BY JEAN MARIE JOHNSON
While different in temperament and personality, my mother, Caroline, and I shared a love of birds, flowers, and surprisingly, words. Growing up in an urban environment, our birds were of the scrappy varieties, mostly sparrows and pigeons who managed to get by just like the rest of us. On these beautiful spring mornings, as I spread a bountiful buffet for my house finches and mockingbirds, I flash back to my mother spreading out our Wonder or Sunbeam white bread crusts on the overhang of our second-floor porch. “Mom, why are you feeding the pigeons? They’re ugly and they make a mess everywhere. It’s gross.” Her simple response was, “They are God’s creatures, too.” Well, there was no arguing with that.
It wasn’t just the birds who benefited from my mother’s generous heart. The youngest of nine children, Caroline always found a way to give, even when she had so little. “If you find any pennies on the way to school, save them for the poor box on Sunday.” We’d roll our eyes and one of us would respond, “Mom, WE’RE poor.” Of course, having none of that, she’d put a speedy end to the conversation with, “There is always someone poorer than us.”
Caroline applied that perspective to both material and spiritual matters, for the simple reason that she saw abundance in everything, especially people. Keenly attuned to the human spirit, she didn’t need a course in emotional intelligence, a personality test, or a knowledge of neuroscience to inform how she related with others. Interested in what made each person tick, people relaxed around her as their protective masks and world-weary personas softened. Caroline had a way of making everyone feel special, and worthy of the space they took up. It wasn’t a goal she worked on; it was simply how she was. Even our teenage friends responded to her warmth, her unconditional kindness, and her playful curiosity. Our humble apartment became a refuge of sorts, a haven for animals and humans who had temporarily lost their way or simply needed to feel accepted and loved.
Over time, I began to recognize and appreciate that Caroline was uniquely gifted as a person who lived her life with a heart wide open. A devout Catholic, she had a waiting list of Orthodox Jewish families who wanted her to be their children’s au pair. She was as fastidious of the traditions in those Orthodox homes as she was of her own commitment to saying her daily rosary.
And yet, she and I were more like oil and water than a perfect blend, our loving mother-daughter relationship, hard-won. Knowing this, we both did the work of understanding, healing, and moving forward together before it was too late. When Alzheimer’s came in hot pursuit of Caroline’s mind, she would not allow it to rob her spirit. She had things to say and more love to share. I can’t count how many times she would lean in, look me in the eye and say, “You’ll see, Jeannie. Getting older is beautiful…you get the wisdom.”
She never uttered those words in that preachy, “I know better” way. She spoke them like someone unexpectantly privy to an inside tip, one she needed to pass on to give me the strength to trust in tomorrow, and to respect the inscrutable mystery that is the process of living and maturing.
Eventually, I did see. I came to understand that “the wisdom” was nothing shy of a proper noun: The Wisdom.
For me, it is a gift worthy of reverence. I am exceedingly aware of four specific things I learned from my mother’s ripened wisdom:
- The “situation” doesn’t define you. You choose who and how you will be.
- People will always matter more than anything else.
- You can learn something from every person you meet – and it isn’t necessarily good.
- Listen to your intuition. Trust that which knows better than you do.
It is easy for me to imagine how Caroline would respond to the pandemic that continues to test all of us in ways practical and spiritual. She would choose to be positive, a light for others. She would spread kindness. And she would tap her Depression-era roots to embrace the trust that we will get through this stronger, wiser, and more loving.
I am so very grateful for my mother, my first teacher, my most profound example of what it means to live with a heart wide open. As for the wisdom? I trust that I am living into it, and when the moment presents itself, sharing the gift.