I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things my mom used to say. I have a whole list of, now up to like 80 different things she used to tell me, funny truths about life, and I’ve written out 130 pages now of memories about them so I don’t forget. Then today Helen Keller and I were talking this morning about my mom’s journals. About having her handwriting, right there in front of us, a little piece of her. She had youth group lessons everywhere that John Wayne now has. Helen Keller, Dad, and I split the rest of her writings, holding them reverently like priceless treasures. Most of mine are from the 1990s when she was raising me, and I’m always surprised how close my own struggles are to those that she had at my age. She always seemed (to me at least) to be the wisest person in the room, so seeing in black and white that she worried about the same things as I do gives me hope somehow.
Anyway, Helen Keller and I were talking about these tattoos that people get of someone else’s handwriting, and I wondered what I would choose if there were one thing from my mom’s decades of advice that I was willing to have immortalized on my skin forever. I thought of this little note I found from my mom. It was a tag attached to a gift at my lingerie shower in 2007, where she had written out the words she’d repeated countless times in my life before I got married: “One moment of passion changed my life.”
Mom said this to me for the first time when Helen Keller was a baby. As Mom liked to point out often, my brother and I were “unplanned.” My sister, on the other hand, was the Awaited One. She was the one my parents prayed for. The one who was born when they were old enough to actually consider the consequences of bringing another life into the world, and decided that it was worth the risk and the pain and the money. Mom used to tell me how she prayed for everything about Helen Keller, from hoping that she would have thick dark hair, to hoping she would want to sing, to being independent…every single detail. Let’s just say Mom got what she asked for. Helen Keller has hair for days, a beautiful voice, and— as anyone who has ever spent more than 5 minutes with her can attest— is a leader, not a follower. But as a baby? She was a challenge. I used to tell my mom that Helen Keller was the best birth control she could’ve ever given me. Having a sister 11 years younger than me was infinitely more effective than any birth control pill could’ve ever been.
I remember my mom trying to do something as minor as trying to attend a meeting at church for an hour and leaving my dad, John Wayne, and I to take care of her little angel. Most kids, when they missed their mom, would cry for 15 or 20 minutes and then settle down. Especially kids who were in the safety and security of their very own house. Not Helen Keller. She could scream for hours. One time my dad got out this oversized trench coat of moms with her perfume on it and put it on while he held a six month old screaming Helen Keller hoping the familiar scent would trick her into being content. It didn’t.
Also, Helen Keller was the kind of kid who would never in a million years give up on anything she wanted. It didn’t matter if Mom and Dad said no. It didn’t matter if she was punished. It didn’t matter if they threatened her with every terrifying possible repercussion. She was not giving up on something she wanted. My grandpa used to say that about my mom too. That she would scream her head off until she got what she wanted, or until she got a spanking for refusing to stop screaming for it, and then after she was punished would still say, “I took my punishment. Can I have it now?” What I’m saying is, the women in my family know a thing or two about persistence.
Now, when Helen Keller was born, I was eleven years old and in the sixth grade. I looked a little old for my age, and my mom looked a little young to have a teenager. This meant that when we all went out together, most people assumed that Helen Keller was my first child rather than my mom’s third child. It also meant that I felt more like a little mom than a sister. This provided the perfect opportunity for mom to segue into all the reasons why being a mom was freakishly hard.
We would be out shopping, and Helen Keller would take off running, hide under a rack of clothes, and then get so still and quiet you would think she was an exhibit at a wax museum, all so we couldn’t find her. Or we would be at church and she would insist on standing on the stage in the choir instead of going to the nursery. Or we would be posing for my senior prom pictures and out would come Helen Keller in her Sunday dress, demanding that someone bring her a corsage and take her photo too. Or it would be the middle of the night and Helen Keller would be screaming her head off and refusing to sleep in her own bed until she was 8 years old, at which point my mom and dad put their feet down and demanded she move out of their room, which is how she landed in MY room to sleep until after puberty. Take your pick from these beautiful childhood memories. At each of these moments, I would stare at my mom in desperation, and ask her why in the name of God she didn’t stop with perfection (AKA me, her oldest child), and she would roll her eyes, and say, “All this for one moment of passion.”
One moment of passion, throwing common sense and caution out the window, can be the most pivotal moment of your existence. This was something Mom drilled into me for my whole life. As a caution not to have sex before I was married, mostly. A reminder that any time I allowed myself to be guided purely by emotion, I had to be prepared for the fallout. But today when Helen Keller and I were talking about it, I understood it in a whole new way.
Remember the Matt Damon movie “We Bought a Zoo?” There’s this line in that movie where his son is talking about messing up his friendship with a girl he really likes, and Matt Damon says, “You know, sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, just, literally 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you something great will come of it.” 20 seconds of insane courage. One moment of passion. These are the spans of time that can change a life. The moments when your whole life can suddenly take on a new direction and make perfect sense because you found something worthy of taking your breath away.
I thought of a conversation I had recently with My Crazy Lady, trying to figure out what in the world I’m supposed to do with the rest of my professional life. “I just want to talk to my mom about work,” I said. “I just wish she could tell me what to do. She always knew what to do. I remember when I was starting grad school and I was working full time, and the kids were like 4 and 3, and I felt so guilty all the time for taking time away from them to study so much just to further my career. She told me, ‘This is the perfect time for you to be in school. Now is the time they won’t even miss you. They’re being loved on by plenty of other people. When they’ll really need you is when they’re in middle school and they trust no one. That’s when you need to be there with them.’ And now I need her to be able to tell me what to do, just like she did then.”
“Well look at that,” My Crazy Lady said. “She already told you what to do. Mary Ann is in middle school now. She told you everything you needed. It’s inside you. You just have to remember it.”
One moment of passion. Finding that one thing that makes you feel alive. Being more present in my kids’ lives as they get closer to adulthood. The things that communicate to your soul, “This is it. This is the moment you were created for.” Something that is worth twenty seconds of insane courage. Something that is worth living through the 18 years of shenanigans to get to the end result. Like my mom and dad did with Helen Keller. One moment of passion is the key to everything. Figuring out that passion, and then facing down your fear and hesitation and uncertainty for just long enough to change your life.
I’m too much of a pansy to get a tattoo. But if I did? One moment of passion would absolutely be what it said. Mom had that right, just like pretty much everything else.