I’ve been thinking about quotes from my Mama lately, all the ones that stuck with me, that I passed on to my kids, that I still say. When times were tough, she used to say, “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” When even that wasn’t working, there was always, “And this, too, shall pass.”
So my Mama’s in the hospital for being “combative and homicidal.” She’s 87 years old.
She used to say, “We spend the first two years of our life learning that the world revolves around us, and the rest of our lives learning that it doesn’t.”
When she was 70, she went to India to volunteer with Mother Teresa’s nuns. She lived in a room in Calcutta, in a boarding house, and went out every morning to work. She pulled sick people off the street and helped push them in a wheelbarrow to the hospital. She worked in the clinic where the lepers lined up in the morning for medication. She held crying babies in the orphanage. She stayed there for six months, and came home with a cough that never quite went away, no matter what the doctors prescribed.
Mama used to say, “The world does not revolve around you. It revolves around little old women picking up sticks in vacant lots.” My sister, Julia, and I agreed that we never quite got it. Why little old women? What were they picking up sticks for? Firewood? And why vacant lots? Somehow, I always pictured a parking lot. We agreed, it was weird. A couple of years ago, we discovered that she was paraphrasing TS Eliot, which at least makes a little sense. But the message had always been clear. We were not the center of the universe.
Mom traveled whenever she had a chance. Sometimes, she taught English in foreign countries during part of the summer. One year, it was China, another year in Poland. She made friends wherever she went, and exchanged letters with them for years afterwards – up until the year she lost her mind, the year I became her guardian. Julia and I found letters all over the house, letters to her, and scribbled on the back of scrap paper, rough drafts of letters Mama had started.
Her Polish friend wrote in one letter, “You were always honest, and sometimes more blunt than most people in correcting our grammar and our accents, but we did not mind because we knew it came from love.” That was my Mama.
She’s in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, where, they tell me, she’s still being aggressive from time to time, mostly when they try to get her to do something. I’m not surprised. It was always important to her to understand why she had to do things, and since she doesn’t understand much of anything anymore, the world has become a frightening place. Resistance is her natural inclination. And since most of the things they want her to do turn out not to be so pleasant anyhow, it’s hard to blame her.
Mom taught Spanish in high school for twenty years. For another twenty years after she retired, she’d run into old students of hers. “Senora Inman!” they’d cry, many years ago, when they were still sure it was her. Later, they were more tentative. “Excuse me, did you used to teach Spanish? Yes? Mrs. Inman??? You probably don’t remember me, but…” And she’d say, “Oh, yes, I do remember you.” And she would. She might not remember their real name, but she’d remember the Spanish name they’d used in class.
Maybe I’ll write more about her teaching style. For now – one of the things she taught her students was a poem. They used to have to memorize it, don’t ask me how she worked it into the curriculum, but I’m sure she had a rationale for it. The poem went like this:
“If of thou mortal goods thou art bereft
and from thy slender store
two loaves alone to thee are left,
sell one, and with the dole,
buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”*
That was my Mama.
*According to the internet, this was written by MOSLIH EDDIN (MUSLIH-UN-DIN) SAADI (SADI), who was a major Persian poet of the medieval times.