Forty-five years ago, at the start of the week before Mother’s day, my mother, June Patricia Mussell, spent a happy morning starting a new watercolor in the orchard in Saratoga where West Valley College now stands. She returned home around noon, happy with the start of her new painting.
According to my father, they had a nice dinner that evening, and fell into reminiscing about the life they had shared together. That night, just after 11:00, she collapsed on the bathroom floor. At age 52, she had suffered a massive stroke. A few days later, on May 7, two or three days before Mother’s Day, with no chance that she would regain consciousness, my father requested she be taken off life support, and she was gone. I was in Phoenix and flew home the next day.
Here are a few things that have recently come to mind about my mother these 45 years since the day of her passing. She had a lifelong love of art, nature, and literature. Hers was an imaginative nature, one that could turn even seeming mundane events into adventures. She had a spiritual hunger too – both my parents did, but hers, I think was compelling, a driving force in her life. After I left home, we’d scoop each other on books worth reading. When I discovered Lord of the Rings, I sent her a paperback set, and she fell in love with Tolkien too.
Not all of her attributes were beneficial, either to her or those around her. She was a lifelong worrier, resulting more than anything else, I believe, from the death of her father as the result of a freak accident, when she was only seven. She spent most of her life with an eye toward where the next blow was going to fall. That was a trait that I picked up, and still have to work to resist.
Like everyone else, at times, I had stormy relations with both of my parents. They’re gone now, and I’ve come to see them simply as fine people with flaws, like everyone else, who did the very best they knew how for my sister and me. In some cases, they didn’t even recognize the power of the gifts they gave. Here is one example that is worth telling in detail:
I was in second or third grade, with especially difficult arithmetic homework one weekend. I think it involved long division. I’d put it off until Sunday afternoon, when my mom caught me trying to escape to play baseball with my friends. She sat me down at the dining room table, showed me how to work the first few problems and turned to leave the room. I still didn’t understand. I must have thought that if I whined enough, I could get her to do more of the homework, but she’d had enough. “I’ve shown you what to do, now DO it, and don’t even think about leaving until it’s finished.”
I’m sure I wasted a good amount of time with self-talk about the unfairness of the world in general and my mother in particular, but at last, with no other options I looked at the problems again. Somehow I managed to figure them out for myself.
Fast forward a decade. I was good in math all through high school, and was a college freshman, in the first semester of calculus, working on formal proofs. They completely eluded me. The first assignment was to prove that one is greater than zero. I tried and tried and tried and failed, again and again. I couldn’t get beyond the thought that “This is fucking stupid – everyone knows that one is greater than zero!” The professor was not the sort to accept that as an answer!
The rest of the class was moving along. A second and more difficult assignment was given and I hadn’t finished the first one. I remembered that day with my mother at the dining room table. One Saturday morning, highly caffeinated, I took myself to the library when it opened, and gave myself the assignment to either figure it out by the end of the day or drop the class.
I worked all morning without success. Sometime after lunch, when I was really getting pissed, a lightbulb went on. Why not start with the desired end result and work backward? It turned out to be pretty easy to prove that one is not equal to zero, and not hard to prove it’s not less than zero, and that was the answer. In solving that first assignment, I not only grasped a pattern that would allow me to ace the class, but grew some confidence in my ability to make my way along “trackless paths.”
My appreciation for my mother’s insistence that day in the dining room has been with me since then, almost every time I’ve faced a difficult problem. That confidence was central to a successful career writing software in the semiconductor industry, which was still full of mostly uncharted paths when I started.
A good parent will do their best to give their children the tools they need to make their way in the world. Even more important are subtler things like why and what is really important in this life?
Strange perhaps – or maybe not, it is these subtle things, like a sense of decency, an appreciation for beauty and imagination, and a hunger for the truths that lie beyond appearances that may be the firmest ground we have to stand on when everything in the world is in flux and no one really knows where we’re going.
Thich Nhat Hahn, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk, once spoke of his nation’s reverence for the ancestors. “It’s good to know your spiritual ancestors too,” he said.
In this life, for me, my mother was both.