Strength is half the story. Kindness is the balance.
I was not a morning person growing up. In truth, I’m still not much of a morning person. I’ve always found that they kind of annoyed me, that I was grouchy in the morning and everyone should be the same just until I am able to wake up and brush my teeth and pour a cup of hot coffee. In many ways, my mom and I are very similar, but this is not one of them. I remember mornings in the school year where mom would bound down the hallway, dogs in tow, singing “Good Morning, Good Morning” from Singin’ In The Rain. It’s her favorite musical. When that failed, as I had grown used to this tactic and stubbornly ignored it as I got older, she would sic the dogs on me. Our Border Collie Rex would leap into my bed and lick my face while Barkley, a Giant Schnauzer-Chow Chow mix, would pull at my blanket to get me out of bed. It worked every time. I was a beast in the mornings, and sometimes I would take it out on mom. She was always there, always understanding that I didn’t want to go to school, and that I just needed time to wake up. She cheerily went from chore to chore, waking up the next sibling and the next while all of us shuffled from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen, all with the dogs following her from room to room. The dogs adored my mom. She’d watch the birds with her coffee while dad made breakfast for both of them, she loves the finches. The ones that have the cute little chirp on a brisk spring morning make her feel like a Disney princess while she cleans up for the day.
Motherhood seems to always have been destiny for her, and not just to her own kids. My mom has a heart big enough for every kid and person who needs a mom. I can’t tell you how many friends came from broken or damaged homes and just found a spot in our family. I can’t tell you how many stray people from church, or through her walk of daily life, would just become part of all of our lives because mom saw that need in them. Animals, too, found a spot in mom’s exceptionally expansive heart. Mom loves animals. It’s not a savior complex, it’s not because she feels that she’ll be able to go to heaven if she just takes care of others, it’s not a karmic concern. Mom does it because it’s just who mom is. She loves everyone she meets from the get-go, and even if she doesn’t, they’d never be able to tell. It is almost impressive to see how quickly my mom makes friends. As a realtor, she finds ways to make an impact on people’s lives beyond the homebuying process. She takes people into a difficult and sometimes heartbreaking time in their lives, and creates peace for them. As a pastor, she’s found missions in helping refugees find and build a life here in the United States. She’s just a mom to everyone.
But that starts with her own kids. My parents had 4 kids in 3 years, and by the time they were done they were in their mid-20’s trying just to figure it out. Dad worked a lot, and traveled for work, so we spent a lot of time with mom. She would find a way to make things fun. We had a tiny, two-bedroom house in Minneapolis on Thomas Avenue. Once a week, she would do the laundry. This involved throwing all of the laundry onto the stairs, which was easier than a young mother carrying a bunch of baskets around a tiny house with 4 hellions running around playing, and a Border Collie trying to gently herd them back to her. We’d slide from the top of the stairs, on the laundry, to the bottom of the stairs. Mom didn’t encourage this, but any port in a storm, and as long as we didn’t get hurt doing it, it kept us occupied. Mom was doing her best. I was the oldest, my brother Jake came next, and then there were the twins, Joe and Ashley. It wasn’t easy. Our time “on Thomas,” as we say, was difficult for my mom. She was run ragged with 4 kids and a husband who was just trying to work so that they could get ahead and get into a bigger house. Mom had some side gigs, including using her experience in a floral shop to make wedding arrangements, bouquets, and boutonnieres. Eventually, it clicked. We moved into a large house in Elk River, Minnesota, when I was in 1st grade. I still remember that house as the one that I want now in my adulthood. Mom was still working hard with the younger siblings, dad continued his growth in his career, and things started to get a little easier. Not a lot, but a little.
Eventually, dad found a good job with Eli Lilly in Indianapolis. They bought a house in Fishers, we gave away our Border Collie, Webster, and moved to Indiana. My parents’ hard work had them looking up. We found a church, which was really the first time we’d gotten involved in the church as a family, at Cross and Crown Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, right by the Allisonville shopping center. It was here that we made a ton of family friends. Mom found her best friends, Marci Harris and Karen Minnis. I never really knew Karen, but Marci was like a second mom to us. Her kids and our family are still friends, and we stay in contact to this day. It was that friendship that really pushed my parents to begin homeschooling us. From third grade until sixth grade, I was homeschooled by my mom.
Another lesson in the patience of my mother, the constant grind of educating her own kids and preparing them for life was only made more difficult as we got older and the boys began fist-fighting and breaking things. We’d have “quiet time” once a day, when we would all go to our rooms for an hour so that mom could have some time where she could get things done or take a nap without worrying that the house would burn down in her absence. I wish I could say that worry was unfounded. There was a time, even with her home and attentive, that things just kept happening. We were playing “magic” with a refrigerator box, and we didn’t have a sword, so we just put a screwdriver through the box, which ended with my brother Joe getting hit in the head with a screwdriver wielded by the oldest brother who will remain nameless… OK, it was me. There was also the time when mom and dad had purchased a new couch, and there was a slit cut in the back with dad’s pocket knife, and some ravioli was poured into the couch. Joe took the fall for that, but that was also me. I wasn’t a great kid all of the time. But mom never got over-the-top angry. Sure, there were days her patience were tested, but mom always responded with patience and loving-kindness. That’s the thread through all of these stories, my mom is a fundamentally kind person.
Mom often jokes that we don’t remember any of the good things from our childhood, and while the eventful things were not always positive, the good things are so plentiful they were mundane. Even when times weren’t good, mom tried to make them good. When my dad lost his job, and they lost the house and the car, we found a townhome and we still had Christmas. Mom loves Christmas, something that she’s instilled in all four of her children. Not having Christmas wasn’t an option. When we didn’t have much money for food, she came up with creative recipes that were fun. Even though she wasn’t the cook of the family, she found ways to keep us occupied. Sure, it was exhausting and it was definitely not easy, but at the time none of us really thought about it. Mom and dad made it easier for us, even if it wasn’t for them. She used to play this character, Roberto, and chase us around the house with a wooden spoon and a goofy accent like a crazy chef. She’d let us do her makeup while she watched TV. We’d go to the neighborhood pool and hang out in the summer. She’d take us to the Childrens’ Museum of Indianapolis, to the Harris’ house for a play day, or to the movies when we could afford to go.
One of my favorite trips, as the resident nerd, was to the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. It was Valentine’s Day, and my parents took the whole family. I got to see Bockscar, the plane that ended World War II, and I got to see many of the aircraft that I had grown to love in my study of history. We got to have Chinese food at a buffet, and we were about to go into the part of the museum I’d been waiting for: the stealth and modern military planes. I was giddy. Then something happened. The left side of mom’s face began to droop, and she had some issues with her left hand. She was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, and while it was eventually taken care of, it was a long and arduous process that placed additional emotional and financial strain on my parents. But the medical incidents weren’t done. My mom suffered a panic attack one day, and I found her hyperventilating in the kitchen. I was scared. My dad rushed home from the office, took her to the hospital, and my mom’s friend came to sit with us for a while. My grandma flew down from Minnesota and stayed with us for a couple of weeks. We didn’t know how bad it was, but I knew it was bad. It was really difficult for us.
But mom kept on, just as she had for years, welcoming new people into our home. My sister’s friend, Stephanie, who came in from difficult home life, became part of the family. Janelle, another of Ashley’s friends, became a fixture at our dinner table. A neighbor across the park, Evan, one of my friends, would come over frequently. We became more and more involved in the church, and my mom began running children’s ministry and taking in more kids. Despite the difficulty, my mom just kept trying to find ways to help other people. Mom and dad got involved with Alpha, they were running the Sunday School program, they were working abroad with Latvian missionaries and ministries. My mom worked with Tanzanian ministries in Africa. Any way that she could help, she stepped up. It’s a lesson that I’ve taken into my adulthood: if you don’t help, you don’t know that anyone will, and someone needs to do something.
When we moved back to Minnesota, mom had every reason to stop, and she didn’t. She built a new children's ministry at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Circle Pines. She got ordained. She became a leader at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills. This culminated in a trip to Ethiopia about 5 years ago with Stand Across the Nations, a group devoted to building women’s empowerment through Christ, through 3DM Ministries. Mom got brought into this by Jo Saxton, a close mentor and one of the lead pastors at North Heights, and Gina Mueller, a close friend. That led to her work with Eritrean refugees in the United States, and to her friendships and service with those people. She welcomed more of our friends into the family. We established an “open door” policy at home, where people could come in and find a seat, and they’d find family. Mom’s ministry life was one 20-year long lesson in building relationships that weren’t transactional. These people didn’t owe her anything, there was no expectation, there was just a warm, welcoming love that allowed everyone in and turned absolutely no one away.
In all honesty, if my mom were more focused on a political future, she could be one of the best. She can talk with the best of them, she’s friends with everyone she meets, she’s raised money and build action organizations. She’s held drives, put leadership groups together, and worked for different causes around the world. Not for any sort of power, or resume building for a run for public office, but just because it’s what she felt called to do.
My mom always said that we were really good kids, but that her three boys would need “strong women” to keep us in check. My wife Lauren fits that bill. In many ways, she and my mom are very similar, but not in every way. Lauren often says that if my mom were Catholic, she should be canonized. My brother Jake’s wife, Tawny, was one of the many, many people that walked through the door with her own baggage and family history, and into my mom’s loving embrace. Joe’s wife, Grace, shares mom’s love and faith and service-driven nature. Having three women in the family who recognize mom’s amazing patience and strength, and who emulate the best parts of her, is really a testament to how well my parents raised us and how loving that relationship was and still is to this day.
The last part of my mother I want to highlight is the deep, deep compassion she demonstrates every day. I remember two stories vividly. The first was almost 20 years ago now, in 2004, when my mom found a sweet cat under the deck on a cold day. She didn’t take it in immediately but said that if the cat was there the next day, she was going to take it in. The cat was there the next day after it had snowed. She coaxed the cat out with some food, and she was friendly. Mom brought her to the vet and get her shots, and she was now a member of the family named Gracie because she had survived by the grace of God. Our other cat hated it. Mom didn’t care. The second story is about when her grandmother, my great-grandmother, died in 2010. It was Christmas, mom and grandma’s favorite holiday, and my Grandma Baker was not doing well. She’d been fading for some time, and it was clear that she would not last more than a few days. Baker was the matriarch of that side of the family. Mom was with her when she passed, and she’d described it as the slow approach of peace. But even as mom was grieving, she was still working to make sure everyone else was OK. She asked my girlfriend, now my wife, to sing at the funeral. Mom gave the eulogy, a beautiful testament to the brilliance of the woman we were about to bury. All the while, mom stood as the leader of the family in that moment. Despite all of her pain, and all of the reasons she could have just sat down and let someone else do it, she got to work and did what no one else could find the strength to do. Something that only a mother has the strength to accomplish.
Today, Mother’s Day, I wanted to write this to show those who follow me and read the things I write how proud I am to be her son, but I’m going to take the rest of this to write to her directly.
I wish there were a way to express all of the ways you’ve impacted my life. In many ways, the job of a mom is to raise kids to the best of their knowledge at the time and abilities within the constraints of the constant stresses of life. There are always days when you don’t have as much energy, and the exhaustion creeps in, but we never saw that side of you for more than a flash. It was constant love, an outpouring of positivity, and the installing of a brilliant optimism and care for others that shows in all four of your kids today. When we were very young, you and dad used to tell us that we represent our family and our parents wherever we go, and we should act like it. At church, at school, in life, and after we’ve all grown and moved into our own lives, that lesson was always the greatest and most impactful. All of us simply want to make you proud.
I once heard the phrase “if you want to see the measure of a parent, look at how their kids behave.” You raised four kids on a shoestring budget, through medical problems, stress and anger, and at times some of the most ridiculous and difficult circumstances in your personal and professional life that someone could deal with. Never once did you or dad take it out on us. Never once did you make us feel that stress. You absorbed it, like a shield, and turned it into a masterclass in how to live in service to others. Dad may have built my love and understanding for history and politics, but I learned how to love people from you. You may joke that we don’t remember what you taught us, but I remember all of these lessons.
- Treat everyone you meet with kindness, and you’ll never struggle to find friends.
- Show respect to everyone and you’ll find partners in every fight.
- Faith isn’t religious, it’s a state of being.
- Hope isn’t blind optimism, it’s an educated projection.
- When people say things about you, even when they’re hurtful, make them regret it by showing them unending love and generosity.
Even as you now become a grandmother, and the next generation gets the privileged chance to learn these lessons from the world’s best teacher, your love and kindness and acts of service continue to plant seeds of brightness in the world that will eventually sprout into great movements for kindness and empathy.
And one day, when my time is done, and someone asks me what my biggest regret in life is, I will have to say that it’s that I couldn’t be more like you. That as hard as I try, I will never love as deeply, I will never care as strongly, and I will never hope so persistently. I will try, but there is no matching the endless, bountiful depths of the woman who raised me.
I love you.
Happy Mother’s Day.