I LOVE YOU!!!
Mom’s missives came crafted in indelible magic markers and big, block print. Cursive handwriting would have to wait for the fourth grade.
Unsolicited notes from girls would wait much longer still.
True, Valentine’s Day in grade school would see me getting and giving tiny, nearly identical red-and-white-lace cards, expressing bland affection. The cards were delivered via a wall-folder file system that was both embarrassing and efficient. I’d cram the obligatory cards—to both girls AND boys—into a folder bearing their name, and flee as rapidly as possible. With luck, no one saw me do this. Then, at the end of the day, I’d grab my folder and take it straight home, unopened, to the round file. Once February 14th came and went, it was business-as-usual, and the public-display-of-affection-business was decidedly slow in those early years.
But hardly a day went by without a message, a word of encouragement, from Mom. She was my first, biggest, and for a long time, only, fan. My primary teachers didn’t share her fondness for me. I spent most of the first six years of school at my own special desk in the principal’s office, with the earliest recorded case of carpal-tunnel syndrome from writing “I will not talk in class” on the blackboard one hundred zillion times.
The predominant view, best expressed by Dad, was summed up in the question: “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” This was a rhetorical question because he really didn’t want an answer. And his most common interaction with me was a disappointed sigh and frown. When I got in trouble, about every thirty seconds or so, he’d look at me, shake his head and mutter… “You were your mother’s idea.”
I never had the courage to ask him if I was a GOOD idea, but given Mom’s enthusiasm for all things parental, I assumed I was. She loved children in general and, for reasons known only to God, me in particular.
Most days my lunchbox would bear a cheery message, and maybe a line of poetry or song. The alphabet song was shared in installments was a frequent companion… “ ‘A’ you’re adorable…. ‘B’ you’re so beautiful…. And ‘C’ you’re a cutie full of charms…’ ” Before Sesame Street, Mom taught us love along with our A-B-Cs.
The woman radiated energy. She could burst into a room, throw her arms open wide, and proclaim: “I’ve got a great idea.” And it usually was. Children were drawn to her, and whenever there were kids to be cared for, Mom was there. She was PTA president, den mother, brownies leader, and Guild Club volunteer, often simultaneously. Her passion was enacted in public service. She was the first to pitch in for any worthy cause and the last one to leave when the lights went out. No job was too menial or dirty for her to tackle.
She believed in protecting pets, too. On one occasion she was refused access to a business that was holding a dog she’d purchased. It was Friday, closing time, and they told her to come back on Monday. Irritated, Mom waited in the parking lot for the employees to leave, and then she managed to crawl into a tiny conveyer-belt chute to get inside and liberate her pooch. As it turned out, the puppy was ill and would have perished had she not snuck in. Another time, Mom learned that thousands of goldfish—carp—were dying in a pond being drained. She organized the neighborhood to go and save barrels of fish. Dad ended up being roped into this project, and took time off work to haul truckloads of fish to their new homes.
Mom taught me a lot about love in her Sunday school classes, and by example. All the old standards, “Wide, Wide as the Ocean,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Jesus Loves Me,” were committed to memory under her tutelage. And she practiced what she preached. She was that woman who would pull over in a thunderstorm to give her coat and umbrella to old person, offering them a ride to boot. Although Mom was barely 5’ 2”, she’d jump into action, breaking up schoolyard fights when bullies in the playground across from our home would pick on the little kids.
Some of the bullies stood a foot taller that she, but they were terrified when she flew out of our house and took them on. There were others who learned to dread her, too. She’d show up at conservative political events and berate politicians for not doing more for the needy. She was an action committee of one, tirelessly writing letters to the editor and to her representatives in Washington, telling them they needed to do better, to do more.
She was the most prolific writer I’ve ever known. She ghost-wrote speeches for progressive activists, and gave lectures on Native American issues, both for adults and for children. Our house was littered with dozens of yellow legal tablets full of notes, partially completed projects, and shards of dismembered newspapers. Most her work ended up being pounded out on her Remington Rand. I can recall it click-click-clicking as she hunt-and-pecked her way well past midnight.
Eventually, I moved out, went to college, and lived some distance away. Back in those days, before the Internet, there were three common ways of communicating apart from face-to-face: telephone, US mail, and the telegram.
She used them all to good effect. Each year, on April 22nd, she’d be the first person to call and sing “Happy Birthday.” Typically, she’d wake me at 5 am, and once Mom serenaded me on my girlfriend’s phone. My girlfriend was horrified to realize my mother knew where to find me at that hour.
Mom also delighted in sending congratulatory telegrams, even if she was going to see you, in person, on the same day. I remember the thrill of getting a congratulatory message from her via WESTERN UNION once when I’d won a scholarship.
But on top of this and through it all, there were her communiqués—miles and miles of handwritten pages torn from her yellow legal tabs. These letters came in an unending stream, sometimes two a day, crammed in big envelopes with odd assortments of postage. The messages were filled with political news clippings, feistiness, love, hope and humor. She had an unwavering belief in the worth of each person and the potential of her children, my brother sister and me. I’m still taken aback by such a display of optimism in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. But the funny thing is, when someone keeps telling you that “people are worth caring about,” “have faith that things will work out,” and “you’re amazing,” you can be surprised that things do end up OK—if you give it your best shot.
Before it was popular to ask: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail…” Mom told all in her sphere, family and friends, that they were exceptional. Mom invited us—insisted really–to dream. And you didn’t disagree with this dynamo.
She’s been gone 22 years now. Mom lost a long battle with cancer at an all-too-early age of 54. She fought it with grace, humor, love, and her writing till the end. I still treasure the tattered yellow letters, the telegrams, and the memories of all those silly songs.
Her greatest lesson is you don’t need an excuse, like Valentine’s Day, to tell those you love that you care. They appreciate hearing it 365 days a year.
I wish I’d saved the lunch-box notes.
So this holiday, try something a bit different, and take a page from my mother’s big, yellow, legal pad. Don’t buy those your love a fancy card.
Get out your Magic Markers, a fistful of lunch napkins, and give ‘em the best gift of all.
Just start with “ ‘A’ You’re Adorable.”
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County.