Lessons From My Mother
© 2024 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine
I’m writing this by my mother’s bedside, as she reaches the end of her life. She’s 93, and she’s lived a remarkable and rich life, with the deep and enduring love of my dad by her side for 70 years. She’s been a very lucky lady. But as I search for how I’m ever going to go on without her, I find myself thinking of all the wisdom and advice she’s given me over the years. Wisdom I hope I will carry with me, and a voice I hope I will still hear in my head, whenever I need it most. Because my mom was an incredibly smart woman—especially when it came to people, writing, and navigating challenging careers.
My mom is actually where I get my writing talent. And for decades, she was my best editor. She could have had a successful career at Random House, if she hadn’t had a stronger passion for saving the environment and making life better for people in inner cities—a crusade she carried on for over 50 years. The Bronx River today is a clean and beautiful refuge for New Yorkers in large part because of her efforts. And that’s just one of her accomplishments.
But one of the reasons my mom was able to effect such change in the world is that she was a master bridge-builder—even with difficult people. Everything I know about bridge-building, I learned from her. She had a passionate curiosity about people, which helped. She always wanted to hear people’s stories; understand where they came from and what mattered to them. And people warmed to that genuine, receptive interest. She also understood people’s need to feel appreciated and important. She’d ask questions, listen intently and patiently, and find some way to make whoever she was talking to feel seen and valued. Only then would she smile, reach across that bridge, and ask for whatever help or cooperation she needed from them. She made people want to help her.
My mom also understood the power of community. I asked her once how she’d found the courage to fight all those world-changing battles. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t take on any of those battles alone.” She’d build bridges and assemble support—partly, she told me, so whoever she was facing would see it wasn’t just her they had to deal with, but partly so she’d have people to give her strength and support, should events not go their way. None of us is strong alone. Even now, I recognize that I couldn’t be strong for her, when she needs me most, if I didn’t have the support of the community I’ve assembled to help me care for her.
In truth, I still don’t feel all that strong. But as I battle my terror at losing her, I realize my mom is also the one who taught me the most about how to control the paralyzing darkness of fear. The night before I took my Grumman Cheetah across the country (solo, VFR) for the first time, my mom called to say good luck. I must have sounded nervous, because—even though she was always terrified I’d get hurt or worse, flying airplanes—she said, “Remember this, honey. Fear lives in the future. It’s almost always about something we’re afraid is going to happen, not what’s happening right now. So if you feel scared at any point, ask yourself, ‘Am I okay right now?’ Usually, the answer is, ‘Yes.’ And that buys you some time and breathing room to figure out a plan to make sure you stay okay.” I don’t know where she learned that. Perhaps it was by battling so many fears of her own, throughout her life. But I’ve lost count of how often I’ve relied on that advice to keep my fears from overwhelming me—in my airplane, and in my life.
There were countless other lessons, over the years. More than once, she saved my professional bacon by cautioning me to think twice about what I wrote to people I was working with or for. “Never write anything to anyone that you don’t want the whole world to read,” she’d remind me. “You don’t know who they’re going to share it with.” I can also still hear her voice, after reading a draft of a letter or email I’d composed in annoyance, saying, “Well, honey, I don’t know that I’d put it that way. I understand you’re annoyed. But you’ll get a lot further if you can take the emotion out of it.” She helped me learn to write a venting draft first, and then compose a second version in pleasant, professional language—including, if possible, some wording that showed appreciation for the recipient’s burdens, job, or efforts. It was incredibly good advice.
She was a female politician in an era where she had few mentors or colleagues, and yet—with very little money or innate power of her own—she managed to win over powerful politicians, government agencies, and many others in her ultimately successful, quarter-century crusade to clean up the Bronx River corridor. I’m sure there were many times when she endured slights or discrimination due to her gender, but she didn’t waste a lot of time on that. She’d wave her hand, as if swatting an insect, and say, “Oh, well, that’s just … (Tom, Dick, Harry, or whoever).” She had work to accomplish, and she couldn’t afford to waste time on distractions. She kept her eyes on the prize—something I think she learned from her many years of working closely with women of color to fight community problems and injustice. And I learned how to do the same thing, just by watching her.
Perhaps most importantly, she taught me it was okay to be imperfect. When we read about accomplished women, we tend to view them as more powerful and perfect than ourselves. But my mom was open about her doubts, insecurities, and fears, so I learned it was okay to have them. And she made a point of always telling me how much she believed in me, even though she of all people knew just how imperfect I really was.
A few nights ago, I held her hand as she slept, upset by problems I felt unequal to solving … especially without her. She couldn’t have tracked the details anymore, even if she’d been awake. But I felt her hand tighten on mine, and saw her looking at me with light green eyes that were perfectly clear. As if reading my mind, she said, “My life wasn’t perfect either, honey. But you’ll be okay. You’ll figure it out.” I asked her how she knew that. Her eyebrows raised slightly in surprise, and then she smiled. “Because I did,” she answered simply. Her final lesson to me? That I am loved. And even if I don’t feel it, I am strong enough for whatever the world might throw at me.
My mother was a very lucky lady. But this I also know: so am I.