May 1, 2015

Nancy Lane: Essay "My Mother's Crown"

Nancy Lane graduated from UCLA and began a career in the computer industry as a programmer. She later worked in the aerospace industry as a software process analyst. Nancy moved from Southern California to the Portland area in 1997. Upon early retirement, Nancy wandered into creative writing. Nancy writes short stories and essays, focusing on good people and positive themes. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the AARP Bulletin and IVJ.

My Mother’s Crown

Kindness is not an innate quality, but taught and learned. As I was growing up in the sixties, my mother showed me ways to help others, such as holding a door open for someone in a wheelchair or picking up something dropped by an elder. My reward for each act of kindness was a star in my crown. I didn’t question what that meant or when I would see the star-studded crown. Just being told by my mother I had earned another star in my crown was reward enough.

Living in a Los Angeles suburb, we didn’t know much then about homeless people. We knew of hobo's living a nomadic life in encampments along railroad tracks. We knew of blocks in downtown Los Angeles where people lived on the street, with only cardboard boxes for shelter. Homelessness seemed a distant problem. My mother donated to the Salvation Army and other charities helping desperate souls we never saw.

The first time I saw a homeless person holding a sign was in the late seventies. I stared in amazement, reading the imploring words that had been scrawled by a bearded man with long, dirty hair. He wasn’t in a blighted urban neighborhood, but in a supermarket parking lot in Mission Viejo, a well-kept suburb in Orange County. Homelessness had grown beyond its boundaries, pushing out from hidden encampments and well-avoided downtown blocks. The homeless and hungry had become prevalent and visible.

My mother and I enjoyed conversation and juicy burgers in a fast food restaurant in upscale Marina Del Rey. Looking out the window, my mother spotted a man looking in the dumpsters for food. She knew exactly what she wanted to do. She bought a meal to go. I was concerned about my mother approaching the stranger, not knowing how he might react. I watched as she walked up to the man, addressed him, shook his hand, and handed him the meal. I instantly realized she had given him much more than the meal. She had treated him with kindness and respect.

Another time when we were dining out, a young woman at another table caught my mother’s attention. The young woman wistfully eyed the meal on her plate. My mother recognized a troubled spirit. As we left, my mother approached the young woman, and, handing her cash, told her, “Get yourself something really good.” I didn’t know how my mother’s actions would be received. But my mother knew. The young woman got up from the table and threw her arms around my mother, fighting back tears so she could express her thanks while hugging my mother. I knew then the gift of a meal meant little compared to the joy the young woman felt by having someone care about her.

When my mother was eighty she could barely walk due to arthritis. I helped her with her errands every Saturday morning, driving to the store and doing her shopping from a list she wrote in a large scroll. She also wrote in large handwriting on an envelope, which she decorated with hand drawn flowers. She usually wrote something like, “We hope this will brighten your day. Things will get better for you.” She stuffed the envelope with singles, some fives, and a few quarters – an amount usually totaling about thirty dollars. She pressed me into service to find someone homeless on the street to whom to give the envelope. As her eyesight was poor, she relied on me to find the right person.  

My mother taught me how to read peoples’ spirits. Each Saturday, I parked the car and approached a man whose face reflected his despair. I told him how my mother would like him to take this envelope, a little cash to help with a meal or two. I offered a handshake and asked him his name. I wished him a good day. This man, John or Robert or Steve, also wished me a good day, smiled and walked away with a little cash and a little hope in knowing that someone cared. This Saturday errand was the highlight of my mother’s week.

My journey beside her took a sharp turn when she was diagnosed with dementia. Now she is eighty-five, and the days of flowery envelopes with encouraging words are lost along with other days we just can’t seem to reach anymore. These Saturdays when I pick her up at the assisted living facility, she asks me if we are going to feed the cats. I sometimes answer her question five times before we reach the church, where I go into the office and leave bags of cat food for Jerry and Doug, two homeless men who pick up the cat food weekly so they can feed stray cats at their campsites.

Throughout the years, my mother has always looked for ways to help others: friends, neighbors or strangers. When our Saturdays together end and my mother is no longer on Earth, I will look to the night sky to see my mother’s starry crown. 

~Nancy Lane

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