For seventh-grade gym class in 1965, we paid $7.00 for a white one-piece knee length jumpsuit with an elastic waist. When a very proper physical education teacher wearing a skirt, cardigan, and nurse's shoes handed us our gym suits, we knew she meant business. The suits would be bleached to remain white. They would be starched to remain crisp. And they would be ironed to appear neat. All laudable goals for clothing you'll sweat and play crab soccer in.
There was one more thing. Our names had to be on our gym suits-but they couldn't be inked with a laundry marker. Our names had to be embroidered.
I took my gym suit and the teacher's demands home to mother. She responded as I would respond to such a demand today, "I don't embroider. Your gym teacher will just have to live with it."
In junior high, peer pressure is a funny thing. Being laughed at by your friends for non-conformity is a disgrace exceeded only by having your parents appear with you in public. I whined about the need for my embroidered name. I added the usual, "you've ruined my life," to the embroidery fiasco. I stomped to my room to prepare for the next day's humiliation.
The next morning, I awoke to find the white symbol of tackiness bleached, starched and embroidered, lying on my dresser. I touched the cursive, red letters-"Marianne Moody." I thought my antihumiliation prayers to the Clearasil gods had been answered with a shoemaker-and-elves kind of magic.
I bounded down the stairs to show my mother. She was busy making breakfast for four children. On the kitchen counter were red embroidery thread, a book of instructions, a needle and several pieces of fabric showing an experimental "M" and "a." I instantly knew that I was looking at my elf. She only said, "I didn't know what color you wanted, so I picked red since red and white are your school colors."
I knew she probably hadn't slept. She made this sacrifice simply to hone a skill she'd use for only one night, allowing me to avoid humiliation at the hands of my peers.
Even as a shallow 12-year-old, I understood the embroidered gym suit was red-letter proof of her feelings for me. We exchanged a hug and I thanked her. But I never again spoke of the red embroidery until now.
Each Mother's Day, I worry. I worry about parenting. I worry about my children. I worry about me as a mother.
And I wonder. I wonder what my mother did that taught me the qualities of empathy, honesty and work. I wonder how my mother planted in me the desire to always return to her home and visit. I wonder how my mother makes home feel so good.
I question whether I need to buy another book about children and self-esteem. I ask if I should attend a class or seminar teaching how to be a fun parent.
Each Mother's Day, I want answers. I want to know I'm doing the right things.
As I look back on that morning of lettered surprise, I realize the chore of that embroidery is symbolic of what makes a good mother. I can see it in my children. My oldest thanks me for getting up early on Iowa Test days to fry bacon. My toddler hugs me when I pick him up at preschool for a very simple reason. "Mommy, you remembered the lettuce on my sandwich," he explains.
They never say, "Remember the day you spent $200 on me?" or "I'm so happy we have a new car." They only remember their tiny needs that were important to their mother.
A good mother is selfless. Sleep is not an issue when a child is in need--whether that need is physical or emotional. And that selflessness tells a child of love.
My mother's one-night stand with the crafts helped give me self-esteem. She put everything aside to prevent what was-to me-an impending catastrophe. It was an act of bonding-an insurmountable obstacle had been overcome together. It was an act of service. It was an act of love. It was a lesson in priorities.
In these days of Might Morphin' Power Rangers and birthday parties with pizza tokens, it remains a lesson that love is shown in non-materialistic ways.
My gym suit is a symbol of motherhood to me. My only wish this Mother's Day is that someday, somewhere; there is a task, teacher or equally challenging craft waiting for me and my children to share.
I still have the white gym suit. There's no way it would fit in the hips (it didn't in seventh grade). But I still take it out and touch those red letters-the letters of a novice embroiderer. They're thick, and a mass of knotted thread is hidden inside the gym suit.
As I touch those letters, I can see that exuberant morning once again. I can feel my mother's hug. When she is gone, those letters will be her legacy. On dark days, they'll remind me I am loved. Letters of red thread still touch my heart and soul.