I thought I knew everything by the time I was fifteen.
Yep, that was me.
And no, I’m not proud of it.
Today, when I speak at high schools and colleges, I encourage young people to be especially kind to their moms. Why? Because I’ve spent the last several decades trying to make up for being a rebellious and sometimes mouthy teen. Although the now 97-year old matriarch of our family is relishing every moment of being indulged and pampered by Your’s Truly, I suggest to the students it would be easier if they would simply appreciate, respect, and honor their mom now — no matter how smug or superior they might be feeling. “Begin today,” I tell them, “do this and you won't need to carry around a suitcase of guilt for a lifetime.” This remark nearly always gets a chuckle and inspires a few red faces. These kids know who they are. And so do I. They see themselves in me and I see my teenage maverick self in them.
When I disclose Mom’s childhood nickname for me —P I A (Pain in the #$%) they usually perk up and say, "Really? That’s abuse!” I tell them, "Please don’t judge my Mom."
I earned every letter of it.
At the end of my presentation, I stand at the exit door to personally meet and acknowledge each student. Having a one-on-one connection is important to me. Often the girls ask if they can hug me. Other students want to share their dreams, aspirations, and even troubles. I like listening and encouraging them. Had it not been for the adult mentors in my life, including teachers and bosses, I wouldn’t have even survived my youth. I become even more excited when one of the kids mentions to me, “I’m going to start being nicer and more respectful to my Mom because of your talk today.”
I can die now. My purpose on this earth has been fulfilled—making life easier for even one mom on earth.
Okay, maybe that sounds like an exaggeration or a Catholic girl’s guilt. My remorse is deep. And even to share this story with you is a bit well, embarrassing. My Mom never deserved any disrespect. Everyday she is an example of grace and love in action. She is patient. She is kind. And she never gave up hope that one day I would turn into a reasonable, functioning human being.
By example, Mom taught me you can’t change yesterday and you can’t control tomorrow. What you can do is love well today. Thank God I woke up and saw mom for who she really is — one of the wisest and most loving individuals on this earth. Today, as her daughter, I joyfully serve her without guilt, only gratitude and love.
Might we be on this earth to be teachers for one another?
A friend of mine recently told me when a loved one, especially a child or close family member, says something mean-spirited to her, she pretends she’a duck and lets the unkind remark roll off her back. I believe that’s what my mom did when raising four kids. To survive, she learned to let a lot of things roll off her back.
My mom thought she was a duck.
Mom, I’m sorry if you ever felt you needed to duck.
You are not a duck.
You were never a duck.
Mom, you are a peacock.
(Cheryl’s Mom, Julia Karpen, age 97 and her granddaughter, Piper Kaylynn, age 18 months.)
I can see you now. And you are magnificent and glorious.
As a little girl, I lived a charmed life in a rural community. As the youngest of four children, Mom might have been a little tired by the time I came along, or so I’ve been told. As a result, I had more freedom than my older siblings. I was a free-range kid. My painted Shetland pony — Happy and I — would gallop down our gravel road and hit the trails with other horsey friends in the morning, eat P & J’s at a neighbor’s picnic table at noon, and top off the day with a visit to check out the newborn baby pigs at Behun’s Pig Farm. I’d return home for dinner about 5:00 pm, likely covered in dust or mud, ready to eat our farm to table dinner.
Folks called our house Grand Central Station because we would likely have a surprise drop-in guest at our table— and their wife and four kids. No wonder, to this day, we kids love to invite strangers or newfound friends to celebrate holidays around the family table. Looking back on it, this is where important life lessons were being taught: like how to have an adult conversation, the art of debate (Chevy vs. Ford), and discussions about how to help a neighbor who was sick or in trouble.
My Dad was a good man and made his living as a fireman, and a tree farm owner. As the sole breadwinner, dad never earned much money, yet as kids, I don’t recall ever feeling poor or lacking for anything. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who had given up her childhood dream of becoming a beautician so that she could nurture her children to live their dreams. You see, Mom didn’t need a fancy title or a degree because titles never really impressed her. Come to think of it, Mom Karpen, the Fireman’s Wife lived her purpose every day of the week.
When neighborhood kids were in trouble, they’d sit at our kitchen table trusting Mom with their deepest fears and secrets; stuff they couldn’t tell their own parents for fear of judgment or discipline. Self-taught and widely read with great books, especially about matters of the human heart — Mom was an extraordinary human being— a counselor, and an adopt-a-mom to many. Whether a young person needed a shoulder to lean on or a pillow to cry on, mom would provide it. While others had this symbiotic relationship with my mom, I marvel today why as a teen, I did not.
Mom knew and understood a mother-daughter relationship can be complex. Like many moms, she was especially patient. (I can only imagine her nightly prayers, ‘Oh God, give me more patience and may my daughter move out of the house as soon as she turns 18!')
One moment remains vivid in my mind. A few years ago, I raced home from the printer excited to give Mom the first hot-off-the-press copy Eat Your Peas for my Mother. I placed the book in her hands with great anticipation. Yet nothing could have prepared me for her response.
As she turned the last page the book, and with tears running down her cheeks, she said, “I’m so glad I’ve lived long enough to hear these words.”
Mom was 85.
You don’t know what you don’t know.
Until you know.
Although I’ve apologized to Mom numerous times over the decades for those unruly teen years, I learned there is something about seeing an ‘I’m sorry,’ love, and admiration in the written word.
I’m reminded every day.
Rarely a day goes by I don’t receive a letter or a phone call about how someone was touched by an Eat Your Peas book. Many of these comments are about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships.
Megan wrote, “Growing up, my Mom and I didn’t see eye to eye. In fact, life was pretty rough at home. I could hardly wait to move out. Now I’m 32 and my Mom is my best friend. I can’t imagine life without her. Thank you for putting into words what my heart wanted to say.”
One mom and daughter wrote to tell me about an especially turbulent mother-daughter relationship. In fact, the two could hardly stand to be in the same room together. Her mother told me about how she gave her daughter Eat Your Peas for my Daughter when her daughter was sixteen and raved about how it seemed to soften her daughter’s heart. At age 23, the daughter paid the words forward and gave her mom, Eat Your Peas for My Mother. While on vacation together they had matching pea pod tattoos on their ankles as a symbol of their ‘peas promise’ to always be there for one another.
I know some of you are raising teenagers today and some days you just want to give up and send your once precious little one off to live with a Great Aunt Matilda in Kalamazoo, Michigan until they got their senses back. If you were pouring your heart out to my mom around the kitchen table, she would remind you ‘this too shall pass.’ After all, her kids turned out pretty well. And most likely, yours will too.
Today my relationship with Mom is unbreakable. After all, I see her beauty and she sees mine. We look at one another — in all of our messiness and know we are peacocks.
"We may not be perfect, yet we are perfect for one another, “ was Mom’s way of saying, “we're only human.” And that's what she let each one of her four children be—human. Mom let us kids trip up. Get up. And fall again. Time after time after time.
Mom never demanded perfection.
Not one single time.
And that’s what I hope to instill in my nearly two-year-old granddaughter, Piper Kaylynn, one day. Not even a peacock in all its glory is perfect. Each of us is a rare bird. Spread your wings and let the world see your truth and beauty, Piper! And when you get lost along the way, I’ll be waiting for you to find your way back home again.
Just like Mom.
Don't forget to share an Eat Your Peas for my Mother Gift Book!