I used to think I’d been really short-changed by Mother Nature. Born into a family of smart, attractive women, I must have been day-dreaming the day she was passing out her gifts because, while she was giving my sister brains, beauty, and personality, the only gift I got seemed to be a set of smarts associated exclusively with my derriere. My parents, however, were much more egalitarian about the gifts they gave us. They made sure we left home equipped with at least a modest command of manners and survival skills. And, in the fourth grade, my mom gave me the gift of writing.
Our family was living in Peru for a few months while my dad was working with a pediatric clinic there, and, contrary to what we had hoped, we were not going to spend the Peruvian summer goofing off. A former high-school english teacher and future history professor, my mom was adamant that she would keep us caught up with our classes at home.
My sister and I knew she was getting the lesson plans and materials from our teachers before we left, but somewhere in the corner of my mind I still nurtured the idea that I would be able to weasel out of any serious studying for the next few months. After all, my mom was – literally – (and is) the nicest person you will ever meet. I rarely hear her raise her voice, and, even in what should be a heated confrontation, she manages to keep a civil tone in her voice. It was not until we were going over my abysmal report card from the previous term that I realized how badly I had underestimated her resolve.
One gift I did get from Mother Nature was an olympic-calibur ability to daydream through even the most interesting class, and, at the time, I didn’t think fourth grade was too interesting to begin with. Determined to put a stop to my academic apathy, Mom decided we would work on the research projects together. The school had decided on the themes, but together (kind of) we settled on at least one book report, with mom promising I would learn to write at least one well. She kept her promise.
Under her gentle but unyielding tutelage, I learned how to write outlines and how to write a draft. I learned the word diction, and I learned how to take criticism without breaking down in tears (tried it at least once, still had to study). Almost completely my will, she gave me her literary gifts, and, at the time, I showed as much gratitude as if I’d received a fruitcake for Christmas.
When we got back to the states, Mom’s determination had put me and my sister ahead of our classes in her two favorite subjects. The experience set the tone for the next few years, and she continued to critique our papers. There were fewer and fewer tears, and, by the time I got to high school, I had acquired a taste for fruitcake (which, as some of my old classmates may remember was pretty evident in at least one thing I wrote for our entertainment).
We all know the joke about fruitcakes – that there’s really only one that’s been eternally re-gifted from one family to another over the years/decades. Right now I’m wrestling with the challenge of re-gifting a love of writing to my oldest son, and he’s just as excited about it as I was when I was in his shoes. I spend a lot of time wondering how my mom made it interesting, even when she was making it hard. And, on those nights when I’m pushing him to rewrite and revise something, I realize there was a lot more than just a love of writing that was mixed into that fruitcake. There was love, of course, and there was perseverance and creativity. And from her aspirations for us, I have found inspiration. It is a gift I hope to pass on.