Lessons from my fearless mother

Tuesday, March 19, 2019 - 12:49pm

Eli Rallo

Eli Rallo Buy this photo
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My mother taught me to read. She taught me to read long before pre-school and long before someone else could teach me first. She wanted to be the one to bless me with the gift of stories, so we spent all of my childhood reading together. My now overgrown personal library started from a chest of books in the basement of my childhood home, and a small white bookshelf set against the wall in my childhood bedroom. When I was young and small, reaching into the chest meant reaching into another world, where pages could ignite the wildest parts of my mind with dreams of far off places. Maybe she knew that I’d be so inclined to telling stories — to knowing them, to holding and nurturing them, years and books and pages later, when I’ve become all tangled up in everybody else’s wordy limbs in attempts to untangle my own. She took me to the library to get my first library card, a tradition I’ve matched as I move to new cities and experience new places, and would sit on a plush cushion chair as I browsed for a few hours, indulging my curiosity for books. She gave me stories and with that, perhaps as collateral or perhaps because she truly intended to, she gave me imagination. She let me write stories and read them out loud at the dinner table, where I was the strong, female protagonist, so that when I was met with hundreds of stories with strong male characters, and a singular troupe-y female ingenue, they felt foreign and forced. Maybe she doesn’t realize this, but perhaps I am so inclined to make believe because she gave me the tools to fall in love with art.

My mother taught me to run. She instilled in me a fierce competitiveness even when I was the weakest athlete on the team, a willingness to believe that anyone no matter how unathletic, could be a runner. All it takes is supportive sneakers and the road, and you could fall in love on your way down the dusty trail and never return to where you began. Running is not without defeat, but the best days are always accompanied with the knowledge that for me, the road always listens. I was ten years old when I started running at Meadowridge Park with my mother, and I’ve probably run a total of 10,000 miles in that same park since. It is a love affair — Meadowridge Park, Hoka sneakers and I, that will never grow stale. At first it felt as though she was making me run, and I dreaded every middle school cross country practice and the runs her and I would take on the weekends. But she was right in teaching me to run. My mother did not make me a runner, but she gave me the tools to begin. Running and I are an unlikely pair, as I like to think I am unabashedly artistic and unathletic, and runners are meditative and strong. But my body craves the movement — running is my moving meditation, the way I settle an unsteady heart, the way I clear my cluttered mind. I’ve run five half marathons and one full marathon, with her unwavering support, because she gave me love for the pain and the goodness in the familiar motions.

My mother taught me gratitude. For no one thing in particular, but for my life. She taught me to count my blessings and know that I have many of them — even when I struggle to recognize it. She puts momentous downfalls and eye level tragedies to rest when she reminds me that things can always be worse. She taught me this when she curbed my anxiety surrounding flying on airplanes, when she didn’t sugarcoat the difficult moments in life to teach me about reality and truth, no matter how ugly those can be. She taught me to be thankful for my body, regardless of how frustrating it’s peculiarities and complications, because at the end of the day it is a healthy body. It is a strong body. It is a beautiful body. One that has given me so many gifts — one capable of so many miracles and with so many flaws that are mine to love.

My mother taught me strength, which is a life lesson you cannot learn from a book or a classroom, or even a simple conversation. Sometimes it takes a monumental understanding to climb life’s most troubling challenges. When she fell ill my sophomore year of high school and battled debilitating vertigo and imbalance, she managed to continue to serve as a central beacon of support continually effusing energy and strength, even when I knew she had none left to give. If she was bedridden for an entire week, she’d find a way to muster up courage and shaky toughness to come support a cross country race, school musical or honors society induction. She would be in the hospital just days before my first Thanksgiving in college, but conjure up the energy to smile and be completely present for me as we sat around the family room couch to eat dinner with her. When she was finally diagnosed with late stage Lyme Disease and the incurable, not fatal, yet all the while crippling Ménière's disease, I recognized that a mother’s job is never on break or vacation. Because even when her body was attacking her mercilessly, she put positive energy out into the world, and used every ounce of herself to put my brothers and I first, circumstances aside. Her first priority is never and would never be herself. Perhaps this is a part of motherhood, or perhaps this is just part of her.  

She once told me that her purpose in life was to raise my brothers and I, and now that we’ve grown up, she’s okay with not having a purpose as demanding anymore. She doesn’t work a nine to five job, and since being diagnosed with an unpredictable autoimmune disease it’s more difficult for her to pick up intensely demanding jobs or responsibilities. But I disagree with her sense that her purpose has become less of a demand, or that her job is lighter now. Your purpose and role as a mother only grows more demanding as your children find their footing, grow old enough to shake naivetes and truly see the world. My mother has an uncommon and salient purpose as a healer. She heals people with words and actions. In another life she may have been a therapist — she has a medicinal way of curing the deepest of wounds and reconciling concerns, whether grave or trivial. Maybe she’s just some sort of a saint. Her advice is therapeutic — realistic and honest, yet soft and careful. She will constantly tell you that she is inarticulate or not as intelligent as she could be, but on this, she is wrong. She always has the right words in the most natural way, in her mind she has every answer. It’s not just me who sees this ability to remedy. She is an unbelievable, altruistic friend, saving the people she loves when they need saving, telling them the truth when they need reality. She is an extraordinary sister and I’ve watched her give her sisters the epitome of female love, be it as small as fashion advice to as monumental as pieces of herself. Whenever anyone in her life needs her words, her shoulder, her eyes, they give her a call. I am surprised her phone ever stops ringing, and try my best to wonder about her when I call too.

My mother gave me my name, which is the best gift anyone has ever given to me, next to my life, which she gave me too. She gave me her blessing when I wanted to study art after high school, even though the path I’ve chosen to take is not one without struggle. A lot of parents would’ve advised their child to study something more reliable instead. She fought with insurance until they covered my breast reduction surgery, supported my choices and listened to my worries. She came to every appointment and consultation until the day of the surgery, and spent the days after by my side as I began an emotional chapter of my life in a new body. My mother taught me to write birthday cards and thank you cards, and gave me a love for epistolary correspondence. She reminded me when I could improve or needed to work toward something fearlessly. She taught me that Winnie the Pooh has most of the answers that I’m looking for when I have questions, that chocolate chips are the best part of muffins and cookies, and gives me a reason to believe in myself every day, through her unending love.

I know we do not choose our mothers, because if we did many people would choose differently. I know for this I am lucky. My mother is firm, she is strong and wise like the trunk of an old tree, yet soft and warm like rushing summer rainwater. She practices tough love, integrity and morality. She has a faith in the goodness of other people, a realistic knowledge that she doesn’t know everything, but to me, no matter how grown I am, how far from home or far from childhood, she knows more than everything.

My mother is one woman. But she is one woman who doesn’t realize the effect she has on other women around her, strangers, friends, sisters, neighbors, enemies and me.