My Mom Wasn’t Perfect – But I Sure Do Miss Her

Kurt Wilkin and nephew Evan Spencer

Raising responsible, respectful, and courteous children is the easiest thing in the world to do, followed closely by enjoying a joyful and contented marriage with no bumps along the way – said no one ever!

 With Mother’s Day just around the corner, the world is going to be inundated with glorious stories of “Mom” – superwoman with no flaws. She raised you to be an astronaut. She kissed your boo boos while making homemade ice cream. She fixed your hair, enthusiastically guided you in your ridiculous science projects and then skipped cheerfully to your next sporting event.

As much as I would love to write that article, I also want to keep it real. Life is not all about rainbows and unicorns. Even when we remember the “good ol’ days,” it’s important to be authentic, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I’ve committed to you that I would be authentic and invite you into my world – warts and all, so that you can learn from the chaos. Second of all, I believe that our warped memory of the “good times” tends to distort the picture of what truly was, which leads to unhappiness in the current moment. We tend to think that we used to be “so happy,” but alas, we’re now sad.

She deprived me!

Like most mothers, my mom did the best she could. Sure, she made some mistakes along the way, but she ultimately provided her family with unconditional love and a few life lessons that have stuck with me to this day.

For example, my mom instilled in me a sense of adventure and experiences over accumulation of stuff. Full disclosure, I wasn’t a fan of this strategy at the time. In fact, I remember a few stupid tantrums I threw when I didn’t get what I wanted. I may have even thought that she was a bad mom!!!

I was the youngest of four, so not only did I get stuck with hand-me-downs, but we didn’t have much room in our family budget! So, when my friends were getting Members Only jackets (you remember those if you grew up in the 80s), I was getting the much cheaper Sears version. Or, while my friends were flipping countless channels with newfangled cable TV, I was stuck with the three channels that rabbit ears provided us!

What I didn’t realize at the time was that those decisions, plus my mom’s squirreling away a few dollars a week from her meager paycheck, allowed us to afford the cross-country driving vacations that provided so many memories for me and my siblings. I definitely remember those trips but I don’t much remember what I couldn’t watch on TV!

 A little background

Elsie Ann Brown was born in March 1927 in the town of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Life must have been pretty tough for a kid there in the forgotten tundra of North Dakota. First of all, she didn’t have a smartphone and I don’t think she ever got a participation trophy – she sure had it rough!  Seriously, she grew up during the Depression and her family endured blisteringly cold, northern winters. A fact she would hammer home later when she lovingly reminded us that she used to have to help her Dad cut blocks of ice out of the river to use throughout the year in their icebox. The stories were effective, because our chores didn’t seem so hard after hearing them.

My Mom (on the right) with her sister Barbara in front of a dollhouse they built and played with for countless hours!

Despite the rough years of the Depression, she was always smart and hard working. In her era, most girls got married young and started their families immediately. She may have felt pressure to settle down with some nice boy from Grand Forks, but she didn’t. She struck out on her own, graduating high school a year early, and then attending and graduating from the University of North Dakota; earning a degree in Journalism.

She didn’t want to settle for the safe and comfortable bet. She always wanted to branch out, explore, take the road less traveled. As a young lady, early in her journalism career, her spirit of adventure led her to take a transatlantic flight to Europe in 1950 to see the sights, eat the food, and experience life. Today that seems almost cliché. Who doesn’t do a semester abroad or go on a trip to Europe before the age of 21? Okay, maybe not everyone does it today but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was virtually unheard of! Not too shabby for a small-town girl from North Dakota.

But she kept doing amazing things. After graduating from college, she landed journalism gigs in even smaller towns in South Dakota. Then adventure made its siren call and she packed up what little she had and moved to the city. THE city – New York City. She wanted to make something of herself and playing it safe was not good enough. As a small-town girl, she struggled at first. She eventually overcame significant odds and landed an entry-level job with TIME Magazine during its heyday. She worked her way up to Lead Researcher and earned a spot in the magazine’s masthead (essentially the page in a magazine that lists all of the editors, owners, and “important” people).

Lessons Learned from Mom

I like to think that my mom’s trip to Europe and decision to leave the safe confines of her small town impacted my life, even though I wouldn’t be born for a few decades – my mom hadn’t even met my dad yet. This obviously set the stage for our family’s sense of adventure. Sure, her whiny kids had to make some sacrifices, but it was my mom and dad who bore the brunt. In the toughest of times, they would make personal sacrifices so that we could go somewhere together and create memories. Instead of having nice cars or eating the best meals, mom and dad would save up for a two-week car jaunt to Yellowstone or the next weekend camping adventure.

That spirit of exploration and creating lasting experiences are traits that truly impact our family to this day. Just last month my nephew, who is just getting started in his career, was presented with the opportunity to travel to Toronto to take part in a premiere for a documentary film for which he had done some research. The documentary was about Willie O’Ree, the first black professional hockey player. When he asked my advice on whether or not to spend the money and the vacation time to go, my mom spoke through me. “Absolutely – do it,” I said. “There are many times in life when we are presented with an opportunity to go on an adventure or take the safe way out and stay home – seize the opportunity!”

I love what Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) says in Shawshank Redemption, “get busy living or get busy dying!”

My mom would have been proud. Don’t get me wrong, there are sacrifices that go along with this strategy. For us, that meant things like no eating out, and at home we didn’t eat expensive meals like steak very often. In fact, we ate a lot of chicken thighs, liver and onions, and whatever was on special at the grocery store. We didn’t get new shoes until long after we probably should have. But the experiences and the memories were well worth the sacrifices!

More Back Story

Ultimately my mom and dad met in New York City, fell in love, and decided to move out of the city to raise their family. I’ll save the details for a later article but here are the highlights. My mom left TIME to start a family and stay home with the kids. My dad was a small-town Arkansas boy who was smart and well-educated (Auburn undergrad in engineering and an MBA from Penn’s prestigious Wharton School). They moved to Dallas to raise their family. But in the early 1970’s he got the entrepreneurial bug and decided he would go off on his own, so we loaded up the family and moved to even smaller town Arkansas to start a business. When his entrepreneurial endeavors flamed out, we moved to South Louisiana in 1975 (I was seven) for the first company that would hire him. So, most of my childhood was spent there. Now you see how messed up I am – coonass, redneck and hillbilly, all rolled up into one package!

My mom dressed me funny!

Evidence of how bad my mom was can be found in this photo from approximately 1975. First, who drives a crappy Volkswagen with a family of SIX?! How did we all fit in there? Maybe that’s what the trailer was for? Then, who let’s their oldest son (my brother Eric) style his red hair as a bright orange afro? By the way, that’s a respectable version of his afro, at one point it was 12 inches high! Lastly, let’s go to the worst of the bunch. What am I wearing? The shorts and socks are bad enough – but that shirt. Maybe it was a hand-me-down from my sister?

Okay, okay – we all have stories of crazy outfits we wore as kids, so maybe I’m not so unique. Actually, I’ll challenge you on that. If you have some bad childhood or family photos, please share them with me. I’ll be the judge.

Maybe she wasn’t such a bad mother after all!

When times were the toughest financially, mom got a job at the Folgers Coffee plant in New Orleans. She’d much rather have been home with us kids, but she did what she had to do to survive and put food on the table and a roof over our heads. Her hard work paid off, and she demonstrated one more very important lesson that sticks with me today – no matter how bad things get, no matter what life throws at you, you can overcome.

As I said before, my mom definitely made mistakes with us – all parents do. As parents, the best we can do is provide unconditional love for our kids and simply do the best we can. And sometimes even that is really hard! Especially when your kids push the boundaries, get in trouble, and become teenagers. The struggle is real! Will somebody help me preach!?

Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 12, 2019

Unfortunately, my mom is no longer with us. She passed away from cancer in October 2008. Don’t feel sorry for me, she was 81 years old, married for 49 years, and lived a full life. I was very fortunate to have her in my life as long as I did. Years before she died, she would tell me that “no matter how old you are and what you’ve accomplished, there are simply times in life when you need your Mommy.” Every time I think about her telling me that, I do two things: (1) I reflect on how right she was, and (2) I start to cry. I definitely miss my mommy…some days more than others!

Mother’s Day is coming up on Sunday. I’ll reflect on those life lessons I learned from my mom:

  • Raising kids are hard!
  • Fashions change – and no matter how good we think we look, in 40 years we’ll probably look back on how ridiculous we dressed.
  • When you have an opportunity to go on an adventure – seize it!
  • Life is better spent living experiences versus accumulating stuff.
  • There are going to be times when the going gets tough. Be resilient and buckle up buttercup. Get up, dust yourself off, and get back to work!

Cheers to moms everywhere. You are remarkable human beings and you absolutely deserve your own day! Happy Mother’s Day. I invite you to check out our tribute to Moms of HireBetter for a sneak peek into what we appreciate about our moms, grandmas and wives. What are some of the lessons your mom instilled in you? I want to hear them!

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