Ninety

Yesterday, on what would have been my mother’s 90th birthday, I mailed several forms to the Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard. She’s been gone almost three years and I’m convinced this was the last of the paperwork I’ll manage in the wake of her passing. I said that to my friend Rick and he laughed. He’s a lawyer.

My mother had a great big laugh that you could hear and recognize across a crowded room. Her ready laughter and sharp wit were there until her very last days along with her capacity for wonder and delight in the world around her. I can easily picture her face–mouth open, eyes wide as we stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon or under the canopy of the Redwood Forest. She was breathless at the sight of the Pacific Ocean, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, and the rolling prairies of Minnesota.

She was a smart woman who should have gone to college but my grandmother restricted her options to teachers’ college, secretarial school, or nurses’ training. My mother chose nursing because the program required students to live on campus. My grandmother was a tyrant but when my father struggled to keep a job my mother’s work as a nurse kept our family afloat.

She worked off and on throughout the 50’s and 60’s when most women of her background stayed at home. She was divorced in the late 60’s when divorce was treated like a social disease. A testament to her sense of humor, she often she said she hadn’t demanded liberation so much as had it thrust upon her.

When she finished nurses’ training she’d longed to travel to the southwest and work as a nurse on a reservation. My grandmother wouldn’t hear of it and my mother wasn’t bold enough at 20 to defy her. Instead, she did what was expected of her—obeyed her parents, married the person whose race, religion, and education met social expectations, had children. She felt utterly betrayed by life when it turned out that complying with the conventions of one’s social class offered no guarantee of security let alone happiness.

Over the course of her life, my mother often resisted and resented her circumstances but eventually the discordance between how she thought things were supposed to be and how they were became the foundation for a new self. She re-educated herself about race and class and religion and she sought connections across social barriers. She understood that cultural conventions are socially constructed and resisted the imposition of them on herself and on those around her. She freed her mind and urged everyone she knew, especially her children, to do the same. Thanks Mom!

Lost and found

The first time I volunteered at Knox Prairie Community Kitchen’s twice-monthly free dinners I was nervous. We were given good instructions but I still felt unsure of myself and when the church basement filled with more than one hundred strangers, my muscles tightened and my pulse began to race. As the evening wore on I filled water glasses, cleared away plates, and relaxed enough to commit to returning in two weeks for the next dinner.

For several months, I showed up at 4:45 p.m. and listened to instructions urging us to treat everyone as we expect to be treated and to get all the food waste off the plates. I poured coffee, found extra napkins, brought dinners to those with limited mobility, and pushed all the food waste off the plates. When the last guest finished, I sometimes stayed to help clean up but most often I headed home. As I walked to my car, I would feel as if I was returning to my body. Spending two hours thinking only of the task in front of me, only of the people who needed my help, there was no space in my mind for my normally obsessive attention to myself. My ego was on a holiday. But our egos aren’t interested in time off.

KPCK is like a lot of all volunteer-run organizations—if you stick around long enough they put you in charge. Within a few months, I was the one providing careful instruction on how we treat our guests and how to clear a plate to satisfy the dishwashers. I arrive in early afternoon to help cook and I stay until the last dish is returned to the cupboard.

I enjoyed these responsibilities until I didn’t, until I became completely identified with my role in the group. When that happened, my ego became a howling chorus of complaints, blame, and criticism: volunteers leave too much food on plates, guests go to the dinner line before I’ve directed them to do so, another Board member disagreed with me. The time I spent with KPCK was no longer a respite, a way to get outside myself but just another manifestation of my ego’s need to be center stage.

I’m trying to remember to pause, to pay attention when the controlled chaos of dining room threatens to overwhelm my desire to make these dinners a joyous occasion for the other volunteers and especially for our guests. Many of our guests experience alienation and isolation because their presence in the world makes the rest of us uncomfortable. I have the opportunity to make eye contact with each person who walks into that dining room, to make sure they know I see and recognize our shared humanity. When I lose myself in that moment, I am found.