At my mother’s funeral several years ago my Aunt Henri told a story that for me captured a key quality. We were visiting my dad’s folks in tiny La Mesa NM at the time, and one Saturday my mom took his sister Henri to El Paso, the big city forty miles south, for a day of shopping. Even though we were always close to broke and so they mostly window-shopped, it was the sort of excursion my mom enjoyed. Henri was a teenager, my mom about twenty years older. One of their errands was to buy a pair of white shoes for Henri’s marching band uniform. They did that, and window-shopped, and ate at the Kresge’s lunch counter, and shopped some more, and then Henri realized she had left the shoes somewhere along the way. They retraced their steps but never found the shoes.
I remember my grandfather as a fairly kind man, but I’m told he could have a fierce temper, especially with his kids. So Henri was pretty upset at the thought of having to tell him she had used his money to buy a pair of shoes and then promptly lost them. But my mom said, “Don’t worry about it, let’s just go buy another pair.” So they went back to the shoe store and my mom bought the shoes.
Buying those replacement shoes was no small thing. We didn’t have excess money, so my mom would have had to tell my dad what she had done, and he had a fierce temper of his own—not violent, but a seething black mood. But it doesn’t surprise me that she risked his anger, or that she instantly moved to address someone else’s difficulty, or—especially—that she minimized the whole thing.
And it doesn’t surprise me that my aunt chose that story to tell at my mom’s funeral. Such a small thing—or at least my mom made it out to be one—and yet it touched Henri deeply enough to be telling it fifty years later.
To me that story—and so many others about my mom just like it, all just as simple, all just as selfless—shows what it means in practice to bear one another’s burdens, to let love cover a multitude of sins, to esteem others better than oneself. I don’t know what it was in her upbringing that caused this to come so naturally for her, but it popped up in my own behavior over the years even before I started to take selflessness seriously, and I have to figure it was due to how she raised me. I’ve worked hard to refine that quality in myself, and though I’m intent on passing it along to my own kids it isn’t something I know how to teach, only to model.
Which I guess is good news—not only is modeling a behavior the most effective way of teaching it, it also requires me to practice it—and practice, and practice, and practice again.