With Mother’s Day being celebrated this month, I thought it the perfect opportunity to reflect on the many wonderful things my mother taught me over the years. She will be celebrating her 78th birthday this year and I am feeling very blessed to still have her in my life and in such close proximity – we live only 40km apart!
My mother is one of the strongest people I know and choosing only six life lessons I learned from her is much easier said than done. As is the case with most people, her life was a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, joys and disappointments, good and bad times. But, throughout all of this, she would soldier on, always believing in her cause and helping in her own way to make the world a better place.
Life lesson 1: Women are equal to men
My mother taught me that there is nothing in the world a woman cannot do and I should never allow anyone to tell me otherwise. She is a very determined person, something I definitely inherited from her. Apparently one of the first phrases she could say as a little child was “Ich wille” which means “I want” in German. If she puts her mind to something, she will get it done – come hell or high water.
My mother started her professional career at a time when the majority of women were stay-at-home moms. She got married in December 1961 on her 23rd birthday – a few weeks after graduating from university. My father always knew that she wanted a career of her own and supported her wishes while sharing the duties of raising a family and running a household, but for many people in the community it was just not the done thing at the time – the wife was supposed to stay at home.
In the workplace, the few women who did work earned less money than their male counterparts – there was just this belief that “the husband should provide”… My mom fought very hard with a handful of other women at the tertiary institution where she worked, for all women (married and unmarried) to get equal rights and equal pay. They caused a lot of controversy with their never-ending petitions to the authorities, but they persevered and in the end they won.
For a long time, women also did not get any maternity leave. It is hard to fathom, but my mother gave birth to me on a Saturday and returned to work on the Monday. She did not get any maternity leave for my three siblings either. Only years down the line, women finally got the maternity leave they so deserved and needed.
Life lesson 2: Never lower your standards: If you can’t do something properly, don’t bother!
My mother taught me that you should always take pride in your work. Throughout her professional life, my mom was an incredibly hard worker with very high standards. Despite working full-time, raising four kids and doing voluntary work in the community, she managed to make time to study for her Master’s degree. For her chosen field, she needed to attend extra courses and complete many challenging assignments and exams, not to mention the dissertation. Many years down the line, she told us adult kids that she would even hide in the bathroom to study in peace and quiet!
Despite all this, she made time to help us with our many school projects, plays and extra-mural activities, and always pushed us to do our very best. Our school projects were super professional and always handed in on time. (I think my mom actually enjoyed the projects even more than we did! I remember once confusing my dates and doing a biology project instead of a science project –with the help of my mother, we produced a science project within a weekend for which I – well, actually my mother! – got 80%.)
Life lesson 3: Give back to the community
My mother has an incredibly big heart for the community and nothing has ever stopped her from doing what she felt in her heart was the right thing to do. She supported the local child welfare organisation and helped to arrange Christmas parties and holiday activities for the children. She taught Sunday school classes for many years – her classes were super interesting, involving arts and crafts, songs and special outings that the kids really loved.
She also believed strongly that all the knowledge she was privileged enough to learn, should be shared with others. She drove alone on rainy winter nights to farms and disadvantaged communities to teach the locals many important skills – from sewing and making arts and crafts to earn extra money, to best budget practices for their small incomes and cooking healthy family meals on a shoestring. It was at the height of apartheid and people thought my mom was crazy to drive into townships and farming communities on her own, but she always said: “They are my sisters and my brothers. They will look out for me.” And they always did.
Nothing would give my mom greater joy than bumping into one of these women months or even years down the line and hear them tell her proudly how the skills she taught them made a difference to their lives.
My mom was also involved in an international professional society that focused much on community development and the importance of family in society.
Over the years, she travelled independently to many conferences in African and European countries and built important partnerships with her “African brothers and sisters”, even during the apartheid years when South Africans were understandably unpopular because of the country’s segregation policy.
Life lesson 4: Get creative
My mom is creative on so many levels. She danced, played the violin and had a beautiful singing voice. She was also very creative in making the most beautiful arts and crafts and designing and sewing beautiful children’s clothing for us, at a time when there was either nothing interesting available in the shops or everything was just too expensive. My mother always says that you should “steal ideas with your eyes”. She will see something in a magazine or in a shop window and then figure out at home how to make it herself, and often improve on the design!
She has also always been very creative when it comes to problem-solving. If something doesn’t work, there is always another way of doing it – you just need to find a different angle or approach. She doesn’t give up easily.
My mom is especially creative when it comes to making her money stretch – as kids we were often the guinea pigs of new soups and soya-and-lentil dishes she tried out to see what cheap protein meals she could create that were both delicious and cheap. These recipes she would then share with the poor communities she worked in.
But, despite all these creative ways of creating magic while saving money, my mother also strongly believed that you should permit yourself a few treats at times. The following German saying is one of my mom’s favourites – she even framed it and gave it to me many years ago. And it is something which has always meant a lot to me, especially in my poor student artist days: “Gönn dir was Gutes auch wenn du in Not bist, denn was nützt dir das Geld, wenn du erst tot bist.” It means: “Permit yourself a treat even when in need, because what would be the use of your money once you’re dead.”
Life lesson 5: Be super-organised
No-one is perfect, and neither is my mom. She is not the most organised person on this planet. She calls it “organised chaos” and gets really annoyed when anyone attempts to tidy up, because she will not be able to find anything anymore! When I was a kid, we often had to stop everything we were doing to search for my mother’s keys (again!) or some other thing that was “misplaced”.
In the process, I quickly learned to become super-organised as I hated the stress the chaos caused. My mom is also a bit of a hoarder. She hates to throw things away, because “you never know when you might need it again”! As a result, I hate clutter. I treasure small things that are important to me, but if a magazine or newspaper is more than a month old, I throw it out!
Life lesson 6: The world is your oyster
My mother loves to travel and learn more about other countries, cultures and languages. If you want to make her really happy, start talking about travels: your travels, her travels, anyone’s travels – her whole face will light up and she will tell you about all the wonderful places she has explored and all the things that she would still love to see. As a child I would listen with fascination and, in time, became just as addicted to travel.
I remember cutting out pictures of famous European landmarks from old travel brochures for my primary school projects, and paging through the many travel guides that were on her bookshelf. My mom also gave me lovely books to read about fascinating history, mythology and fairy tales from all over the world. We both love the joy of being transported into another world.
My mom always travelled on a tight budget, would do extra jobs to earn enough money for her travels and learned all the tricks to stretch that money as far as she could. She always believed to live and eat where the locals do, which is still the best advice today. “That is where you get not only the best deals,” my mom says, “you also get to know the real stories of the people behind the pretty postcards.”
I have travelled to many wonderful places in the world and met many wonderful people, but nowhere have I met anyone who is like my mother. She is the only one there is for me and I wish her the loveliest Mother’s Day and thank God for blessing me with such a special woman.