Like most people, I have a bucket list, at least one I keep in the back of my mind if not in my purse. Sleep in a cabin in the Canadian Rockies. Travel to Italy with my daughter and stay in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Drive an empty pick-up truck to the biggest flea market in the world. Braid a rug. These are things still waiting for me.
But I also have another list, the one that contains all those things I could never do: sky dive, hold a live snake in my hand, eat liver. For most of my life I might have added “have my mother live with me” to that list. Just the thought seemed impossible!
My mom and I were cut from two very different cloths. She always saw the glass as half empty; I see it three quarters of the way full. She was a solitary soul who loved spending time alone reading, oil painting, and listening to classical music. I am never happier than when I am cooking for and feeding a crowd, singing to Motown as I dance in my kitchen. My mom loved anything in a peaceful blue color; I love a screaming shade of red! Not surprisingly, we struggled with finding the path to friendship through the years, so I gladly embraced the changes of life that took me away to college, marriage, and overseas as an army wife.
However, often those “could nevers” seem to be what the Lord brings to us, the gifts He purposely places into our needy hands because His plan is so much bigger than ours.
Nearly twenty years ago when my father died, my mother came to live in our home. A business loss and failing health had left both of them needing much help and a realistic evaluation of the situation told us this would be the best option. I was skeptical but our children were overjoyed, all five boys piling into one room so Grandma could have her own. We painted it blue.
Little by little we welcomed her into the life of a homeschooling family, including her in discussions around the dining room table, taking her with us on field trips from one coast to the other. My dad had not been much of a traveler so she was thrilled to be able to say she had “dipped her toes in both oceans!” She joined us as we visited museums, watched endless history documentaries, attended concerts and enjoyed homeschooling conferences. She was often the designated listener for little boys learning to read and her room became the favorite spot for crafts and projects. Many times something would prompt her to quote stanzas of poetry she had memorized 80 years earlier or to tell us the Latin meaning of a word. She sang hymns every day, reminded us all why she was a Baptist every chance she had, and listened to Donald Cole on Moody Radio in the evenings. And my children soaked it all in!
The fact that she had lived through WW2 as a young bride gave her a perspective on history none of us shared. One day she pulled out old black and white photographs taken of my dad while he was stationed in Guam, a handsome man, not much older than my sons. He sat in the shade of the palm trees, she told us, and made jewelry for her from shells he found along the beach. And, opening her jewelry box, she displayed the delicately strung bracelet he had crafted all those years ago. Once, after seeing a history channel presentation on WW2, she stunned us by remarking, “Oh yes, I remember coming down for breakfast one morning and seeing a picture of Mussolini hanging upside down on the front page of our newspaper.” Her firsthand accounts of nearly a century of American life brought a richness to our studies and our lives that we could never have imagined.
It wasn’t always easy. She and I often struggled over who was the mother and who was the child and she routinely evaluated whatever I was wearing, often reminding me of important things like “A lady does not wear white before Memorial Day.” “Oh, Karen!” she would scold about any number of things, which sometimes sent me retreating to my bedroom in tears, wishing I could be the grown up.
Then as time went by and old age began to take its toll, that all changed and I often found myself in the role of being her mom, reminding her to change her clothes, encouraging her to eat something other than dessert. Bathing on her own became difficult and I began to help her when she would let me. One day as I got out the shampoo, she begged me to not wash her hair. Suddenly I was five years old again, remembering the tangles in my own unruly brown curls and, oh my, the tears, pleading with her to not wash my hair. Sometimes she would give in; that day I did the same for her.
This past April, my mom passed away; she suffered from dementia and congestive heart failure. The last few days were not easy for her and as I sat in her hospital room and stroked her long white hair, I thought about how different all of our lives might have been had she not lived with us for the last two decades. Once last summer she surprised me by saying “The years I have been in your home have been the happiest of my whole life.” I believe she meant it.
In our early years of homeschooling, I continually evaluated each subject, each resource, one at a time, considering what my children would learn from them. I poured over catalogs and talked with other moms about curriculum choices. I struggled with trying to find the most comfortable teaching method for me and the most productive learning method for each child. I observed and measured their progress, praying diligently each step of the way. I filled a homeschooling bucket list with dreams, promises, and sticky tabs. However, in the end, so much of what really mattered was that the Lord powerfully used the relationships in our home, especially one with an elderly widow who had many needs, to shape their hearts and lives.
My “could never” was what He chose to change all of us, including me. Kindness, patience, tolerance, compassion, diligence, these are all qualities He wanted to teach us and, by God’s grace, He used my mom to be our instructor.
What are your “could nevers” and how might God use them in the life of your family?
(Originally published in Home Educating Family Magazine, 2013)