My mother, Jane Espy, and I just went to New York City to celebrate her 80th birthday.
My stepfather, age 86, stayed home in Savannah while my sister-in-law, Bee Espy, came to stay with him so that my mother and I could make our trip without worrying about him.
Like most mothers and daughters, when we were younger, my mother and I had our moments. But in recent years my appreciation for who she is as a person and her kindness to me has brought us closer together.
When we got to La Guardia Airport and were waiting for our luggage, my mother was beating up on herself.
“I think I’m losing my memory,” she said. “I forgot about how many ounces you can take on an airplane. They took my hairspray and my detangler.”
“I don’t remember everything either,” I consoled her. “Don’t worry about it.”
And then she and I proceeded to walk all over New York.
We walked from our hotel at 44th and Fifth Avenue to Grand Central Station, then took the subway up to 86th Street and Lexington walked from there to the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 82nd and Fifth.
We waited outside in the rain to get in, then walked all over the museum for about five hours before she decided it was time to go back to the hotel for a rest.
We hung out until it was time to go for dinner and a play, then walked around Times Square.
“Can you take a picture of my mother and I?” I asked another mother and daughter admiring the sights at Times Square.
“I can’t believe you’re 80,” the other mother said to my mother.
My mother doesn’t act like an 80-year-old. Since I’m currently 58, I’m paying attention! Here are four good lessons she has taught me about how to age well:
- Everybody has feet of clay. In other words forgive everybody for everything. A couple of years ago someone – not to mention their name – lied to my mother and stepfather. This involved a matter of money. Feeling protective of my mother, I was ready to bust their chops but my mother wouldn’t let me. She wasn’t really even angry. My mother doesn’t like everybody – and we all know who those people are – but she doesn’t hang on to anger, bitterness or resentment.
- Show up and pray. My mother and stepfather attend Christ Church Savannah every Sunday without fail. Whenever I go home to visit, I sit faithfully with them. My brother attends another church, but after attending a sermon conducted by the Episcopal Bishop of America, my brother basically asked me if he might be missing something. “It’s a big snooze fest,” I confided. I have grown accustomed to the meaningful sermons and relaxed atmosphere of Mt. Paran Church of God in Atlanta. But when my mother came to my church, she told me she missed the music back home. My mother and stepfather both exude a quiet spirituality. This energy acts as a reserve from which the rest of us – the rest of the family – draw a deep sense of peace about the overall process of life.
- Well behaved women seldom make history. Years ago my mother gave me a framed picture she had created in needlepoint with this famous saying by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian. Although on the one hand there had been much family insistence that I be well-behaved enough to be a Savannah debutante (a process I truly hated), once I made my debut I was off the hook, thank God. When I have made egregious life choices my mother has never admonished me. She finds quiet ways to support me even when I make mistakes.
- Be generous all the time with everybody. When we were at the Metropolitan Museum, I stood in line to get tickets while she went over to a computerized monitor to try her luck there. She got two adult tickets for $25 each. When I asked her later how much the tickets were, she said, “I could have gotten in for $17.” Why, I asked, had she not taken the senior discount? “I figured they need the money,” she responded. This is par for the course. My mother is a professional level giver. Another year she was volunteer of the year at the Telfair Art Museum in Savannah because she had worked for free as their bookkeeper and treasurer. “Don’t give me anything for Mother’s Day,” she keeps insisting. Her thought is always others first, herself second.
Although these lessons do not appear to be about the process of aging, by following these principles my mother maintains a zest for life you seldom find in people even half her age.
The usual stress and friction that get other people down do not seem to bother her.
I know our relationship has progressed to true friendship because now my mother sometimes asks my advice, chiefly about matters of her health.
I am quick to give back whenever she asks. How could I not?
How did I ever deserve to be born to such a wonderful mother?