Archive for May, 2013

It’s Not Wishy-Washy To Be Square

ESD COLLEGE GraduationHail to Purple Hail to White, Hail to Thee Northwestern

The last lines of Northwestern University’s Alma Mater sprang from my lips. As an adjunct faculty member I had just witnessed 96 master’s degree candidates in the Medill School’s Integrated Marketing Communications program walk across the stage. A handshake with the Dean certified them as professionals and alumni at the same time.

Getting dressed at home, prior to the graduation, I discovered that my rental cap was too small. No amount of bobby pins could secure it. One head bob too many or ever so slight would topple it to the floor. What to do? Luckily I remembered that my Mother’s college mortarboard sat in my dresser drawer. Luckily we had the same hat size.

I found Mom’s graduation cap in her closet after she died. Her name was clearly printed on the silk label inside. It didn’t seem right to give or throw it away. She graduated top of her class from The College of St. Mary of the Springs (now Ohio Dominican University) in Columbus, Ohio in 1940. She went on to teach elementary school until she had children. She then instructed her children during summer vacations with reading and math workbooks, writing on a double-sided black board in the playroom. Mom was all about learning.

Mom was also all about dressing appropriately and when it came to wearing a cap and gown, the cap should sit squarely on top of the head. Flat, not angled.

“Flat is the proper way to wear the mortarboard. Do not wear it on the back of your head,” she would say. “I don’t care if you think it’s unattractive or crushing your hair, this is the way it is meant to be.” I wore a cap and gown for the first time during kindergarten graduation and even then Mom made sure I wore it “regulation” style.

As the graduate students lined up to process into the auditorium I found myself repeating my Mother’s advice:

“It’s meant to be worn flat. Really it looks better that way,” I said in a friendly yet knowing tone. “Lose the bobby pins and stand up straight and tall. It won’t fall off.”

Mom’s advice fell on deaf ears and many a mortarboard slipped and slid as the group marched to the stage to the untraditional and rousing tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Graduates held their caps on with one hand while shaking the Dean’s hand with their other. One cap completely crashed to the stage floor in front of the Dean.

Mine, however, stayed put throughout the conferring of degrees and a series of upbeat speeches that dispensed advice both thought-provoking ¬– have an account balance of goodwill¬ – and head scratching – don’t be wishy-washy.

Don’t be wishy-washy? What odd advice I thought at first. But then the speaker explained that the opposite of wishy-washy is taking a stand. He encouraged the graduates to have a point-of-view and be prepared to support it because without a point of view one must depend on others for movement.

As I pondered his words I realized that it was Mom’s strongly supported point-of-view on graduation attire that was keeping my cap squarely on my head and me moving across the stage confidently. I felt squarely ready to go out and conquer the world on my own terms. Hail to Mom.

Smile and Say Thank You

Mom didn’t teach me to cook. I wasn’t much interested and I don’t think she was either. She tried to teach me to sew but when she insisted that to be a good seamstress one had to learn how to rip out and redo the seam I decided I didn’t have the patience. She did teach me penmanship with limited success. I may have looked just like her but I scribbled like Dad.

She did tell me that the best thing to say when someone offers a complement is a sincere and simple “thank you.” I had/have a tendency to defer the compliment, deny the reason why it was given, or deliver a full history of how whatever is being complimented came about.

Most of the lessons I learned from my mother were delivered silently as I watched her go about her day, which included saying the rosary at 4:30 every afternoon. The lessons I learned from my mother were delivered when I watched her laugh until she snorted when her sister visited and coo endlessly at my baby brother after his bath. The lessons I learned from my mother were about living with caution because you might get hurt and how unexpressed grief manifests itself.

My mother’s first husband died in the aftermath of the D-Day invasion. One night when I was 9-years old, my father took me into the living room after dinner to have a talk. I knew I hadn’t done anything particularly bad that day and was excited to see what Dad wanted to share with only me. He sat on an ottoman across from me in the big armchair in the corner of the room. My saddle-shoed feet stuck straight out.

There he told me that my mother had been married once before. That her first husband had died in the war. That my oldest brother was from that marriage. That my Dad had adopted my oldest brother. That we did not consider my oldest brother to be a half brother. He was a full brother.

Years later it struck me that Mom didn’t tell me this news. Or that Mom and Dad didn’t tell me. It was her news, her life. Mom wouldn’t talk about the man she married at 24, who died less than two years after their marriage. She once said that her parents told her she was lucky. She might have lost a husband but she had a good job, a wonderful son, and family to help her. She learned to keep her grief to herself and adjust to her situation.

The main lesson I learned from my Mom wasn’t directly imparted to me. The lesson I learned was to be in control of the narrative of my life. If I hurt, hurt. If I love, love. And if I have to laugh, laugh until I snort.

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