EVANSTON, Ill. -- On Mother's Day this year, I was counting my blessings. I had the world's greatest mom -- she was the most generous spirit I know.
But we didn't always make it easy on her. Deadbeat son that I am, I delayed typing my college thesis on T.S. Eliot until pretty much the last minute my senior year, and my mother, as usual, bailed me out.
She showed up at dusk with my parents' dog, Menke, at Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, where my father worked. Bedraggled, sleepless and a bit crazed, I met her with my suitcase full of poetry books and stacks of drafts and notes, and we settled into dad's office after he went home.
Without complaint, without a scold, without any judging, my mother worked all night long typing the 64-page opus and 12 more pages of endnotes and citations on an IBM Selectric typewriter. It was an epic save.
I have been thinking about that night as we approached Mother's Day this year and about how lucky so many of us are to have had parents who did everything for us and asked for nothing in return.
I keep thinking I have to call her, but I can't this year. She left us six weeks ago. She was 96. I am 62. It doesn't matter how old you are. There is no one like a mom.
In the end, it is the little things - the daily acts of kindness, nurture, teaching, encouragement--that add up to being the major ones in a person's life. If we are fortunate enough to have had parents who cared, showed up and made us better, we are blessed. They do this from the moment we are born. All we can really do in return, as a friend told me, is to try to make them proud.
Research on early child development points to the importance of nurturing infants and toddlers with language, laying down a solid foundation for learning, especially in the early years, when our brains are being shaped and mapped for the lives that lie ahead. My mother sang me songs. My father made me memorize poems.
In one of my favorites, Wordsworth wrote, "The child is father of the man." Today he might have said "woman," as well. The point is that our characters, outlooks and inspirations are wired and instilled in us early on. This evolving child is the ancestor and guide leading us into our adult personas.
More than anyone else, our parents shape us into people we become. That is a sleep-deprived, fretful and thankless job at times -- often rife with human rights violations. But on this Mother's Day, I can't think of a more important or meaningful one.
Words matter. Attention matters. Role models matter. If we have good ones, they shape how we learn and conduct ourselves, as well as who we are and what kind of character we develop. We learn by their example, as well as their words
Our socioeconomic background matters, too, of course. If we are lucky to have had enough resources, a stay-at-home mom or dad, or attentive teachers in daycare or preschool, we carry their handiwork in our language, learning and prospects.
Sandra Waxman, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, wrote recently in the Huffington Post, "In many low-income homes, where parents must work multiple jobs and where childcare alternatives rich in language exposure are well beyond economic reach, young children may hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. When they enter preschool, these children are already at a disadvantage."
Life is unfair, no doubt, for so many. I realize that I grew up advantaged and privileged in my suburban background. Wishing that same opportunity for others won't make it so. It is a challenge in a nation - in a world -- where most people don't.
But my mother also gave back. She taught us to do the same and to treat everyone the same. She took in our friends, some for years at a time, when they were in trouble and needed a safe place until they were ready to take on the world again. We still call them "inmates" of the family home in Brookline, Mass. It's a proud and exclusive club.
Mom was also a serious volunteer. Born in 1920, the year women earned the right to vote in America, she worked in New York City as a secretary as a young woman and she volunteered to raise money for the Junior League, the Red Cross, British war relief and other causes in the lead-up to World War II.
She met my father at a friend's apartment on South Yates Avenue in Chicago, and they married in 1950. She had two boys in Chicago--giving us and our half-sister her full attention during those years. Later, when we moved to the Boston area, she volunteered for her church, for the poor and for the elderly in her later years.
"Never one to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs," she once said, "volunteering has always offered me a way to build connections through my love for people."
She was leveraging networks for the public good long before there was an expression for that. Yet, it was her love for people that instilled in her children the importance of treating others the way you want to be treated.
Unless they dissed you. "If a person kicks you once, it's their fault," she used to say. "If they kick you again it's your fault."
She only had a high school education, but a CEO friend called her one of the best teacher's he ever had.
All her life, people called her "Mouse," her childhood nickname, yet she had the spirit of a giant. She had her share of tragedy, and she overcame some early hardships. She touched so many people with an extraordinary generosity and affection--perhaps, in a way, she was trying to redeem her early missteps.
She had grace and grit, elegance and humor, strength, integrity and patience. What I'll remember most vividly, though, on Mother's Day this year, is her laugh. She loved to laugh, entertain and welcome everyone to her warmth, with no judgment, nothing but support, love and acceptance. And endless laughter filled the house. That's why so many beat a well-worn path to her door over the years.
Moments before she died the night of March 31, she laughed aloud. Who does that? I can hear her laughing today, roaring, "honking," as she called it. I always will.
My mother came to me in a dream the day after we got home from her funeral in Boston. She was sitting in her favorite chair looking ahead, not at me directly, but she told me not to forget to call her or to ask her questions. I won't forget, Mom. And I'll try to pay you forward, always.
Happy Mother's Day.