Posted May 11, 2017 by jimhigley
This is a daily installment from my book, “Bobblehead Dad: 25 Lessons I Forgot I Knew.” Come back tomorrow for more!
My mom’s closest friend was Glady. They met at church when they were both thirteen years old, became instant best friends, and remained so until the day my mom died.
Their lives took them in different directions after high school. My mom worked for a few years, went to college, met and married my dad, and spent her life in Nebraska raising my brothers and me.
Glady, on the other hand, met her husband, Dap, a couple of years out of high school while working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They wed when Glady was in her early twenties and spent a lifetime living in and traveling to interesting and exotic places around the world.
But Glady and my mom were always connected. They maintained their relationship through a never-ending exchange of letters.
Letters that they mailed.
Letters with stamps.
Letters filled with stories about their lives.
My mom and Glady both wrote the most vivid, detailed, and funny letters.
Their letters were typewritten. Mom typed hers on a Smith-Corona typewriter she had acquired when she was in college. She expressed her thoughts through that typewriter every day of her life.
In fact, she was typing a letter the night she got sick, days before she died.
I still have that half-written letter.
My mom kept her typewriter on a desk that was tucked away in a corner of my dad’s den. Dad had a big, impressive rolltop desk that had been used by a judge. Conversely, Mom’s desk was small, and it had numerous drawers. Every inch of that desk was used.
In the middle of the desk—center stage—was her typewriter.
And there was always a white piece of typing paper in it. A work-in-progress letter. Usually it was a letter to Glady, but Mom had several other friends and relatives she would write to, as well.
She rarely sat down and wrote a letter from beginning to end. Rather, she would start a letter, stop to run errands or work in the kitchen, and return to it when she could to add a few more paragraphs. Her letters were simply a part of her day.
They were a part of her.
When I was a grade-schooler, I’d sneak into my dad’s den when my mom was in the kitchen and my dad was at work. I’d read her in-progress letters.
At the time, I never thought of it as inappropriate to be reading her letters. It was one more dimension in the process of understanding who my mom was.
And what was going on in her mind.
Her letters were usually several pages long. When they took more than one day to write, she would type the new date in the left-hand margin to let the reader know the words that followed were written on a new day.
I came to recognize three distinct things about my mom’s letters.
For starters, they were about the day-to-day events of her life. She could write two paragraphs about the plumber who had been working in the house the day before and was going through personal problems—elaborating about their conversation, why she liked the guy, and how much the total bill was.
She could go into great detail about a new recipe she tried. She could give all of the specifics about my brothers’ sporting events including how they performed and what she wore as she sat in the stands cheering them on. She could describe home improvement projects, sometimes sending small samples of fabric or carpet along with the letter to help give a better visual to the reader. She could describe what was blooming in her garden or how many hours she spent pulling weeds. She could talk about what her boys were doing that very moment. She could then proceed to talk about how many loads of dark-colored clothes she was able to push through the pipeline, a new song she heard on the radio, something different she was doing with her hair, or what happened with the dog at the vet that day.
She described the day-to-day events in her life because those were the things that were most important to her.
The second thing I remember about my mom’s letters was the emotion she was able to share. She could move from factual information to vividly describing her feelings. And her emotions covered the range from absolute silliness to over-the-top tears of either sadness or joy. She could describe the pride she felt in witnessing one of her five sons’ accomplishments, and she could fully explain the hurt she felt when a child said something rude to her when she was volunteering at school. Her letters were a wonderful blend of facts and feelings as she took the reader on a mini-journey of her world.
She expressed herself beautifully, sincerely, and intimately.
The third thing I remember about my mom’s letters was her use of the “strike-through” key.
The strike-through key sits directly to the right of the number “0” on her old Smith-Corona typewriter’s keyboard. It is a short, horizontal line that looks like this:
Back when my mom used a typewriter, she had two choices for making corrections. One option was to use an eraser to try to remove the undesired word. While this worked, it often resulted in a big smudge or, worse yet, a hole in the paper. The other option was to use the strike-through over the undesired words.
My mom used the second option. A lot. But it wasn’t that she used it to correct misspelled words. She was a wonderful speller. She used it primarily when she wanted to change the way she expressed something. Perhaps her original words were a little too strong. Or maybe not strong enough. Or maybe once she wrote something down—and then read it—she realized she didn’t exactly feel that way.
So she’d backspace, strike through the words or sentences she wanted to replace, and then type her new thoughts.
Leaving everything there for the reader to see. Every thought. Even those that changed. She was happy to reveal herself completely.
My mom was far from perfect. What she was, however, was real. Authentic. And extremely content with who and where she was.
Perfection was never a priority for her.
Finding joy in the moment, however, was.
I went back to work on a full-time basis the day after Labor Day. A new season had begun.
Stepping back into my business world made me feel somewhat like Dorothy when she woke up back in Kansas after her kaleidoscopic trip to Oz.
But I knew I wasn’t waking up from a dream. In fact, I realized I had been more awake during the prior three months than I had been in years.
My second day back at work was a typical Wednesday morning. I was walking from the train station in downtown Chicago to my office. As I was walking along the bustling canyons of the financial district, I was thinking, as I usually do, about a number of things. This particular morning, I had two completely different thoughts rattling around in my head.
First, I was thinking about how I couldn’t wait for it to be Friday. I wanted the next few days to pass so I could retreat—if only for a couple of days—to the world I had grown to love over the summer. The feeling I had—of not being content in the moment—was overwhelmingly unsettling.
The second thing I was thinking about was my mom. Specifically, I was thinking about her letter writing and how she freely put her thoughts out there. I smiled as I thought about her use of the strike-through key. A few weeks earlier I had stumbled upon the letter she was writing the night she became sick. It was a letter to my Aunt Bev and focused on my recent appendectomy. It included details about my 1:30 pm doctor’s appointment, the decision to operate, the hooking up of my IV at 3:30 pm, and then . . . well, her letter stopped because the nightmare, the ambulance, the entire ordeal leading to her death, began.
And it was left unfinished.
Standing there in downtown Chicago, those two random thoughts morphed together and became one crystal clear message to me.
Why was I so anxious for it to be Friday? Wednesday wasn’t even half over and I was already glossing over the next few days. More importantly, why was it bothering me so much that I wasn’t happy being a part of the Wednesday world I was in?
Answers and clarity started to come to me as I began to understand what it was that I had loved and valued about the previous few months.
I had lived in the present all summer long. I absorbed what each moment brought.
And I only came to understand that when I caught myself—there on the second day back to work—realizing I was already falling into the trap of wanting it to be “a few days later.” I wanted to be somewhere other than where I was at that time.
I hadn’t even been back at the office a week and I was already resorting to my “old” way of thinking.
I stood there amid the swirl of morning rush hour synchronization in a frantic downtown Chicago, and I realized that every morning during my summer at home, I woke up happy. Excited to see what the day would bring to me.
And I never wanted a day to end.
As I continued my walk to the office, slipping in between the steady stampede of faceless workers, amid the honking cars, the police whistles, and the muffled sounds of commuters on their cell phones, I felt my mother’s spirit. Not memories of her. It was her spirit. The joyful way she embraced every minute of her day. The good. The loud. The painful. The routine.
Living in the moment.
I had a summer experiencing life the way my mom had lived every day.
Was the gift Karen promised me as simple as that?
validated the importance of what I do each day of my life. It’s also helped me be content with the present—even when the present is plain old vanilla. Did having cancer play a part in this newfound outlook? Sure. But I hope you never have to confront a life-threatening illness to be able to grab hold of the potential power of this simple concept and apply it to your own life.
I loved that summer. As I will every summer yet to come. But I’m learning there is much to love about fall.
And as I move to the next season of my life, I’m going to make sure I love everything about what’s most important.
The lessons I’m living today.
Come back tomorrow for more!