The Life Lesson My Mom Left Behind

Photo courtesy of Ellen Forbus

Ellen and her mom in Dubrovnik, Croatia

My mom and I talked frequently, but we didn’t get to visit often, with my crazy work schedule and other activities. Whenever I talked to her, it seemed like she complained. And whenever she came over, it seemed she managed to make me feel inadequate.

Yet she was always there for me.

When my husband and I were having serious marital problems, she was there to listen and even wrangled her way into my trip to Europe last fall. It was supposed to be my healing trip — my getting away from everything that had torn me apart. She was worried about me going alone. “I suppose you want to go and protect me?” I joked. She said yes. There was no going back on that invite.

Getting her passport was a nightmare. We had to get census records and her high school transcripts. It was there that I saw she had quit school in 10th grade — not quite the story she gave me about leaving her senior year. I was angry. But I didn’t say a word. It had been years ago, I decided, and I was determined not to dredge up the past.

We had two fabulous weeks in Europe. She tried to talk to everyone who could understand English. For her, this was the trip of her life.

It came just in time.

Three weeks after we came back home, she got sick and went to the hospital. Hurricane Sandy was battering our area with high winds and terrible rain. I made it to the hospital to see her, and all she could do was worry about her car in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart, where she worked as a greeter. She loved her job and loved seeing all the people. I called my girlfriend and got her car home, then I went back to the hospital.



The next six weeks she spent mostly in the hospital. She came home for a few days, but on Thanksgiving I had to rush her back in. I brought my iPad and we looked at all the pictures I took on our trip and laughed at the memories we had and the people we met. She didn’t say anything about the school transcripts that were so important in getting her passport, but she went into great detail about her early teens and how, as the baby of 13, her family was poor and had nothing. So she’d worked. And worked. And never really stopped.

For her, work was a way to get all those things she didn’t have, all those things that made her feel better about herself and her lack of education. One of her favorite remarks about other people was, “Well, they’re more educated than I am.” On December 3, as I sat by her hospital bed that night, she said that one more time. I replied: “Mom, there is education, and then there are street smarts. Many people with an education could not do some of the things you’ve done in life. At 69, you got your motorcycle license and then promptly got a trike. At age 77, you’re still working and so many people love to see you. You’ve bought classic cars and hauled them to Florida and sold them for a tidy profit.”

I went into several other accolades that only those with moxie, guts, kahunas or whatever name you want to give it, can accomplish when they go for it.

The next morning, I had a bad dream about her and got up immediately and called the hospital. They said she had just gone into cardiac arrest. I left right away and made it to the hospital in time to see her. She must’ve been waiting for me because shortly after I arrived, she left me.

As I drove away from the hospital that day, I thought about all the things that didn’t matter. Not her car sitting in a parking lot that she just had to have back in her garage, no matter the storm. Not the things she used to say that upset me. Not the belongings she coveted so much that made her home look nice. Not the motor trike she loved to ride.

After she died, there were so many customers and co-workers that came by to say how she had touched their lives in some way — to tell me how they would look for her smile and greeting as they made their way into the store, how some days it was the only smile and kind word they’d get. That is what matters, I thought. What matters is the love one person shares with another. I’m so glad we got to spend her last days together.

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