When I was a child, I remember watching my mom glaze windows. The DAP putty she squished and rolled between her hands looked like modeling clay, and I thought it looked like fun to mess with, but I was not allowed to touch because it contained lead.

Other people were celebrating their mothers with glowing reminiscences on Facebook last weekend. Better, I think, to offer my public Mother’s Day card here in the gray newsprint, because my mom is a believer in the honor of “being published,” which means not doing the publishing yourself. She won’t care if my offering comes four days late; she doesn’t do greeting cards anyway. Besides, island mail is like that. We’ll just blame the fog.

I recall that as a kid, my parents would get shanghaied into moving furniture for people, often using the old green Dodge van my mother drove. I remember them maneuvering upright pianos up narrow flights of stairs. You haven’t done squat until you’ve moved a piano. Most people in that neck of the woods only had some sort of sedan, but mom had that van with lots of open space in the back. (Oh, for a pickup truck!) Watching all that heavy lifting undoubtedly taught me lessons I didn’t know I was learning. Moving big things requires muscle, and requires math, and requires communication if you don’t want somebody hurt, and may require a saintly patience, but does not generally require a professional.

As it turns out, that sense applies to quite a few things in life. We did most everything ourselves. We put a roof on the house when the leaks got too bad, my mother and my brother and I. We were taught to have our own tools, to do our own first aid (right or wrong — and no more merthiolate, please!), and my mom made my father’s shirts in her sewing room. To this day she is all about “read a book to learn how.” She taught herself accounting that way, back in the 1970s with a pile of books, likely some rescued from discard piles, or from yard sales, and no doubt the public library.

I remember the time we hauled a whole side of beef home in that van. My folks and their friends Jim and Evelyn butchered it one evening after us kids went to bed. Jim and Evelyn live in Camden, and might potentially read this, so if I’ve got anything mixed up — sorry! Anyway, they probably learned how to cut up the meat from a chart in a book.







I recall my mother on her hands and knees with a hammer and a large chisel, bashing out post holes in our little concrete backyard, so we could put up a sturdy fence and get a dog. I also remember a lot of sputtering among the adults about whatever idiot poured that concrete in the first place, way thicker than necessary, with what seemed to be bedsprings tossed in for reinforcement. I thought of her tackling that slow and arduous job when I picked up a shovel and started digging the trench for the foundation of our kitchen addition 20-some years ago. You just do it. You just start somewhere.

When I was in the sixth grade I pestered her one day to drop what she was doing and come pick me up at school because I felt sick, or had talked myself into feeling sick, or whatever; I basically just wanted out. Every minute in that particular school was two minutes too long. She had been staining boards for shelving and showed up at the door of my classroom in an old white work shirt well-spattered with Minwax Red Mahogany. Some of the other snotty kids had a thing or two to say about my mom’s clothing the next day and made me feel, briefly, like I wished my mom had put on a clean shirt before she came to school. But before long I was proud of her for that day, especially given that I wasn’t so much sick as I just hated the sixth grade, and she was doing me a big favor to come bail me out. Sixth-graders are prone to care more than they ought about what the other kids think, and mom set me straight: other kids are usually idiots. That was a lesson in parenting that stuck with me: yes, I will come spring you from a school that feels like a jail once in a while, but don’t expect me to also take seriously the foolish chatter of status-conscious 12-year-olds. The mess on her shirt represented honest work — more honest, as it happens, than my claim of school-day illness. Priorities, my child, and a lesson learned.