My mom recently celebrated her 70th birthday. Being a writer, I wrote this for her and narrated it at the party. She spend her life immersed in children’s literature so I thought it would be fun to use some of my most treasured quotes to emphasize the feelings in the text. See how many you recognize.
In a great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon.
My memories of books and stories are among my oldest and most cherished. This is a side-effect of a life spent with Becky. Growing up the son of a librarian, books were plentiful and reading was something we did together.
I remember our adventures at the public library. Maybe we went every week. Maybe it was more often than that. I don’t remember how many books I would leave there with on every single visit, but I’m certain it was right at the legal limit. She’d help me carry out my stack of 15 or 20 books, knowing full well it would be impossible to read them all before they were due. That wasn’t important. What was important was that curiosity. The love of learning. Finding both adventure and wisdom between the title page and back cover.
To tell you the truth, Becky is known as a no-nonsense person who gets stuff done. She’s a go-getter, having been highly successful in starting and building multiple libraries in diverse school districts and circumstances. She’s always been willing to take a stand against the powers that be in order to do what is right. And what is right generally happens to mean defending both books and children. The two are inextricably intertwined.
Even more, she always has fought for “the one.” Her life and career have been punctuated by the hundreds of stories of little ones who had the trajectory of their lives changed by a librarian with a puppet and a book. She has consistently given people hope when they had never known it was an option for them. She changed their perspectives and helped them embrace a life of significance and meaning. Books generally were the means…they were a tool to help the kids to understand and embrace a vision for their lives that was much grander than they ever would have imagined on their own. It was the vision she knew was possible. She knew because she had lived it. But that’s not my story to tell.
To me, she was always mom. She was the person who walked me to first grade having filled my head with things like these from Winnie the Pooh:
“Promise me you’ll remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think.”
And then she walked home, alone, with another Pooh-bear thought… “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
After school, I would hang out with some friends. Once I had a group, I felt like a king. It’s good to be king. But then another feeling would hit, perhaps best described by Maurice Sendak.
“Then from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of the wild things.” (from: Where the Wild Things Are)
I’d walk home.
She would be waiting for me on the front porch swing. She’d be singing “Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread.” I didn’t even know what shortnin’ bread was, but I have since learned that I do indeed love it. But it wasn’t her wisdom, guidance, cooking, or singing that was so special. It was her presence. Looking back, I can appreciate it quite a bit. So many of my friends simply didn’t have that. I did. Always. And I still do.
When she returned to teaching, I went with her. This meant transferring to a school where I didn’t know anyone. It meant a school with kids from a different echelon of society than I had been with previously. It was worth it. It was important. Not only did I learn valuable lessons about a person’s worth meaning so much more than their family situation or social standing, I also got to spend a bunch of time with my mom. I got to see her build a library and transform lives. And I got to play Oregon trail on the Apple IIe. And watch Superfriends in the library after school. These were all incredibly important events in my life! Oh, and I got to see the look on my dad’s face when she locked her keys in her car one morning. With the engine running. All day. Priceless.
Throughout life…through the ups and downs… going to schools where I didn’t know anyone… the first girlfriend and first breakup. Changing majors. Getting married. Changing jobs. Having kids. Through it all, she’s there. She’s present. And no matter what, she believes in me. That doesn’t mean she’s always silent. Love never is. She always has advice, wisdom, and guidance. But even when I go down my own path, she believes in me.
As I fought to carve out my place in this world, the wisdom from my past would come back to me…
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child, listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves. Then listen close to me — anything can happen, child, anything can be.” –Shel Silverstein
Oh, but it can be so hard. There are so many doubts to deal with, so many conflicting priorities pulling in so many different directions… how can I find my way?
And then the wisdom from my past would speak…
“Believing takes practice.” –Madeleine L’Engle
And it did. I wasn’t good at it at first. There were critical voices always telling me I was doing it wrong. Telling me to take the safe route through life. Telling me not to take a risk. But into that, love would speak.
“Man does not simply exist, but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.” “What a man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” –Viktor Frankl.
I’d find myself stopping by the woods on a snowy evening, considering turning down the road not taken…. And there she would be, reminding me that we didn’t go to the moon because it was easy, but because it was hard. And it was worth the journey.
So, just like the other kids she helped, she managed to get a grander vision into my life. Unlike the others, I have been fortunate enough to have it infused consistently for 42 years. I guess I needed the extra attention. But in spite of those things…the vision, the presence, the most important thing is love. And love is something I learned about from an old and tattered rabbit, who said:
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (The Velveteen Rabbit)
When we love deeply, we risk deeply too. Deep love risks deep loss and pain. And all of us who have loved deeply have felt it. And we think it’s worth it. Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) said “courage is strength in the face of knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped. Wisdom is prudent strength.” That prudent strength tells us that “The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” –Lois Lowry, The Giver
So we share. We share life. We share love. We rejoice with each other when things go well…new babies, new jobs, new dreams coming true. And we cling to each other in the hard times, when we lose a family member or dear friend. And I’m sure each of us has had one of those moments when we look up and say this…
“‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’” (Charlotte’s Web)
It all goes back to those books. Books, in the hand of the right person, change lives. It has been said that “sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” (John Green, The Fault in Our Stars) Becky had lots of books like that. She used them to change lives. She has made a difference in this world and continues to do so today, though not just her devotion to the next generation of family members, but through her volunteer work as well.
Although her story is still coming true, this speech is winding down. This is the point where I tell Becky, my mom, how thankful I am for who she is and all she has done. I’m both extremely thankful and proud of her. And so on this, her 70th birthday, I must say…
As long as I’m living, my mommy you’ll be. I’ll love you forever. (Love you Forever)
Goodnight stars, goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere.