My mother celebrates 90 years today. She's asked me to keep it a secret. To tell people she is only 89. For some reason she seems to think this sounds better. I beg to differ. No surprise there. I am her daughter, after all. We are supposed to have our share of disagreements, and on this one I stand firm: I think 90 sounds pretty fantastic.
My mother says she never thought she would live this long. Neither did I. She had two near-fatal illnesses under the age of 12. And then there was the fear of cancer. Her mother had died when my mother was just 17, a tragic loss to breast cancer at a time when there was no such thing as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, much less a breast cancer survivor.
When I was a young teenager I was convinced that my life would parallel hers, which meant that I, too, would lose my mother when I reached the age of 17. I never shared my fears, instead lying awake at night in my twin bed with the yellow and orange flowered bedspread she had made for me, counting how much time we had left together.
What I didn't know until years later was that she had harbored the same fear. She told me, not that long ago, how she would write away for every piece of information she could find on how to prevent the dreaded disease until my father made her stop. He told her she had to relax and stop worrying so much. She was going to be OK. He was right. She was going to be OK. And one October, many years into the future, we would celebrate her 90th birthday.
My mother is the reason I live the life I do. That alone is cause for celebration. Her fierceness and independence was how I learned to walk the path I have chosen. She was always a forward thinker, reading up on what's new and willing to try something different. She embraced the multitude of change that has spanned her lifetime. She taught me kindness and to look out for those less fortunate than us. She has never forgotten her roots as the second and middle daughter of seven children born to Greek immigrant parents. She lived through a real Depression, a World War and great personal tragedy. And yes, her family had at one time benefited from government help through food stamps.
She taught me to love the written word, reading to me every day from a giant book of stories and nursery rhymes until I could read myself, how accessorizing is the key to a good sense of fashion style and that cooking and baking were arts as well as demonstrations of love to those you prepared them for.
And when Dad died far too young, my mother was the one who sat me down the afternoon after the funeral and told me life would go on, that as hard as it was to imagine, I would be happy again. She helped me to understand that death was a part of life we could never escape and we must learn to be accepting of it. At the time I didn't buy into it. But ultimately, she proved what she still likes to remind me: A mother is always right.
Our roles have reversed in recent years. She looks to me for help now. She asks me what to do. She is the one to call me when she is worried or concerned or needs help with something. I am the one who takes her shopping instead of her taking me. I am the one baking her favorite Greek cookies instead of her surprising me. I remind her what she needs to do.
She tells me constantly how proud she is of me and how grateful she is for what I do for her. She doesn't know where I get my calm from and how I do all I do. She says that now she learns from me. And while I know that is all true, I am still learning from her.
This gift of her long life has been a gift to me as well. She's lived long enough that we have gotten to work through our mother-daughter "stuff" and really like each other. I have had the rare opportunity to see the woman she didn't share with me when I was growing up. The one who wasn't always so brave and strong and knowing, in control and independent. The one who was also vulnerable and at times fragile. The side she hid from her children so we could rely on her strength.
So once again she is teaching me. She is letting me see the woman she reserved for her closest friends. She is demonstrating for me the beauty in vulnerability. That it is not something to protect oneself from, but instead one of the greatest acts of courage and strength.
My mother is one of the strongest people I know. And, as she likes to remind me, she had no one to teach her. It was just how she learned to survive. I am more fortunate. I have had her to lead the way. And I am so grateful.
So while my mother thinks we should keep this birthday quiet, I am not listening. I am celebrating her and the great fortune I have had to call her Mom.