a few reasons for his vigilance. As a teenager, he had been involved in a motor bike crash – the street corner in Hawthorn, Melbourne where it happened was often pointed out to us. Then, as a young adult, he had gone off to the Middle East as a medic joining the RAAF during WWII. Sadly, he came back a broken man. His Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not properly diagnosed until he was in his 70s.

As a result of these experiences, he had a thing about speed, machines and death, and over-compensated in a lovely kind of way. Death was not something he wanted us to have to face. Ever. His family would not be injured in a vehicle. Not on his watch!

Even though Dad could be mentally unstable because of his WWII trauma, he showed his care and love for us, his daughters, in many ways. Car safety was just one of them.

As I dig deeper though, I realise it was way more than car safety. His protective instinct kicked in. He used his time, effort and energy to prevent a mishap. Although sometimes explosive in his nature, there was no doubt in my mind that he loved me. He treasured us so much. And it means I treasure him in return – even though it was not ever very easy.

It shows me that even if you feel very broken, uninspired, weary or are just plain sick, we can show our children how much we treasure them by the things we do. The priority we place, even on small things, speaks volumes.

It happens on our watch!

Listen to me talk about this to Scottie Haas on Hobart’s ultra106five >>>

 

Never The Same

The day of my 16th birthday dawned hot and clear. The bright Melbourne sky seared impossibly blue outside my bedroom window.

It was the first day of the school year. Year 11 beckoned.

I could hear some commotion in Mum and Dad’s room, next to mine. Small noises, sighs and groans as they moved around to begin the day. I realise now that they were the sounds of deep pain, weariness and anguish. But by then, I had got used to them as the regular course of things in a household with a sick mother.

As it was my birthday, I was supposed to stay in my room and wait, while the others prepared to walk in with my birthday presents, brightly singing a harmonic rendition of “Happy Birthday to You”. But after a little while, Dad popped his head around my door.

“Come in here Jen, we’ll sing to you in our room.”

He looked tired.

I quickly got up, skipped to the room next door, gingerly crawled across to the middle of the bed, and sat close to Mum. I was careful because I knew any movement caused her a lot of pain. She was thin and drawn. She smiled at me and kissed me on the cheek.

“Happy Birthday Jen,” she whispered.

I smiled back at her, and held her hand.

I had given her a little white vase with a bouquet of wildflowers in 3-D relief on it for her birthday less than two weeks before. It was there, on her bedside table, with some flowers I had picked from our garden, a silent testament to our birthdays being so close.

I went off to school with my younger sister, not realising our lives would never be the same again. The rest of the day, under that brilliant blue sky, I experienced a full range of emotions . . .

Unexpectedly, Dad picked us up from school.

Sadly, he had taken Mum to hospital that day.

Hesitantly, we went to visit – and told her our news of the first day of school.

Happily, I had been elected Form Captain.

Unbelievably, we had birthday cake with candles, and they sang to me again.

Mum never returned home.

 


 

Last year Stephen and I took some time out for a sabbatical – a wonderful month in France. Every morning I spent time writing and reflecting on the way God has led me over the years.

One night I woke up, only half aware of what I was thinking. I had spent the previous morning writing down my recollections of that final birthday with Mum. She wasn’t expected to last until Christmas, I had written. But, I reflected in my sleepy state, she made it to her birthday, January 22. And once she had got to that date, she kept going until my birthday, on February 4.

No, no, no. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

SHE KEPT GOING UNTIL MY BIRTHDAY!

I gasped and the tears came quickly. I stifled them trying, unsuccessfully, not to wake Stephen. She had kept herself going! For me! The thought of this final act of love was overwhelming. I groaned, and the tears flooded. She was there for my 16th birthday, at home, and at hand, with me in her bed. A special memory.

Maybe it was coincidental. Maybe she would have lasted that long anyway. But in the intervening 40 years I have learnt a lot about the human soul. I have learnt that sometimes people decide to let themselves go, and slide downhill in a rapid descent to death. And sometimes they can hold on. They keep themselves going.

It was another week after my birthday before her end came. Turning Sweet Sixteen? That was not to be my story. But thanks to her gift, I have never had any other birthday marred by the anniversary of her death. I am so grateful.

There are a few things I have realised as I have reflected on those events:

  • My mother treasured me – and it makes me want to treasure her all the more. It has a circular effect. No matter what your mother was like, there will be times when she treasured you too.
  • Sometimes it is worth reflecting on those horrible parts of your life, because while it can be costly, you realise things you didn’t know before.
  • As mothers, we treasure our children, but often they will not realise what we sacrifice for them. Or if they do, it might not be for a long time.
  • It gives me a tiny glimpse of God’s overwhelming love for me. Unexpected, uncalled for, unmerited, unjustified, but complete.

Listen to me telling my story to Scottie Haas on ultra106five >>>

Daylight Eventually Comes

I struggled to take it all in.

My friend John patiently said it again, “There was more information about your mother than you knew.”

I looked at him blankly.

He sighed. “If things had been properly done, she may not have died.”

The awful truth enveloped me like an empty parachute settling over my head and body, making it hard to breathe.

“I can see it is hard to understand. I’ll come back soon and give you the details.” And just like that he was gone.

John is a good friend and I believed him. What’s more, as an ex-nurse, I trusted him medically. But I struggled to hear what he had to say. More information, he’d said. What did that mean? What’s more, my mother had died so long ago now. Even decades.

My rational brain tried to catch up, and I attempted to reason my way through it. Of course, this makes no difference I reminded myself. It happened. There is nothing I can do. It’s over. God walked beside me all these years, and I can lean on him through this too.

I waited for John to return, trying to make polite conversation with the people I knew in the room. But I wasn’t comfortable sharing this devastating news with them. Not yet.

My mind raced. Would Mum have lived if we had known? Would she have died by now anyway? Why do I have to wait to find out about this information John had? Where was he anyway?

I gasped, and woke up with a jolt. It was 5am, and still dark.

It was a relief to realise it was all a dream, but I struggled to breathe normally. Disturbed. Upset. I just lay there, my heart beating fast, my emotions continuing to wash over me. It had felt so real, so exact, so perplexing. It is true – when Mum died of cancer, I didn’t have all the information. As young teens, my sister and I were not told very much and kept in the dark. With all the best intentions, we were kept in a space of not knowing.

The dream seeped into reality. In a half-asleep stupor, nothing made sense and I dozed in and out of a fitful sleep – too upset to rest; too weary to do anything but lie there. I knew that eventually, daylight would come.

This is the worst thing about grief: When it feels like you have finally got it out of your system, then at the most unexpected moments it comes up behind you, and clutches your heart. Again.

Death was never meant to be part of our lives – and intuitively we know it. Before their sin, Adam and Eve had access to the Tree of Life, and death was not for them. So, it is not surprising there is something in each of us screaming, “Death is not fair, it’s not right!” Because it isn’t. It’s all wrong. It grates against us with its ragged teeth gnashing.

I’ve worked hard over the years not to allow my mother’s death to harden me. It has been difficult at times, but I wanted to remain soft and pliable, not just for myself but for those close to me, especially my children. It hurts to lean into the grief and roll with it, and it is easy to want to put up self-protective barriers. But I know that hardness brings bitterness, and that’s not where I want to go.

Here is what I have learned – This suffering, this tragedy, this living of my life after death, is the refining thing that changes me. God walks with me closely through it, and shows me the path. He is no stranger to suffering. He leads my steps, and holds my hand. My suffering smooths over the dark and ugly places. The stress and pressure squeeze out the dross, and refine me into someone with more compassion, more kindness, more love for the broken and hurting. Staying soft to death and its horrors, hands me life in all its richness. Such paradox. To allow mum’s death to harden me would have been its victory.  But God brought Jesus to life again. There is such a thing as life after death, and it’s called resurrection.

All these years later, my mother’s death is still a big thing in my life, as this dream last Monday shows. I know deep down, I still treasure her. But thankfully her death doesn’t hold me. Jesus does.

The road is dark, sometimes. Often it feels like an endless tunnel. But if I keep on pushing through, if I keep on pressing into the dark, I know this to be true: daylight eventually comes.