The best gift my mother ever gave me

Growing up, my mother’s lack of education and limited worldview were infuriating and embarrassing. Though she raised me, she seemed so different from me.

That led to a sense of detachment and indifference. There were times, when she had moved to another state, that months would go by before I’d think to call, usually prompted by a reproof from my older sister. I didn’t seem to have anything to say.

Yet today, more than ten years after my mother died, I think of her almost every day. All because of a gift she gave me.

How I saw her

My mother, born Fiorentina (“Flo”) Bruno, was the youngest of 7 children all raised in New York City. She didn’t graduate high school and she married a man, my father Joseph, who didn’t make it past the 8th grade. “The 13th Joe,” she reminded us, hinting at her bad luck. Her life seemed tinged with disappointment and regret, a lingering sense that things should have been different.

Even at age 76, lying in a hospital bed with a broken hip she’d never recover from, she was still reminiscing about her best years as a single woman working in the gloves department at Macy’s.

Belated love and respect

Mom and me at my sister's weddingIt was only when I was older and my mother was into her 70s that I started appreciating her. I started noticing how other people loved and respected her. I saw I’d taken for granted the qualities that made my mother special.

Despite having little money, for example – our family car was purchased for $25 – she was extraordinarily generous, always handing out small gifts for people. “Just a little something,” she’d say.

And the food! My best memories of my mother are of her in the kitchen, cooking and baking. We may not have had much but we always had good food and guests to share it with. On Thanksgivings, we could sit at the table for 3-4 hours as she presented course after course. Every holiday, she’d make special trips to deliver her homemade cookies, cakes, and breads to family and friends. She’d stay up into the night till her hands would ache from rolling dough. One Easter she made 40 loaves of bread.

She was fun, too. How could I not love that? She’d tell jokes, dress up for Halloween, host parties. The very things that embarrassed me then are the things I admire about her now.

Yes, she had regrets. But they stemmed from simply having a thirst for life and wanting more from it. As I entered my 40s, my condescension turned into empathy.

The best gift she gave me

There was one other quality she had, her best gift, that she somehow passed down to me: my mother was genuinely interested in other people.

“Are you a Gemini?” she’d ask a complete stranger while I rolled my eyes and skulked away. Though not everyone engaged her in conversation, many did. She was charming, genuinely curious about people, and could talk to anyone. As a result, she had an extraordinary social network of people who cared for her.

When I was a child, I was too shy to even answer the phone. But, as my mom would say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and through her actions she influenced me, instilling in me her interest in other people. Now, I’m just like my mother, talking, talking, talking simply because I like people and like getting to know them better. And now it’s my own children’s turn to be embarrassed.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

I regret the missed opportunities. I did too little, too late. But there’s still a way I can show my appreciation for what you gave me. There’s an opportunity, with every person I meet, to share your wonderful gift. Each time I do that my life becomes a little richer and my bond with you becomes a little stronger.

Now, although you’re gone, you’re with me every day.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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6 Responses to The best gift my mother ever gave me

  1. She just read this and smiled, John. What a beautiful tribute.

  2. Andrew.Kratz says:

    Our kids get embarrassed at our antics and sometimes shun us. But we remember being that age and “get it”. We don’t hold it against them and love them without waiver. I am sure your mom did the same. So no need to have any regrets. She wouldn’t have wanted it that way.

    Hey, you really should warn us if you are going to make us all cry here buddy.

    • John Stepper says:

      Yes, Andrew, these posts need a warning even for the author! I wrote this on a plane coming back from London and was sniffling.

      And you’re right about regrets. Better to channel that energy into doing something positive. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Brendan Francis says:

    Nice one John!

  4. Irene Johansen says:

    You reminded me of the (painful) reality of my own earlier years, and yet, as Andrew Kratz says, I know she forgave me, and loved me anyway. I now realize my mother was brilliant, and the source for some pretty brilliant children. She taught herself to speak, read and write English, all on her own. She read, and still reads, constantly, mostly non-fiction. She learned to inquire, to be curious, to ask questions about how things work from her father in Denmark. And the key: she was never afraid to look “dumb” by asking her children for answers, knowing that they were getting the benefit of a great education. She asked us to correct her English, she asked us about our homework, she asked us about science, social studies, music, geography (which it turns out she was pretty good at, in the broader sense of that discipline). Her English is now, and has been for many, many years, much better than some Canadians, born and bred. At 90, although she’s getting a little forgetful, she’s still curious, has a great vocabulary, still thinks, observes and chooses her words carefully. On top of all that, even when things were tough, and my father resisted her efforts, she painted. She’s mostly self taught, since the age of 10, and has taught all of us a wonderful sense of colour, balance, distance, appreciation and love of art. As I write this, I realize she really should be given an honourary degree in Arts – she’s certainly earned it. Last but certainly not least, even while things were incredibly tough for her, she was a source of inspiration and wisdom, an anchor in our storied and sometimes storied life, making sure that we had a life together as a family, against all odds. I love my mother. This is my oh so little tribute to her, and the life she’s given me and all my sibs, our many friends (her honourary kids), her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. Thanks for everything Lille Mor. XO

  5. Irene Johansen says:

    I realize I’ve hijacked your space, for my mother – my apologies. I don’t have a blog of my own – maybe time to start one?

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