My mother gracefully entered her 6th decade, last week.
As far as I could tell, Clemire always stood about 5 foot 3 inches tall, often with a warm smile, soft voice and a detectable accent that compelled childhood friends to ask “Yo, where ya’ll from?!”
In those moments when her smile was supplanted by a frown – as a result of my behavior – it was very likely that some corporal punishment would follow the offense. My childhood in Brooklyn, NY was filled with love, learning, fun and discipline. Whatever I am, or will become, is largely due to her influence and provision of these things.
I don’t know how she’ll react to my referencing her by the given name – I call her “mom” – but Clemire (pronounced “Clem-ear” … try to roll that “r” in the back of the throat) is kind of awesome, and smooth.
I still remember our walks to the Eastern Parkway library for mandatory reading, and the hours spent reciting multiplication tables until they were commit to memory.
I remember suffering a football-season-ending broken hand, in high school, and being inconsolable – though she tried her best.
I will never forget the day when, after having been jumped by a small gang, she and I – ages 42 and 12 respectively – stood back to back, poised to fight a circle of teenagers on the block in New Lots. A patrolling police car saved our asses that day and, thankfully, we can laugh at the incident. Lol
I also vividly recall the painful chapter preceding her second divorce, from my step-father. The “aha” moment when she wasn’t as strong, when the roles seemed reversed and I needed to be there for her.
She gave me two awesome & talented little brothers – a separation of 8 years has added the element of counselor/mentor to the fraternal relationship – and I can’t wait to see what the near future has in store as we grow, together. Mom lives through us.
I don’t visit Clemire as often as I should, but I think she understands.
I’ve shuffled and switched career paths a bit, taking risks along the way, and she knows that I continue to oscillate between long, stressful days of independent work and the greater stress, when these projects grow thin. The progress is undeniable and she’s supportive, as always. We speak on the phone fairly often, but I took the time to be in Brooklyn last week and give her a proper big hug on her day. I’m intensely driven, in part, by a desire to provide for her as she’s done so selflessly for me.
It is no simple task to distill my mom’s life lessons to me in a short piece, but I will make a crass attempt here. Three of her values that guide me.
1) Be Kind/Show Respect
Mom tells a story of a peasant family that was visited by a wanderer. The family treated their poor guest with callous disregard and would eventually learn that the stranger was indeed a prince, in disguise. Their brusque treatment meant that they’d failed a test, and proven themselves unfit for reward. Treat everyone with respect, the moral goes. Everyone has a story, everyone is going through a struggle … just like you.
2) Be On Time
Forget that, be early. Mom never played with this. Ninety minutes early at the airport, one hour early for the dentist, thirty minutes early for school. There was always a direct relationship between the importance of an errand, and her emphasis on being there before everyone else. I think the formula was to calculate travel time, factor in traffic, then add two hours … just cause. This has carried over well for me in managing client deadlines, and reliably being where I need to be, on or before the expected time.
3) Be Passionate/Work Hard
She didn’t care what was on TV. I would have no choice but to sit and write that penmanship assignment over, for the third time. The first attempt was ruined with smeared graphite from too much pencil erasing. The second had a small spaghetti grease stain in the corner of the page. “How can you put your name at the top, and hand that in? … Do it over.” Mom always instilled confidence that anything I endeavored was worth trying, and then insisted that I do the necessary and unavoidable work.
No easy roads, or shortcuts.