IMG_3055_copyOn your 80th birthday, what can I offer you, Mom, you who has given me life? You fell asleep under my crib patting my back in infancy assuring me that you’d always be there. You stayed up until dawn holding my hand as I struggled with problems as a grown up.

You loved me unconditionally.

You created a happy childhood by inventing fun, like painting sidewalks with water, reading books by candlelight and playing restaurant at a card table. When money was scarce, you splurged on small treasures: a plastic boat, a jar of Play Doh, and a Highlights magazine. When you grew tired from the caretaking, you pulled me onto your lap for a moment’s peace and told stories and sang songs.

You taught me to respect my elders in the tender way you cared for Grandpa Mac and Grandma Olson. You spoiled Grandpa with his favorites – chili and pie. You visited your mom in the nursing home every day finding joy in her company even as she aged.

You, a smart, soft-spoken Chicago girl from a modest family of Norwegian immigrants, worked your way through college earning a teaching degree. Then, you made your four children feel as special as an only child. When the last one started kindergarten, you started your teaching career, guiding other people’s kids.

All the while, you were encouraging me to develop my own skills and take those first painful steps toward reaching my potential. You overlooked my flaws – saw my best when I was at my worst – and knew I would outgrow my orneriness. To help us survive our awkward adolescence, you told your daughters that they were caterpillars blooming into butterflies. Okay, so I never developed that delicate beauty, but I did learn to fly.

You forgave me for the untold suffering I caused: the trips to the emergency room, the nights I came in late as a teen. All the anxieties I created with desperate phone calls: my hospitalization in Peoria, my pro team’s collapse, my car accident in France.

You sought miracles in everyday events. The spring an African violet appeared on the plant I gave you, you knew a life was blooming. Nine months later, I gave birth to your first grandchild. You became the greatest long distance grandma, sewing matching outfits, writing letters, making calls, taking drives and plane rides to visit grandchildren, living nine hours away by plane.

You put Band-Aids on skinned knees, made cookies for bake sales, sent cards to shut ins, and gave pep talks. You remembered anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations, and never missed ball games. You were the first to take the sting out of life’s hurts; the last to criticize mistakes. First up and the last to bed, you worked overtime and never went on strike.

You put your own life on hold to jump-start ours. You kept my world spinning in a zillion small ways that I overlooked everyday.

You, the unsung hero, taught us to accept the differences in others by nurturing the differences in ourselves. While I was defying society, playing sports at a time in history when little girls were supposed to play house, you let me be a tomboy. When, instead of coveting Barbie dolls, I asked Santa for a basketball for Christmas, you made sure he heard my wishes.

You never made me wear hair bows, instead you cut my bangs short and let me march to my own beat. When I slid into home plate, swished hoops, and tackled the neighborhood boys in the backyard, you grinned and waved from the kitchen window. When I fell off bicycles and out of trees, you straightened the handlebars and brushed off the grass and said, “Off you go!”

Your heart grew as I grew, welcoming your French son-in-law into the fold even though you knew he’d whisk me off to live in a foreign country. You exemplified a good marriage, sharing sixty years of laughter and tears with my dear Dad.

You gave me wings and the gift of love. Though I can never repay you directly, I pay it forward daily in my work and family. Mom, because of you, I learned to love. I bought into the human race.