Things my mother taught me: Live your life like a boss and ‘go out with your boots on’

     Joan Leof (right) is shown with her mother in this undated photograph. (Image courtesy of Joan Leof)

    Joan Leof (right) is shown with her mother in this undated photograph. (Image courtesy of Joan Leof)

    “You’re just like me!” Mom said proudly when I wrote my first poem at age 8. “You’re so creative.”

    I beamed. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than to be just like Mom. She could do everything!

    She wrote poetry. She played the piano. The walls of our home were covered with her art. And she had a wealth of literature at her fingertips. When I misbehaved, she always knew just the right line to quote to teach me a life lesson.

    Later, as an adolescent, I was no longer so sure I wanted to be just like my mother. “I’m Jack of all trades,” she often said, “master of none.” Mom seemed to flit from one art form to another, never quite focusing on any of them.

    I didn’t want to be like that.

    The hurt outweighs the good

    Although she personified self-expression, my mother couldn’t handle it when I tried to express my own unhappiness about our relationship. I hated the fact that she moved us from the vibrant city to the boring suburbs, and that she favored my sister and brother over me. To my frustration and anger, she refused to get me the help I needed.

    When I reached my 20s, our relationship improved. Because I was so busy teaching and working toward my master’s degree that I hadn’t a moment to spare, she not only planned my wedding, but helped decorate my first home.

    Yet later, when I went into therapy to deal with the pain of my divorce, all the anger I’d felt toward Mom as an adolescent reared itself again. I allowed my hurt to drown out the many good things she’d done for me. For a couple of years, I withdrew from her completely.

    Finding compassion through understanding

    Then Women’s Lib came along when I was in my mid-thirties, enabling me to put my mother’s life in context. Her creativity had encompassed more than just the arts. She had been a real pioneer! In the Roaring ’20s, my mother was the first woman to swim around Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. And in the 1940s, long before women’s consciousness-raising groups, she started a “Thursday Night Group” where women gathered to discuss personal and social issues.

    I came to understand, too, that Mom’s lack of mastery of any one art form was a result both of the times she’d lived through and her own marriage. Her father died when she was five, leaving my grandmother with four children to raise. In an era in which women were not encouraged to pursue professions, mom and her sisters ended up working to support their brother through college and law school. Nor, after she married, did my father encourage his wife to focus on one of her many talents.

    In my own forties, my creativity began to flourish. My essays were being published, and the ideas I came up with as a public relationships associate for a Philadelphia hospital received accolades and awards.

    I was eventually able to realize that my mother had been a role model for these achievements. She didn’t just inspire my love of writing. She gave me the gift of wholeheartedly plunging into a new endeavor. Too many people hold back from trying new things for fear that they won’t be good enough. With this adventurous risk-taker as a role model, hesitation was never a problem.

    When my mother saw how I was thriving, she said, “You’re doing what I wish I’d been able to do. You’re a better me!”

    For the first time, it struck me that this creative woman had never been able to realize her dreams. My compassion for her was awakening.

    Jack of all trades, master of life

    Mom faced many illnesses as she aged. She handled each challenge with courage, always committed to living life to the fullest. When emphysema forced her to give up her beloved little red Honda, she got a little red scooter, dubbing it her “fire engine.” Strapping on her oxygen tank, she’d zip around her retirement community. Nor did wearing that oxygen tank deter her from her favorite activity — singing in the community chorus.

    “I’m going out with my boots on!” she insisted.

    At her funeral, too emotional to speak, I asked a niece to read Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / and treat those two imposters just the same” are words that I summon to this day when I want to channel my mother’s strength.

    Fortunately for us both, I was able to realize, years before she died, that the refrain my mother uttered throughout her life — “Jack of all trades, master of none” — had a deep irony. My mother may never have mastered a particular art, but, as far as I’m concerned, she was a master of life.

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