Lessons from PBJ

Like many little girls, I grew up on PBJ’s. Unlike many little girls, my peanut butter sandwiches always metamorphosed into something more. It was not uncommon to hear my mother announce the shape of the day as we sat on a blanket, eating our picnic lunch in the backyard.

“Look! Mine is a dog!”

It was like watching the clouds changing shapes in the sky. Our sandwiches were always changing into some other form: a dinosaur, a mountain, the state of Alaska. We would sip Kool-Aid out of little red-handled cups, sitting in the grass, enjoying the sunshine.

Years later, I recall the experience and I am filled with nostalgia as I realize my mother was always teaching us how to see a new shape and take on a new form. She is still at work.

I appreciate that she started teaching me life’s lessons in my early childhood. After failing miserably at my attempt to be athletic in T-ball, on the last-place Lavender team, she cheered for me. I learned that winning wasn’t everything.

When I turned twelve she shifted the responsibility of all my laundry needs over to. . . me. At age fourteen, as far as expendable income goes, she basically cut me off. I got a paper-route and had to pay for my own activities and any clothing that exceeded my parents’ budget. When I started dating, it was all funded by my fast-food paycheck. Through these experiences I learned self-reliance and money management.

I was hating life when the carpool was honking and I still had to wait for the whole family to kneel in prayer; however, there was rarely a day I left out the front door without my mother making sure I was prayed for. I learned that God answers prayers.

Although my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they invested in a secondhand, upright piano. I started piano lessons and then went on to pay for my schooling with vocal scholarships. I learned that working hard and developing talents can pay off.

As I started college, my life lessons began to change. I will always remember that empty, alone feeling as my parents drove away the day I moved in. That was the day I realized I needed my mom.

It was phone conversations with my mother that helped me through my first homesickness. Her sage advice was, “Give it three months, then it will start to feel like home.” It’s worked every move since.

Through heartbreak and boyfriends, there was always the sound words, “You are worth more than that. Keep waiting; you’ll find what you are looking for.”

Fast forward a few more years to the newlywed stage. Both my husband and I were college students, applying the independence we’d been raised to acquire. We had to make the choice between paying for a dental check-up and going on a family vacation. When Mom found out, she offered to pay for the dental check-up so we could go on the family trip. I was so surprised! My whole life she’d taught me to earn my own way. I was deeply touched as I realized, I had learned the lessons she was trying to teach me and she was proud of me.

When I brought my precious first newborn home from the hospital and suddenly realized there was no manual or instruction booklet, no nurse or doctor to answer my questions, my panic again led me to my mother. “What is he doing? Is this normal? How do I. . .?” My mother was beside me.

Our family moved far from home. When life’s journeys led us back, my mom took work off, flew down to Texas, and helped me pack and move my family across several states. How grateful I was for her energy when I was lacking my own, packing and cleaning at two months pregnant. Once again, she had my back.

Today, living less than a mile away, my mother comes to my house once a week and watches my younger kids so that I can volunteer at the school. She knows how much I enjoy being in the classroom. She still wants me to enjoy life and pursue worthwhile endeavors.

When I think of those PBJ’s and my mother’s ability to see the shapes they could become, I see how her vision for me over the years has fashioned me into the person that I am. All the little ‘bites’ she took to sculpture her sandwich are not unlike the actions she took in my life to lead and direct me.

My mother taught me the lessons she could in my childhood and now stands to love me, be a friend, and support me whenever she can. I realize she will always be my mother. That yearning a mother has, to be a part of her child’s life, will always exist.

I am grateful for the role she still plays in my life. I am grateful to have a deliberate mother. I’m thankful she is always a few steps ahead of me, to answer my questions and share her wisdom.

Mother’s Day can be a difficult time for women who have lost mothers through strained relationships or death. To these women I would add: this cycle of motherhood doesn’t begin or end with your mother. As mothers, we all learn together and support each other as we face the challenges motherhood presents. We are all mothers and nurturers to each other.

This Mother’s Day, determine the mother you want to be, then shape and mold yourself as you nurture and love the children God has blessed you with.

Question: What life lessons did your mother teach you? How are you teaching them to your children?

Challenge: Think of one specific lesson you learned from your mother and thank her for it on Mother’s Day.

Photos courtesy of Elsje Denison


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  1. Risé B. says

    Elsje … Life lessons my mother taught me. She taught me what love isn’t. She taught me that I wasn’t worth anything – that no good man would want me. (And when I landed that good man I was amazed that he could love me because my mother taught me that I was unloveable. We’ve been married 18 years now and I’m still amazed that he chose me! And chose me to be the mother of his children!)

    When I read of women who have mothers such as yours, my own heart aches. And as much as I try to be like your mother – being a deliberate, loving mother – it is hard when you have never had one to set an example for you. It’s hard to know (for me) to know when and what to do for your kids. I watch other healthy mothers with their kids and I take their lead in how to be a good mom. If my mother has taught me anything of worth, she taught me what not to do.

    I grew up being hated and despised – I thought it would all make sense when I had children of my own – it didn’t. I ended up being bathed in confusion … and anger. ‘What mother who says she loves you, and then treats her child with seething hatred?’ I still don’t understand it. I never will. I asked her repeatedly why she treated me the way she did and I never got an answer – and the abuse got so bad that I couldn’t have her in my life anymore. And the hope of ever having a healthy mother-daughter relationship was gone. It was dead. And it was painful, so painful. And I had to learn, with God’s help, to … just … let … go.

    It’s been 12 years. I’m happier. I know who I am again – I think. My kids are 16, 14, and 11. And just a week ago or so, my husband told me that he thought I was a good mother. Mothers like me with poor examples of mothers need all the encouragement we can get, and your post has encouraged even more to be deliberate and loving. I love that word, ‘deliberate’ – it says so much.

    Thank you!!

    • Elsje Denison says

      Thank you so much for sharing your feelings. I hesitated writing about my mother because I know not everyone shares the blessings I have enjoyed in life. My heart aches when I see children who are put in foster care or whose mother is constantly yelling, degrading, or just plain doesn’t care. I am so sorry you were raised in a relationship where you didn’t receive the nurturing and love you, and every child, truly deserve.

      I hope you know you are worth EVERYTHING to God! For whatever reason you have had to endure what you have, you are stronger and better for it! I think you are so wise to try to let it go. I’m sure that will be the hardest thing you will ever do, but I also believe you can find great relief in life as the healing takes over.

      I truly believe the the cycle of motherhood can always start fresh. I know you can be the mother to your children that you always wanted to have. As they see you overcome your past, they will identify your strength and perseverance. They will be able to recognize your admirable characteristics and qualities.

      God bless you for trying. God bless you for doing your best. I know he gives us strength as we care for these children we have been given in our lives. I hope you had a wonderful Mother’s Day and know that your children wouldn’t want any other mother than you!

      • Risé says

        I’m glad you posted this blogpost – it gives mothers like me an idea of what a loving mother looks like – I was truly blessed by it!!! :)

  2. adrienne says

    I really loved reading the details about how your mother helped influence your life; laundry, fast food jobs, and helping you with all your moves. She sounds like a hero, just like you are to your sons :)

  3. Jeannette Duwe says

    Elsje – what a beautiful memory of your mother – through thick and thin. She sounds like an incredibly wise woman…and one from which so many of us can learn! I enjoyed reading “excerpts” from your childhood – the most impactful things that your mother did for you to help mold you and shape you. Especially loved that she prayed over you each day – in your presence. I pray for my children, but doing that together is a wonderful accountability to ensure it’s getting done…and that they are well-aware of how God cares about the big and small details in their lives.

    One important lesson that I learned from my mom, though I didn’t recognize it until motherhood myself, is that your job as a mother is not to be your child’s best friend. Your job is to be their advocate, their care taker, and help them grow into incredible young men and women who have all the tools they need to be successful in life. I would also add to that that your role is to help shape them with morals, and teach them about your faith so that they can make sound decisions at the right time.

    Thanks for sharing – hope you had a wonderful mother’s day!

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