The #1 Lesson I Learned from My Mom – And That I’m Passing on to My Kids
8 minute read
2020 was a year that made us all stop and think. For me, I thought a lot about fear. About family. And about being a parent. A mom.
And since this coming weekend will be all about celebrating mothers, I wanted to take a moment to share about my own family, starting first with my mom, Kay Keenan. While she passed away several years ago, I still hear her voice at times. I think often about her bravery, the extent of which I didn’t fully recognize until recently. Her creativity. Her resilience. And finally, her kindness.
Kay grew up in rural Minnesota, and while many of her peers went straight from high school graduation into marriage and starting a family (this was back in the 1940s), she enrolled at the University of Minnesota pursuing a degree in art history. Not the norm. I never really appreciated until much later in life how bold it was for her to make this decision to attend college. To go a different way and forge an alternate path. Being a woman from the Midwest, college was not the route that was expected of her.
She loved art. And crafts. Any type. She hugged her creative side. She was an art history major; however, we would learn later that that would not define her – but I’ll get to that in a minute. It was at the University of Minnesota where she met my father, Bill Keenan. She was playing softball in a rec league (can you imagine!), and Bill was writing for the school newspaper. He mentioned her in a story in the sports section: “The softball was not that great, but the shortstop was a real ‘looker’.” My mom called him out for that comment when she saw him at a party a few days later. He then asked her out on a date, and the rest, as they say, is history. They married after graduation. Soon after, my mom did put her career ambitions on hold to raise me and my four siblings. She never put her creativity on hold, though, always crafting something, always working on some sort of project.
We moved to Arizona when I was just a few years old. (My dad grew tired of shoveling snow in Edina, MN where we were living). My mom picked up work here and there as a substitute teacher. Probably the first time I remember witnessing her “entrepreneurial” spirit was when she took it upon herself to reach out to the heads of the Phoenix and Scottsdale school districts and convince them to let her teach a small program she had developed teaching art history as a volunteer. She wanted kids to be able to recognize some of the great artists – Picasso, Renoir, Monet and others – how to appreciate their work, understand who they were and why they were significant. At her funeral, a few of the kids that I grew up with recalled how my mom’s lessons on “the greats” lived on with them.
Looking back, I feel like there was a countdown in my mom’s head as I approached kindergarten age. She decided that she was ready to try something new and pursue retail. Fashion. While I think she definitely had an interest in fashion, she also was excited to make a little more money than she was getting as a volunteer AND she could socialize with other adults – something that she really missed. She ended up working in the children’s department, given how much she knew about kid’s clothes, and she frankly became a bit of an expert there. It definitely was an adjustment to having her out of the house, but we all supported my mom’s decision to go back to work. She needed that independence and outlet too for her creativity.
She was in her mid-40s, pursuing an entirely new career. Learning new things. Meeting new people. And she loved it. I always wonder if she knew she was setting an example for me. For all her kids.
Kay Keenan wasn’t thinking about what she couldn’t do. She didn’t allow those walls or doubts to ever get too high. She knew she could always go back to a career in art history or volunteering too. If she needed to or wanted to. And she did always continue to do those things on the side, including taking up quilting in her late 50s. She always figured out what she wanted to do, always looking to learn new things – and she did them.
My mom influenced and inspired me in so many ways, both in life and in motherhood – and as I said above, some of those lessons I’ve only come to appreciate in the years I’ve spent in her absence. So, I also wanted to take this moment to impart some wisdom as a mom of 22 years myself.
To my own kids. Here’s what I have to say to you:
First of all, being your mom has been the greatest joy of my life – and the greatest challenge for sure. Nothing really prepares you for being a parent. It may sound cliché to you. It certainly did to me when people (my own mom included) said it over the years. That unconditional love from the minute that you entered this world. And even during pregnancy when I anticipated your arrival. It doesn’t matter what order you came in. Or your gender. There is nothing I love more than being your mom.
I love hearing the four of you enjoy each other so much. Whether it’s laughing with each other in the kitchen or talking with each other on the phone. Emma, Kaitlin, and Keenan, as you all experience your own worlds in college and Justin in high school, I often think of the legacy I will leave for you. How I may be remembered in your eyes. Much in the same way my mother left her legacy for me and my siblings. I wonder if you will look back at the lessons I tried to share with you, consciously and unconsciously. If you will find value in them or if you will laugh a bit and see them as “mom talk.” So, humor me for a moment and allow me to impart a few nuggets of wisdom – many of which are passed down from a previous generation.
– Find what you enjoy doing and do it well. There is no greater example of this than your grandmother, who spent much of her life pursuing her creative passions. She had a keen eye for making our world a more beautiful place, and she certainly loved doing just that.
– The world will do its best to fit you in a mold and tell you to go a certain way. Just know that it’s okay to take your time and change your mind. Maybe you’ll choose to pursue a fashion career in your mid-40s (or for that matter, maybe you’ll decide to use your life savings to start a beverage company in your mid-30s). Don’t be defined by the restrictions and the perceptions that others have of you. Make your own path.
– Don’t fear making mistakes. You can always go back to what you know if you try something new and don’t succeed at it. The worst thing is not trying because you believe you might fail.
– If an opportunity doesn’t present itself, create the opportunity yourself. The local schools in Arizona didn’t have an art history program, and your grandmother knew we would all benefit from it. I’ll never forget the people who came to me and told me what a difference her teaching made to them.
– Be authentic and vulnerable. When you’re true to yourself, you will show those beautiful sides of yourself to the world.
– Be kind. And grateful. No one will ever fault you for this, and you will feel happier too.
– And always know that you are loved beyond words.
Happy Mother’s Day, all!
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