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?

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 >>>

Transition? You are not alone

Tram, Burke Road

Looking out the tram window, I panicked.

Oh no! That was my stop! Quickly, I pulled the cord, high above my head, but it was too late. It sailed onwards – the tram would wait for no man, or little girl even. My heart was in my mouth as we travelled slowly up Burke Road in the after-school crush. Mum had shown me what to do when we caught the tram to my new school that morning, but she hadn’t given me any idea about what to do if something went wrong. It had been an exciting start to my first day, that first tram ride to school. But the trip home was turning into a disaster.

What to do? What to do? I knew I couldn’t get off until the next stop, but it seemed to take forever to get there, and each second was taking me further away from the tiny pocket of familiar streets. Past the Hoyts theatre, past the end of that other busy street whose name I did not yet know, and all the way up to the next set of traffic lights. I was in shock.

Finally, the tram stopped. Nauseous, I grabbed my things, jumped off, and ran. I ran as fast as my seven-year-old legs would carry me. Down the hill, carefully over that busy T-intersection. “BURWOOD RD” the street sign read. Past the Hoyts Theatre, and back to the pedestrian crossing where I should have got off.

Stopping there, I pressed the pedestrian button about ten times, itching to cross over, waiting, waiting for the lights to change. Close to tears, I ran when the sign said WALK, then took the corner into Cookson Street, away from the tramline, and the cars, and the noise and kept running. All the way to our new, still unfamiliar, house.

Bursting into tears as I galloped inside there were both my parents, patiently unpacking boxes.

“I got lost!” I blurted out.

After a long first day at my new school, it was such a relief to be home, such a blow to my pride that I had mucked things up, and such an indignity to my, well, to my everything!

I am sure my parents wondered what all the fuss was about. I got home safely didn’t I? To them it was a successful outcome. But to me, in my heart-fast-beating, adrenalin-rushing state, it was something it took a while to recover from. I must have had my six-year-old sister in tow as well – but to be honest, I can’t even remember her being there at all!

Have you ever had to do a transition that felt awful?

Whether starting at a new school (maybe mid-term, like I did in Grade Two), beginning a new job, or turning up at a new gym, transitions are rarely easy to navigate. It doesn’t matter if you are seven, 17 or 70, moving into new and unknown territory is uncomfortable at best, and downright terrifying at worst.

At this time of year, people are in transition all over Australia. In most states, the school term has already begun. New jobs are starting. New mothers arriving at school. New teachers with new classes. New widows and widowers coming to grips with life ahead. New refugees arriving in our lucky country. And far across the sea, there is even a whole nation struggling to comes to terms with a new government, complete with controversial new President – also in transition. It is everywhere.

Here are some things I have learned to ease the pain of transition, not just to treasure myself, but also to treasure my children.

  1. Be patient. This is the “new normal”. One day this will feel familiar, so this feeling will not last forever. It is a temporary discomfort. So stick it out.
  2. Prepare as best as you can. My mother did what she could to prepare me for that tram ride, and it was enough, because I did get home. She tried to cover the bases – but she couldn’t possibly cover every contingency. I learnt not to miss the stop after that!
  3. Be aware of others going through transition. Kindness goes a long way for new people in new situations. Give new people a break, be friendly, smile, show them the ropes. You would be gatetful if someone did that for you.
  4. Forgive yourself if you struggle. It is normal to feel extreme emotions, and nervousness can lead to headaches, nausea, weariness, sleeplessness, lack of appetite and more.
  5. Learn from this experience! Because of my mid-term move in Grade Two, I decided my children would not be doing that. Our children moved schools extremely rarely, and only ever at the beginning of a year. So, what can you take away from your transition to help next time?
  6. Pray that God will sustain you. The good thing is that he is the same – yesterday, today and forever. He will be your rock when feeling unstable, your friend when feeling lonely and your peace in the turmoil. Let him love you through it.

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.

 

Honour My Parents? Really?

Love

Part Two of Living on Purpose

“Being a parent is the most important job anyone could ever do.”

I read that statement by Christian rock legend Larry Norman when I was six months pregnant with my first baby, and I was completely flabbergasted. I mean, really?

To me, important jobs were things like being a politician, a school principal, a doctor, or a commercial aircraft pilot. How did parenting rank with those?

The thought stopped me in my tracks. I was fluey, miserable, pregnant – and I was about to embark on the most important job of my life. It wasn’t a very glamourous start to my big new career, but then, being a parent could never be described as glamourous.

That moment was a turning point for me, as it gave me a new perspective on being a parent.

But here’s the thing. Recently, I have become aware of the other side of the story . . . If being a parent is the most important thing someone could ever do, then my sisters and I are the result of our Mum and Dad’s most important job ever. We are a living testament to their hard work, dedication and love.

Maybe it sounds like I am idolising them, but to be honest my parents were not perfect by any stretch. Dad was badly affected by his wartime experiences and suffered with undiagnosed (and so untreated) Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. My mother ended up with cancer when I was eight years old, and died when I was 16. Both had their imperfections and difficulties, which impacted on us four girls.

I could easily focus on the bad stuff. There is lots of it. But right now, today, I choose to forgive them for all the bad things. I want to remember them for the good: the happy home they tried to create; the life they gave us and how they loved us through all the good and bad; they taught us how to live in the world. I would like to think I honour their love, sweat and tears by being the person I am.

But what the heck, even if they did nothing that was good, I can still honour them for giving me life because I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. On top of everything, I know that “honouring your parents” – the sixth commandment given to Moses – comes with a blessing: “so that you may live long in the land.” (Exodus 20:12)

So, this is my most recent moment of truth: Treasuring my mother (and my dad) has a positive long term consequence for me.

What about you? Do you see yourself as the outcome of your parents’ biggest job ever? Is there anything you need to change as you consider your relationship with them? Can you ever forgive them?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this!

morris-girls
I’m on the left with Dad and my little sister. I still have that apricot-coloured dress mum made for me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

morris-girls
We were all dressed up, on our way to a wedding that day.

Living On Purpose

Now for the big question:

What is the most important thing you will ever do while here on earth?

Our purpose in life not something we wonder about every day, and most people reflect on these things only later in life. But I’m thinking that’s a little too late. For me, it was only by mistake I thought it through quite young. It was when I was first pregnant.

“For me, it was only by mistake I thought this question through quite young”

Sick in bed with the flu one wet and wintry day, I read a magazine article about Christian rock legend Larry Norman – I was quite a fan! The article gave a behind-the-scenes look at his life, his career, his family, and what made him tick.

I was surprised to discover Larry Norman was convinced the most important thing anyone could do was to be a parent. “Oh my goodness, he must be kidding!” were my initial thoughts.

His pronouncement caught me short and changed my understanding of “rock star Larry”. But more importantly it radically shifted my appreciation of what Stephen and I were embarking upon.

I realised I had very matter-of-factly gone about the next thing . . . you know the pattern: go out with someone / decide to get married / get married / try for kids. But, I had not considered life beyond that much at all. Even though I was pregnant at the time, the next part of the pattern – raising children – had not factored very much into my thinking.

I was stunned at what I had read. Really? Raising this baby was going to be the most important thing I would do? The idea stopped me in my tracks and led me down a path of intentional parenthood. A journey I have never regretted.

I believe God has a plan for each of us. He has every one of us here on earth for a definite purpose. Many people call this concept, “destiny”. Interestingly, we can choose. It is up to us to decide if we want to step into that destiny God has planned. For many, being a parent is part of that destiny. For others it is not.

Those who are NOT parents have other – and good – “important things to do”. And it is also true that those who ARE parents have other important things to do.

But for parents, let me suggest to you that parenting is THE most important thing. Well – so says Larry Norman!

I’d love to know what you think. Have you ever considered that raising children is one of your most important tasks – ever?

The BIG Coverup

Toys

For some reason this day four-year-old Joseph was cross. And I was cross back at him. I was asking him to do something which I thought quite reasonable. I can’t remember exactly . . .  it may have been to put his toys away. But did he want to do it? No!

At this stage, there were three of five children, with the two youngest yet to arrive. I was pretty happy with how I managed things with the two older girls, but my response to Joseph was another kettle of fish.

To explain my dilemma . . . I grew up in a household with only sisters. This means I had quite big gaps in my knowledge of all things “boy” – and I knew it. All the information I had about boys in family life was gleaned from my girlfriends and the relationships they had with their brothers. I had noticed big brothers could be very loving and protective of their little sisters. But I also knew little brothers could be incredibly annoying.

And I had one such annoying little brother on my hands.

So…back to Joseph this day. I asked him nicely to “tidy up the toys” (or whatever it was). Then, I asked him firmly. Then, I gave him the normal ultimatum, and still nothing. He was already in tears, and I was close. I did my usual thing, and asked him to go to his bedroom so we could both calm down. Generally he was happy to do this, because Joseph loved being in his room.

But still he would not cooperate.

So I picked him up from behind, under his arms, to scoot him along to his room for his five-minute time-out.

Which meant his feet flailed wildly in protest all the way through the loungeroom.

Which meant he accidentally kicked one of the heavy, glass doors on the video cabinet.

Which meant it shattered with a huge CRASH into little pieces all over the carpet!

I am not sure who got the biggest fright, me or him. But he did go to his room and stay there willingly at least. After a little while I went in and we talked about it. I said sorry, and he said sorry as well. Then we went back to tidy away his toys together, and he helped me carefully vacuum up the glass.

I was mortified.

While I did talk it through with Stephen later, I never told any of my friends exactly how that glass door broke – we kept the cabinet for years and it always looked a little lop-sided with one door intact, and the other side open to the world.

It was just too hard to admit I was THAT mother, with THAT boy. And these dramas kept happening. I felt like such a failure!

Why do we do that? Why do we try and keep appearances, and pretend we have it all together? While all along, underneath we constantly question if we can do this motherhood thing.

We wonder if we are making the right decisions as we bring our children up.

And we are even a little ashamed at some things that happen behind closed doors.

But this is what I have learnt: If you sweep the shame under the carpet and ignore it, it does not go away.

In reality, it is only by facing those horrible moments, that we get past them. It is only by admitting our failures that we can take a step back and see objectively. It is only by reflecting on what happened to us as we were growing up that we can understand ourselves better.

So next time you feel like a complete failure, let me encourage you not to ignore what happened. Think about it. Reflect on it. Write it down, or tell someone you can trust. Tell God about it. Pray for wisdom and understanding.

By getting to the bottom of it, you may find that next time you are in that situation you have the freedom to operate differently.

And that has to be better for everyone.

For the record, Joe is now an endearing 20-something, who happens to love working with extremely difficult young people. Who would have thought?

What’s your take on this? Do you like to keep up appearances like me?