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Honoring the Dead

A few years back, my mother died quite suddenly of MRSA, in part of an epidemic that killed several children in the D.C. area. She was the only adult to die from it and, being a teacher, her death got national attention. Peter Jennings ran a report that featured her. The night she died, I went home to her empty house and was greeted by news crews. Very few people get to honor their parents in such a public way, so I talked to every media outlet that wanted an interview and ended up on TV, in the Washington Post and on some radio show somewhere. It was a great gift to be able to say nice things about her to such a wide audience.

Last week I was contacted by her church, who are starting up a scholarship in her name. They asked me to write an academic biography, as the recipients of the scholarship are high school seniors from her church that are carrying 4.0 GPAs. There’s really no better role model than my mom for academic excellence. We come from a family of academic overachievers; I am at least third in a direct line of women who believed in education above all things. My mother takes the cake, though, so it’s been fun going through her records and realizing that while I may be an unbelievable prat, she was even more so. My favorite part has been finding a letter from her to my grandmother in which she was worried that her average in military language school could drop from a 98% to a 95%. Mom, we are too much alike.

I am beyond honored at the scholarship and will be supporting it. I can think of no greater tribute. My mother was the classic case of a student that was overqualified to go to college, but had no money for it, but wasn’t going to let reality stop her. She joined the Army for the tuition benefits and started her first university classes while eight months pregnant with me and working full-time. This was after she had graduated from military linguist school, where she learned Russian well enough to be commended repeatedly for her contributions in translating military radio transmissions. By the time she was twenty-three, she was separated from my father, my primary caretaker and a sophomore in college. She went on to graduate Cum Laude with a Bachelors in Psychology and then a Masters in Education, all while being a single parent. In other words, my mother was a badass.

Writing her biography has reminded me of all the way I grew up on the University of Maryland campus, going to the library with her and helping her Xerox papers. I learned to read books and roam the library stacks to entertain myself while she was in classes. (True fact: university library stacks still give me shivers of absolute delight.) I sat by her night after night as she read textbooks and wrote papers on her electric typewriter that she bought for $295 in 1980. She’d had to put it on credit, but she paid it off month after month. Even when it was extremely difficult, my mother pursued her education. In doing so, she made me an unbelievable prat with the same curiosity for the world that she had. Writing about her has been an awful lot like finding myself. It has been a great deal of fun.

So, hey, thanks Mom. Thanks for it all.

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  1. joan joan

    decided to check in–you are a rock star and your mom too–nothing is greater than the gift of education–if you can learn to learn you can be and do anything!

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