My mother is an odd mix of proud, lippy liberal and sweet, non-confrontational Catholic girl from North Dakota. She spent years telling us to be kind, listen to our elders, say please and thank you and not step on others’ toes.
She worked up to a swear word the way a pitcher winds up for a fastball. A long string of nonsense words and head shakes would erupt into a swear in a slow, chaotic dance. It was as if her angry brain and her sweet Catholic soul were fighting each other over the rights to what came out of her mouth.
But she was a proud and fierce lefty, and her influence was strong. She had her first child in the midst of the Vietnam War. My brother was born in May of 1970. She has told me many times that her one of her greatest fears for him when he was born was that he would be shipped off some day to fight in the Army. She named my brother Daniel Patrick after Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York. At the time, he was well known for his work with the Kennedy administration in the war on poverty.
When I came along, she made sure that we were both aware of the changing roles of men, women, girls and boys. My brother had a doll. I played with dump trucks. One of the few records my parents owned was “Free to Be You and Me” and I can still recite each word and sing along to every song. She told my brother that it was all right to cry. I was told that I could grow up to be anything I wanted. My dad put us to bed each night and my mom went back to work.
When we were in elementary school, she taught English to Hmong refugees from the country of Laos. She made sure that we went to their parties, played with their kids and ate their food. We knew them well and some were like family to us. She always taught us that there was a wide world out there and it was our duty to help others.
I can vividly recall her in those days in the kitchen as she made dinner. She would watch the news on our little black-and-white TV as she cooked. There was a constant barrage of loud back talk and her trademark swear-fits each time a report on Ronald Reagan came up. His program cuts incensed her and she worried for the well being of her students’ families.
And so it went that my liberal mother raised her kids with love, open-mindedness and a pinch of dogma. We skipped, picked flowers and went to Hmong New Year celebrations for many years.
Until my brother was a junior in high school and told my parents that he was going to apply to the military academy at West Point.
I was 15 years old at the time but I knew that she was not thrilled. Still, she and my father helped my brother work to gain weight and pass physical fitness tests. They went to parent meetings about how to get in and what life at West Point was like. They hosted Army personnel and offered information so he could pass his background checks. They helped my brother write letters to local members of Congress requesting their appointments. It was a lot of work, and my mother was proud and nervous at the same time. Eventually, my brother was accepted.
We made dropping him off at college into a big East Coast trip for the whole family. I remember being smashed into the back seat of our car with my brother and my little sister, who was about 4 years old at the time. I also remember both Dan and my mother growing quieter as we inched closer to campus, each tending to their own personal fears and worry.
Finally, the day arrived and we stood in line to drop him off. The campus is amazing, and its history is worn so beautifully that it helped to distract us all. We signed him up and were ushered into a gymnasium to start our day. After a very short speech, the Army speaker announced to all of the parents that, “You now have 30 seconds to say goodbye to your sons and daughters.”
There was no day of orientation together. No helping your kid move into his or her dorm. This was the Army, and the hand-holding stopped with an abrupt hug and kiss. Your child was off.
The families spent the next five hours touring the campus and learning about the history of the place. As the families toured the grounds together, the male Cadets had their heads shaved, all uniforms were issued, companies were assigned, and they learned to march. We, however, were completely unaware of what had been happening to them. As the day wore down, we were brought to the outdoor parade grounds and took our places on bleachers.
Soon, they began to march out in formation from an alcove carved out of one of the gorgeous stone buildings. They moved with immediate precision. What was a colorful assortment of teenagers a few hours ago was now a cohesive group of soldiers.
They all looked alike, and my parents craned their necks to see if they could recognize my brother from the identical Cadets surrounding him. The band played and the sun was shining. It was truly a sight to behold. The parents around me stood and removed their hats; many beamed with pride and held hands or leaned on each other.
My mother, however, had tears escaping her sunglasses and streaming down her cheeks. The music of the marching band helped to hide the sound of her quiet sobs. My dad and I knew that they were tears of pride, to be sure, but also profound sadness and fear.
I know that, despite her own feelings, she stood tall and supported my brother. She understood that children flow like a river through our lives. My brother was allowed to cut his own path. She loved him enough to help him achieve a dream that she never would have dreamed for him.
Life really is a circle, and we are taught and then teach. My mother taught me a valuable lesson that day. It was not in her words. It was in her deeds and the quiet dignity with which she mothered us. I hope that I will have the strength someday to love my boys enough to let them build their own dreams and follow their own course even if it might be a path I would never have predicted.