She’s Growing Up, But She’ll Always Be My Baby

My little girl isn’t so little anymore. In fact, she’s the age at which she would be mortified if she knew I’m writing this. But she doesn’t know. Ignorance is bliss.

Right now, she’s upstairs with a friend getting ready for her last middle school dance. She’s finishing up eighth grade. Her school has two middle school dances a year, one in the fall and one in spring.

It’s hard for me to believe this is her last middle school dance. Truly, it seems like just a few months ago she was excited about her first middle school dance…in sixth grade. Afterward, she and all her friends could hardly wait to tell me how many boys asked them to dance! But it has been two years. Wow. She’s not even excited about this one. These eighth graders have one foot in middle school and one foot in high school.

As part of their upcoming eighth grade moving up ceremony (graduation), the school had parents send in pictures of the kids from kindergarten. Since my daughter started at the school in transitional kindergarten when she was four, I used that picture instead. She looks so sweet and so unjaded.

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September 2008, age 4 (almost 5!)

She started transitional kindergarten about six weeks before her fifth birthday. I remember that first day of school like it was yesterday. I remember watching her get out of the car in carpool with her tote bag and walk up the sidewalk by herself. I remember trying not to cry.

Today, when I turned in the picture for them to use for the ceremony, I told the middle school administrative assistant how I had to convince my daughter to wear a bow in her hair on picture day in transitional kindergarten. My child was the little girl who at 18 months declared, “Ruffles are for babies.” She has always had very definite ideas, and she sticks to her guns. When she was two years old, her pediatrician declared her to be a “classic strong-willed child,” telling me, “it will drive you crazy, but it will serve her well.” But on picture day in TK, I was able to convince her to wear a bow in her hair. I told her she didn’t have to wear it all day…just till after pictures. I reminded her that one of her friends (the daughter of my friend, Leah) regularly wore bows as big as her head…we are in the south, after all. When I picked her up after school on picture day that year, she didn’t have the bow in her hair, but she assured me she wore it for the picture.

I look at that picture and remember that sweet little girl who thought her mommy was the best mommy on earth and her daddy was the best daddy on earth. She thought we knew everything and could do anything.

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December 2007, age 4

Now, at age 14, she knows we don’t know everything, and she knows we can’t do everything. She’s more jaded than she was at four, because she has more life experience. She sees the world isn’t the perfect place she thought it was then. She knows the agony of defeat. She knows what it feels like to get a less than stellar grade. She knows injuries can end a sports season. She knows some people don’t have places to live. She knows there is no Santa Claus. She knows more about brain surgery than she should, because she watched her daddy suffer through it. She knows what it’s like to lose a grandmother. She knows what cancer looks like, since she has watched my friend suffer with it. She knows everybody isn’t nice all the time. She knows some friendships aren’t forever.

But as much as that life experience has jaded her a little, it has also made her appreciate the great things about life. She knows she goes to a great school in a fun city, and she’s fortunate to live in the United States of America. While she hates the agony of defeat, she loves the thrill of victory, and she knows it takes hard work, a good attitude, and confidence. She knows what it feels like to make an A+ and how great it made her feel when her history teacher told her he was impressed with the essay she had worked hard on. She knows there is a spirit of Christmas. She knows her daddy survived brain surgery. She knows sometimes kindness comes from  unexpected places. She knows most people are nice, and sometimes, friends we thought were gone come back around.

She knows that while parents can be embarrassing, we love her unconditionally. She knows we want her to live a good life in her own way. She knows experiences are far more valuable than things. She knows people may be able to take things, but they can’t take memories. She knows if she isn’t feeling well, her daddy and I will try to make her feel better…physically or emotionally. She knows we support her, but sometimes she has to be her own advocate.

As she finishes up middle school and prepares for high school, we continue to be her biggest supporters. We continue to tell her we love her every single day. We cheer her on at sporting events. We listen to her. We spend time with her and her friends. We read over her essays before she turns them in. We show her the world is full of different cultures and special people. We become her audience when she needs to practice a presentation. When she doesn’t feel well, we wish we could fix it. We remind her God will take care of us.

Tonight I will drop her off at her last middle school dance. The eighth grade girls don’t seem excited about it, but they’ll be glad they went. Like I said, they have one foot in middle school and one foot in high school.

And just when I think she is spreading her wings and flying away too fast, she surprises me. Last night, my husband was out of town, so our daughter crawled up into bed with me to watch TV for a little while. She cuddled up next to me, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “You’re the best mom in the whole world.” She cuddled for little while, and she said it several times, reminding me of when she was four years old and thought I knew everything. While I make her hug me once a day, those impromptu moments are hard to beat.

Yes, I miss that little four-yr-old who didn’t want to wear hairbows, dresses, or tights with her dance leotard. I miss that little four-yr-old who was so sweet and innocent. I miss that four-yr-old who thought Mommy and Daddy were the greatest people ever. But I love the big person she is becoming. I love that she wants good things for people. I love that she is already talking about college but loves hanging out with me…sometimes. I love that she loves college football as much as I do…and knows way more about it than I do. I love that she has good friends. I love that she is athletic. I love that she loves rollercoasters. I love that she enjoys travel. I love that she becomes more independent every day. I love that she has an appreciation for music. I love that she discovered a passion for art this year in school. I love that she is compassionate. I love that she is outgoing. I love that we have real conversations. I love that she expresses her opinions. I love when I do something for her, and she says, “Thank you, Mama.” I love this 14-yr-old.

Every night when I go upstairs to kiss her goodnight and tell her to “go to sleep soon,” I sit on the loveseat in her room and have a quick chat with her to reconnect one more time. If anything’s bothering her, she will usually tell me then. If she’s upset about something, it can be a long conversation. But if all is well, after we talk a little while, I stand up and walk to the door, turning around to say, “Goodnight! I love you! You’re my favorite!”

And when I see her walk across the stage at the eighth grade moving up ceremony in two weeks, I will think of that little four-yr-old who made her mommy happy by keeping that bow in her hair till after pictures.

My mother used to say that her goal as a mother was to raise compassionate, independent people who contribute to society. That’s my goal too.

So far, so good.

She’ll always be my baby. She’s my favorite.

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Chicken Necks Make Great Crab Bait (and other Life Lessons From My Mother)

 

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My mother and I, probably February 1974. (I look thrilled to take a picture with her, but she looks like she could use a martini.) One of my favorite pics.

It’s almost Mother’s Day weekend, and this is my first Mother’s Day without my Mother. She passed away in December.

I’ve lost a parent before. My daddy died in 2006. I know how difficult all these “firsts” are. They’re tough, but I also know it’s a good time to reflect on my life and what my parents taught me. In this case, since it’s Mother’s Day, I will reflect on what she taught me. Of course, there is no way to cover it all, but I will do what I can.

My mother wanted nothing more than she wanted to be a mother. She loved being a mother, and she loved mothering…neighbors, neighbors’ kids, classmates, friends…she took care of lots of us. She was an exceptional caretaker…it was what she did.

My earliest memories are from my early years in Brewton, Alabama. I remember wanting to go to school. I must have been almost or barely three. My mother called her preferred preschool, but there was no class for three-yr-olds. The owner/teacher relented after Mother called her several times, but she would only take me if I were potty-trained. I was, so I started preschool.

Other parents got wind of it and called her too. And it worked out well for the teacher, because she then had double the number of students…four-yr-olds for part of the day, and three-yr-olds for part of the day. Nobody loved that teacher or her preschool more than I did.

My mother was my advocate.  She taught me to advocate for my child.

A couple years later, she decided she wanted a Volkswagen microbus for us to take on road trips. After searching for the perfect one, my parents bought a beige and white one. Mother couldn’t drive a stick-shift, but she learned quickly as soon as we got the bus. I remember stalling at traffic lights in downtown Brewton as she learned to work the clutch, but she did it. She was determined. At 34, she learned a new skill…driving a stick. Daddy would always laugh that we chose to take the un-air-conditioned bus on road trips. “We have two perfectly good air-conditioned cars sitting in the driveway, yet we opt to travel in this!”

Mother taught us to try new things, and she taught us to be resilient.

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When I was seven, halfway through second grade, my family moved to Spanish Fort, Alabama, a community on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. Some mothers would be nervous about a new place and new school, and the kids would feel that, but my mother approached the move as if it were an adventure. The transition was a smooth one at my new school and neighborhood.

Living near the water was a new adventure for all of us, and Mother took full advantage of that. Unafraid of a new challenge, she talked with locals and learned how she could take us out to the Fairhope Municipal Pier to catch crabs from Mobile Bay. She learned chicken necks are good crab bait, and she learned how to tie them into the nets and how to hang the nets from the pier. Back then, it was OK to hang the nets. She learned how to get the crabs out of the nets and cooked them up when we got home. She even made her own recipe for crab cakes.

She taught us to be adventurous.

For more information on Fairhope, click here.

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We spent almost every afternoon and many evenings at the pier. One day we were catching lots of crabs, so we stayed into the night, checking those nets regularly. At some point, I was stooped down, pulling up one of the nets to check it for crabs, and I looked up. I saw some men coming down the pier dressed all in white. I’d never seen anything like it.

I walked over to my mother and asked, “What are those clowns doing here?” It was actually members of the a white supremacist group. She said to me, “Just keep doing what you’re doing. They won’t mess with you. I need to go over here and sit with Miss Essie, so they think she’s with us.” She then got up and walked over to a bench to sit with a sweet, elderly African-American lady we had met months before, and with whom we often visited on the pier. Soon thereafter, we left the pier for the night, and Miss Essie left with us. Once we knew Miss Essie was OK, we got in the car, and it was then Mother explained everything to us.

Mother taught us compassion and that it’s important to help other people. She also taught us we are all created equal.

It’s important for me to tell you that most people I know who grew up in Alabama have NEVER seen the aforementioned white supremacist group. That sighting on the Fairhope Pier that night (I think it was 1976) was extremely rare, especially in quaint, upscale towns like Fairhope, which is why it is memorable. I don’t want readers to think it is/was a regular occurrence. In fact, I can’t name even one of my friends who has encountered the group anywhere. 

No matter where we lived, Mother volunteered. Sometimes she volunteered at the school, and often, she volunteered with the Red Cross. She was a Registered Nurse, and while I’m not sure what she did with the Red Cross, I know she went into underserved neighborhoods. She used to come home talking about what nice people she had met along the way.

She also seemed to always meet people who had elderly family members who needed care. In one place we lived, an elderly couple lived across the street, and Mother would check on them every day, helping them with tasks on a regular basis. After we moved, an elderly gentleman around the corner needed assistance a few times a week. Mother helped him. We received several late night calls over the years…people needing her assistance, and she was always willing to help. Not many people knew she did this, because she didn’t toot her own horn. She believed it diminished the deed if you went around boasting about it.

Mother taught us to help those who are less fortunate.

When I was a teenager, I learned a lot more from my mother. Just yesterday I was dress shopping with my 14-yr-old daughter, and I thought of my mother when I heard myself say to my daughter after she gave “thumbs down” to another dress I held up, “You don’t really know what it looks like till you try it on.” That was straight from my mother. That, and “Always put on lipstick before you leave home.”

While she taught me not to be superficial, she also taught me to try look “presentable.”

As we went through high school and college, my brother and I learned that our mother had a great sense of humor. That’s not to say we didn’t get in trouble, but she didn’t make a big deal out of things that weren’t a big deal. She also tried to approach situations with humor, and the good Lord knows, she loved to laugh. Even in the last year of her life, she loved when our now-adult friends from college came over to visit at her house. I think it reminded her of when we were younger. We would all sit around and laugh, and that was when she was her happiest.

She taught us not to take life too seriously, and she taught us about perspective.

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Mother and my daughter at dinner one night.

Mother was a tough chick, and we are who we are because of her and Daddy. I like to think I’m passing some of their wisdom and humor to my daughter.

When mother passed in December, we wrote her obituary with all the normal information about family, but we also included a list of things she had taught us. Because she did not want to have a funeral service, we thought it was important for people to know who she was. Here’s the list:

LESSONS FROM MY MOTHER:

Nobody goes hungry on Mama’s watch. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind. It’s OK to laugh at yourself. Save for a rainy day, and when it does rain, splash in the puddles. Take care of your brother/sister, your children, and other people’s children. Enjoy coffee with friends at Waffle House on a regular basis. Call your mama often. Raise your children to be independent, and encourage them to spread their wings. Spend time with your children and their friends (especially at Coaches Corner). Ladies never leave home without lipstick. It’s never too late to learn to drive a stick shift. If you break an arm, you can make your own sling till you get to the ER. Always say “I love you” at the end of a phone call or visit. What other people think is not important, because God knows what you are doing. Laughter cures a lot of ills. Doing something nice for someone else will make you happy. Never pay full price if you don’t have to. Children/teens sometimes think small things are big deals; remember they are big deals to them. Pizza will cure the Sunday night blues. Don’t schedule events during football season. Learn new skills your whole life. Be grateful. Turn it all over to God. You can’t tell what clothes look like till you try them on. Chicken necks are perfect bait for crab nets. Defend people who can’t defend themselves. It’s more important to get into Heaven than it is to get into Harvard. If you want to have good friends, you have to be a good friend. Life is not a dress rehearsal; make it good. All people are created equal.
We loved our mother, and we will make a toast to her on Mother’s Day. God Bless Mama.