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I am a writer, a mom, and a friend. In this blog, I explore all of that. Please join me in this conversation by leaving a comment on anything you've read. Or follow me on Facebook @ Beth von Behren (author).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Today is Thanksgiving. It is also the 7th anniversary of the day my mother died. In 2002, she died on November 26, two days before the holiday, so each year on this national feast day, I think of her. It is ironic and sad that she didn't make it to Thanksgiving in 2002 because it was her favorite holiday. She loved to cook. She loved to eat. But most of all, she loved to be with her family. She loved cooking for her family. She liked Christmas too, but that was a day of gift-opening and other things. Thanksgiving was about family. Nothing was more important to my mom than her family.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to our mothers for giving birth to us, but my debt is especially huge because of what my mom had to go through to get me here. She was unemployed and unmarried and living with her grandmother when I was born. She had worked until about her sixth month of pregnancy because she was petite, and the pregnancy wasn't obvious until then, but as soon as she started to show, she knew it was time to go. Even married pregnant women didn't get to keep their jobs in 1958. Unmarried women were banished to obscurity and talked about in hushed tones for years afterward.

Appearances were very important to my mother. She taught me a lot of things in our years together, but two that stand out were 1) Get an education ("You're going to college, Beth, so you never have to be dependent on a man"), and 2) Never air your dirty laundry ("We may be poor, but we are middle-class because we have middle-class values"). No matter how bad it gets, she believed, always pretend that you are on top of the world. That's how you get and keep respect.

Knowing this about my mom makes her situation all the more amazing to me. Add to her unwed, pregnant state the fact that she lived in a poor, rural area, and that her father was a southern Baptist preacher ("We read the Old Testament, Beth, but we live by the New Testament"), and you have a situation that says everything you need to know about my mother's resolve.

My mom was a talented artist but did not finish high school and had never really wanted anything more than to have a baby and be a mother. Despite a context that would give most 23-year-olds deep anxiety, my birth gave my mother nothing but joy. She told me many times that having me was the best thing that had ever happened to her. When my own daughter was born 30 years later, I understood exactly what she meant.

So on this day when we dedicate ourselves to giving thanks for life and love and happiness, I give thanks for my mom, who looked her hellfire-and-brimstone father in the eye and told him she was pregnant, who raised me and my brothers on her own after her marriage failed, who pushed me to go to college, who taught us to reject hatred and racism and embrace compassion and forgiveness, and who never, ever expressed any regrets about her life or the path it took. Thanks, Mom.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Traveling Life

Birds have the best view of the earth. Well, birds and God, I guess. And humans who fly in planes. Today, I realized that seeing that long line of snow-capped mountain peaks from a plane, stretching into the horizon, reinforces for me that the Rockies really are a range, something that’s just not as obvious when you drive through them. I was similarly overwhelmecd the first time I noticed the Mississippi-Missouri Confluence from the air (the spot where the two massive rivers come together). It is truly the most amazingly beautiful sight from the sky. Maps don’t do it any justice, and you can‘t really see it from the road.

I guess I’d mostly flown westward from St. Louis prior to my first sighting of the Confluence or had never seen it or noticed it previously, but on a flight home from New Jersey we went right over it, just before landing. When I was a kid, when we were returning from a car trip and saw the Gateway Arch from the car, we knew we were home. It was both a peaceful feeling and an excited one. (And sometimes we even had contests to see who would spot it first.) When I see the Confluence from a plane, it’s a similar feeling. I love to travel, but I love to come home.

Of course, travel during my childhood was pretty much limited to car trips to my grandparents’ home in Sikeston, in southeast Missouri. Today, that drive is about a two and a half hour trip, but before Interstate 55 was finished between St. Louis and Memphis, it was more like a four or five hour trip along winding, two-lane highways with top speed limits of 45 mph.

For many of those years, we drove it in our baby blue 1962 Chevy station wagon, although I have a vague memory of taking the train once when I was very young. The car trip itself was never that much fun, and I often slept through it to avoid the motion sickness that plagued me in those years (and that still prevents me from enjoying carnival rides), but arriving on my grandmother’s doorstep vanquished the nausea and headaches the way a nice chocolate souffle after dinner will make a bad day better. I loved those weeks I spent with her, sitting in her lap (even when I was too big to do so, really), rocking in her rocking chairs (she always had a couple), watching her “stories” with her, and playing with my cousins. Leaving was always hard to do.

Today, travel is easier and more comfortable, even by car - better seats, sometimes with lumbar support, high-quality stereo options, air-conditioning, sun roof, working seat belts, better fuel economy, and cup holders. Oh my God, how did we ever survive without cup holders? Air travel is somewhat easier too, even in this era of high security.

I often wonder what my grandmother, who picked cotton, raised five kids during the depression, grew her own food, never saw an ocean, and certainly never flew on a plane, would have thought of seeing the Confluence from the sky. I imagine she would have thought that she had seen the face of God.