Who’s Your Role Model? A Long Overdue Homework Assignment

When my kids were in elementary school, every couple of years they’d get an assignment that asked, “Who’s your role model?” I always wanted them to pick me. Me, their mother. You know, the one who wiped their noses and packed their lunches and drove them to soccer practice and found their cleats at the bottom of the laundry bin.

They never picked me. They always picked their dad.

Well, sure. Dad was awesome. Dad was there for three of their waking hours each day, and those were the hours that involved dessert and story time, never cleat-finding or nose-wiping. Not to take anything away from my husband; he’s a fantastic dad. But I always felt a wee bit taken for granted when it came time for the “Who’s Your Role Model” essays.

So this week on the Debutante Ball, when we’re supposed to write about our role models, I’m picking that unsung hero of my own childhood, MY MOTHER.

WHO IS YOUR ROLE MODEL? EXPLAIN, USING SPECIFIC EXAMPLES

My role model is MY MOTHER because:

— She never complains. Even though she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 31 and multiple sclerosis at 44, she ran a successful antique shop and furniture restoration business until well into her 60s without bothering to mention all that crippling pain. Now, at 79, she also has chronic kidney disease, COPD, osteopoenia, and a host of other things I can’t pronounce and that require a two-page, single-spaced list of medications to manage, but she still never complains. Instead she worries about my dad, who she’s sure must be miserable with such an invalid for a wife. (She’s wrong, of course.)

— She never gives up. She buried her only son when he was 30 years old and somehow, to my continuing amazement, found the strength not only to go on living, but to laugh again, to travel, to enjoy her life even amid the grief that never lessens, and to love her daughters and her grandchildren all the more.

— She cares passionately about the world. About politics, about women’s rights, about climate change, about problems it will take far more than the years she has left to even begin to solve. She votes in every election, even though she lives in the reddest of red states and knows her tiny blue vote can’t begin to stem the tide, because it’s a right and a duty.

— She is unfailingly kind. She never has a bad word to say, even about exceptionally rude waiters, and when she’s being stubborn she digs her heels in so politely that you don’t realize how difficult she’s being until she’s already gotten her way.

In short, my mother is my role model because that tiny woman whose head barely reaches my chin and whose bones would shatter if you hugged her too tightly is, hands down, the strongest person I’ve ever known.

Did I pick my mother for my own fourth grade essay? Honestly, I doubt it. When we’re children, we see our mothers as extensions of ourselves. They are our fingers that tie the laces, our hands that knead the dough, our feet that carry us home. We take them for granted as much as we do our limbs, and assume they will always be there, bearing our weight when we ask them to. It’s not until we’re grown, sometimes not until we’re parents ourselves, that we see them for the pillars they were all along. Or, in the case of my mother, not just the pillar, but the foundation and the beams, too.

So, Mrs. Strickland, if you’re reading this, here is my real fourth grade essay, 41 years too late. And Mom: though ten-year-old me may have looked right through you and said her role model was Helen Keller, fifty-one-year-old me knows a real role model when she sees one.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 5 Comments

  1. What a beautiful tribute to an amazing woman – and what an interesting thought of why we don’t choose our mothers as our role models. You are so right! When we’re younger (and perhaps even when we’ve grown older), we see them as extensions of ourselves.

  2. So true that it’s only when we share their experiences that we appreciate our moms fully. Hoping this happens to my dad-adoring daughter. Lovely tribute, Heather.

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