The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me by Tarn Wilson

What’s the best gift your mom gave you?  That’s the question behind my new series of guest posts.  Today, I’m thrilled to share a reflection from Tarn Wilson.   Tarn’s writing has appeared online, in print, and on NPR (see her full bio below).   She’s also one of the most intuitive and generous souls I know.  Thank you for the beautiful food for thought, Tarn!

Sometimes the best gifts parents give their children come, not from their strengths, but from their weaknesses.

The moneyed parents at the high school where I teach want to give their children every meaningful gift: my students speak another language, follow politics, play an instrument, excel at a sport, and peruse the art museums in Europe.  They enroll in summer programs at Cornell or Columbia, where they write novels and splice genes.  They do community service. They are polished, intellectual, and gracious.  They don’t have time for a job.

My mother could give me none of those opportunities.  She was beautiful, energetic, intelligent, creative, funny, and loving.  She was also plagued by undiagnosed mental illness:  rages and deep depressions and paranoia which kept her single, isolated from her family, and on the run from town to town, job to job.  Our family teetered on the edge of some serious poverty.  And our instability required something of me.

I also had big dreams, but the requirements of my life were mundane and immediate.  Shake my sleepy mother awake in the morning.  Make her coffee.  Iron her clothes.  When her darkness was so deep she couldn’t move from the bed, make the necessary excuses to her work and appointments.  When she cried, listen, late into the night, homework set aside again.  Rub the knots out of her back.  Get a job. I started babysitting in fifth grade, dog sitting in sixth grade, and by the time I was fifteen, worked regularly at a variety of stores, so I could cover my own expenses and contribute to food and rent.

In contrast, the charming, privileged students of my high school live for goals in a distant future, burdened by the heavy weight expectations.  Sometimes, they feel lost and sad.  Always, they feel haunted, harassed by the Ghost of Potential Failure.  They never feel quite spectacular enough.  I still long to be as cultured as my students and sometimes grieve what I didn’t have.  But my mother gave me this:  the opportunity to be resourceful.  Capable.  A scrappy kind of resilience.  I knew that I was needed and useful.

So this is what I believe:  Spirit is our parent, big enough to bless us all, even through the broken places.


Tarn Wilson earned her MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop.  Her commentaries have aired on NPR, and her essays have appeared in the journal Inlands, the anthology Hard Love, the podcast A River and Sound Review, and the website Recently, her poem “The Brick Birds” was included in the anthology The Poet’s Guide to the Birds edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser.  New essays are forthcoming in the journals Inertia and Life Writing and the anthology What’s Nature Got to Do with Me?  She lives, writes, and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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