A Legacy From My Mother

clothes line

It’s a dreary rainy day as I write this. Nature has provided me with a platitudinous kind of feeling and an opening statement that is devoid of originality. The situation in which I find myself is confusing. I keep track of the time and the passage of each day by attempting to create a kind of routine that reminds me of my five year old self when my mother was a stay at home mom and my father was a young man with a promising future.

Back then my mama created a repetitive schedule for herself that I too used to mark the rising and setting of the sun. If I put on my “Monday” underwear in the morning I knew that my mother would be spending the day washing clothes and I would get to help her hang them on the clothesline to dry in the sun. When our things had been warmed by gentle breezes and solar rays we would take them from the wire lines and place them in a wicker basket. Then Mama would show me how to fold each of the clean pieces and together we would put all of them away save for those that required ironing. They were set aside for the Tuesday duties, a task that she demonstrated to me but never allowed me to undertake until I was many years older.

To this day I derive pleasure from a clean load of clothes and I use the methods of ironing that my mom taught me as I watched her deftly sprinkling water from a bottle and then using the heat to remove all of the wrinkles. Of course during this current time of pandemic neither I nor my husband wear clothing that needs to be ironed. We are more likely to don jeans and whichever t-shirts happen to catch our eyes. We don’t even worry about losing socks from the monsters inside the washing machine and dryer that eat such items. Our feet are mostly bare and as free as they were on summer days when we were children. Our freedom nonetheless is constrained by an invisible virus that keeps us at home and causes me to remember each day of my mother’s seemingly confining routine. 

After the laundry chores of Monday and Tuesday my mother allocated Wednesday to sewing and mending, a task that was more creative and interesting to her. She was quite clever with cloth and made most of the dresses that I wore along with those for herself. I always enjoyed accompanying her to choose the fabric and look at the pattern books from Simplicity and McCalls. Mama was quite meticulous with her measuring and if a seam was not perfect she would rip out the threads and begin again. Everything had to lie just so. Her finished products were worthy of the tailors on Savile Row and if I was lucky she would design lovely clothing for my dolls with the extra fabric.

My mom worked in the yard on Thursdays even in the winter. There was always a flowerbed to be weeded, a plant to be fed, or a tree to be trimmed. She was not quite as gifted with a green thumb as my Grandma Little, but her yard was always stunning. She liked climbing vines that flowered in spring and old fashioned shrubs like gardenias. She grew fig trees and pear trees and then used the fruit to make jams and other delights. I loved those Thursdays when we spent whole days outside putting our hands in dirt and delighting at the sounds of the birds.

Friday was house cleaning day, a time when Mama prepared for the weekend. She was as particular with cleaning a toilet as she was with her sewing. The process had to be done just right and as I watched she would demonstrate the proper manner of reaching every nook and cranny in which germs might lurk.

Fridays were quite busy because we changed the sheets, dusted the furniture, swept and mopped all of the floors. I had a job even though I was only five. I was very serious about dusting the wooden surfaces of everything in our home. I dared not miss a single inch because I felt so wonderful when my mother complimented my efforts.

Fridays also meant an evening at my Grandma Ulrich’s house. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather there as well. We had a raucous time with the adults playing poker and the kids inventing games of every sort. I treasured those times then and to this day they remain one of the most wonderful aspects of my life.

On Saturday we would go shopping with my father. It was a day filled with fun and surprises. My father often wanted to buy new records for his collection and so we would visit a music store where they allowed us to preview the recordings before purchasing them. I so enjoyed putting on the headsets and listening to my father’s selections while sitting in between my mom and dad.

We’d always end our adventures with a visit to the grocery store that was filled with the aroma of baking bread and coffee being ground by machines. My father always convinced my mother to add some cookies or ice cream to the cart and he would smile knowingly at me as though we were co-conspirators in some plot.

Sunday somehow felt more like the end of the week to me than the beginning. We attended mass at St. Peter’s Church and then visited my father’s parents. My grandmother almost always took me and my mother on a tour of her yard which was as glorious as a photo spread in Southern Living magazine. Then Grandma would finish up cooking a spectacular meal while I had the privilege of setting the dining table with her china and silver. We’d end up sitting on the front porch talking of life and watching the neighbors parade down the sidewalk on their afternoon walks.

I suppose that I have kept my sanity during this time of isolation by emulating my mother’s habits. I keep track of each day by creating a kind of schedule. I give myself regular chores to do and routine tasks to perform. I make certain that I set aside a time for reading, and even more for writing. I have a washing day and a cleaning day, a lesson planning day and a teaching day. I insist on exercising and walking on my treadmill even though doing so only reminds me of the sameness of quarantine. I call people that I know each day to see how they are doing and to let them know that I am thinking of them. I have devised a sense of order out of a confusing and often chaotic time and it calms me.


These days I often find myself thinking of my mother who so happily and pleasantly performed her household chores while teaching me how to derive pleasure from simple tasks. I don’t recall her ever complaining that she was stuck at home doing jobs that might have seemed meaningless and unimportant had she not tackled them with so much joy and pride. How could I have known way back then that her example would sustain me in a time when I might otherwise have been filled with bitterness at the losses that we have all experienced? This woman who seemed so simple in those times would eventually become a warrior in my eyes as she battled untold tragedies and challenges always with that same gratitude for life that she conveyed to me on those routine days when I was still an adoring child of five.

I know I will endure this COViD-19 experience regardless of where it takes me. I’ve learned from the best how to take each day as it comes and make meaning out of even small endeavors. Regardless of where this all goes my mother’s legacy of  joy will guide me.

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