Lessons from Mom


On the day my mom turned 59, about 1,200 Southwest Airlines employees sent her cards, wishes, flowers and gifts. The one and only Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ C.E.O., called her, and his lovely assistant, Carolyn, sent Mom a one-of-a-kind glass heart that still hangs in Mom’s window, almost 20 years later.

This is not customer service gone mad, nor is it an act of kindness that got out of hand. There is more to the story. You see, my mom worked at Southwest, as a reservation agent, for 20 years.  She went to work 20 minutes early every single day to write notes and leave birthday cards for friends and people she never met. The notes might be small slips of paper, or inexpensive greeting cards, joined eventually with messages on the internal system.  Seldom did these messages contain more than the words, “Happy Birthday from Mary N.”

All of those cards became a thing, something people waited for and talked about.  Her supervisors, depending on their general demeanor, either loved or hated the practice, with some buying her supplies, and one telling her to “knock off that nonsense.”  Mom did not knock off the nonsense; she upped her pace. Instead of notes for five people a day, she sent them to 10, and as the company grew, she would send up to 30 messages a day.

That’s a lot of birthday wishes for one woman to send.

Each year on her birthday, Mom received cards, but for her 59th, well, that year her friends and followers went all out and filled her cubicle with love, joy, thanks, hopes and wishes. It is a day neither Mom nor anyone else in that office will ever forget. You see, my mom is the type of woman who never asks for praise, never calls attention to herself, but always does the kindest thing possible in any situation. She smiles at strangers, holds doors, even though she is riding a jazzy motor chair, and asks how you are, and really means it. On that birthday, seeing her face light with joy melted the hearts of everyone in the office, and more than one person had to dry their eyes.

I will confess, of all the lessons Mom taught me — how to hold a baby, how to work for what you want, and how to leave one wildflower when you are on a picking spree so it can be the seeds for next year — the lesson that didn’t take was sharing birthday wishes.

I am a bad friend, especially on Facebook, which must have been designed by my mom, as every day it gives me warning of upcoming and current birthdays, which I do not heed. I am not, unless the circumstances are just right and someone else is throwing you a party, going to send you a wish, buy you a gift or a card. I say it’s because I’d hate for anyone to feel left out if I missed them, but the consequence is EVERYONE feels left out as I ignore the day designed to make them feel special. Birthday wishes are just not my thing. It is one lesson, that try as mom might, just didn’t take.

But don’t despair, moms of the world, there are other lessons that did stick, the ones mom thought I should share with you.

Protect your health. My mom worked hard. She had five kids who needed to be fed, bathed, fed again, protected, educated, entertained, cherished and disciplined. There was never enough time in the day, but there were always three meals on the table. All that work meant choosing rest over a walk and processed over homemade from time to time. Now, mom is on dialysis three times a week and wishing she would have devoted an hour a day to exercise and paid more attention to her diet, so she wouldn’t have to devote 12 hours a week to a machine.

Be happy. There is always something to smile about, always a rainbow after the rain. I will not kid you, there have been some things mom didn’t deserve in her life, moments and incidents that were not in her favor. I have heard her cry soft tears, but never wail that it was unfair. In every situation, she finds someone to smile at, someone to whom she can lend a hand. She looks for the rainbow after the rain and taught me that tomorrow will be different from today. I hope, when the world rains on your parade, you too can look for the sunshine.

Stories matter. Mom grew up with her grandparents, and spent many an hour alone, as they took care of cattle and crops. When she wasn’t alone, she was with an old auntie, who taught her the love of flowers, or having a picnic with the entire family. They told her their stories of being early settlers in Wyoming and Nebraska, of the aunt who ran the town newspaper before women did that sort of thing and the great-grandfather who in the late 1800s grew 117 types of apples in his South Dakota orchard, to help discover the best varieties for the area. These are stories that first gave Mom, and then me, strength to move forward when sitting still was an option. Mom treasures those stories and parcels them out at just the right time so we can learn from them still.

You can do it. When divorce was the only solution, my mom took that path. It meant finding her own way and figuring out how to navigate a U-Haul trailer across the country when she’d never pulled a trailer or driven in a city. She learned to book people on Southwest flights before she’d been in an airplane, and she figured out how to get her health back after a dance with near death. Each time she succeeded, she made sure the lesson was for more than just her, that it was for me, and you, and others to follow. You can do it.

You can do it, whether it is wishing thousands of people happy birthday or figuring out how to eat well so you don’t end up on a machine.  And in the doing it, you are creating your happiness, writing your story, and you are making those that will follow you have an easier trip.

Today my mom lives in a retirement home and takes a flower or a note to each resident on their birthday, so I cannot end this story without telling you this. Happy birthday, whenever it is. I mean it from the depths of my heart, but I’m not going to put it in a card. That’s my mom’s job.




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