We recently celebrated my mother’s ninety-third birthday. Her mother lived to be ninety-six and one of her brothers died a week shy of his ninety-eighth birthday. We have longevity in my family.
As I pondered my mother’s long life, Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day came to mind. It ends by asking,
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
After college, when I went into nonprofit work instead of returning to the FBI, my mother was not happy. For eight years, she had been able to say, “My daughter is a secretary in the FBI,” and people understood what that meant. She had been looking forward to saying, “My daughter is an FBI agent,” but that did not happen.
Instead, I got a job recruiting advocates for people who have developmental disabilities. My mother had no idea what that meant. My work defied easy explanation, and she could not imagine how I spent my days. She was baffled.
“Where did you ever get the idea to go into that kind of work?” she asked.
I told her that she had given me the idea by the way she lived.
My mother always made room for one more. When my unmarried uncle got cancer, he moved in with us, and my mother took care of him. When my grandmother needed a place to live after my grandfather died, my mother welcomed her into our home.
She showed me how to greet new neighbors with a prepared meal and to comfort someone in pain by being present and listening. She always has extra food prepared because no one leaves her house empty-handed. “What can I give you?” she asked as I left her house on her birthday.
That is the thing about parenting—so much of it is in the doing rather than the telling. I learned by watching.
When a friend of mine was having twins one summer, I offered to come help harvest her garden. For three days, I picked beans and tomatoes and then canned—quarts upon quarts of veggies to get her family through the winter. Toward the end of my visit, she told me she had been resistant to my coming because others had come offering to help, but they just ended up being more work for her. “You have helped me so much,” she said with gratitude and also a note of incredulity in her voice.
“You don’t know my mother,” I responded, because my mother’s example and her voice in my head would not allow me to be a burden. If you can’t help, stay home, would be my mother’s advice.
When I imagine myself at ninety-three, I hope I can look back and see that I have lived my one wild and precious life with integrity and meaning, helping more than hindering, giving more than I have taken.
Every morning, I pray the Prayer of St. Francis. That is the life I want to live.