Parents can trump mentors…

Back on July 8th, I wrote a brief post about mentoring. Hopefully, some of you read it. In case you didn’t, I made the completely unsupported claim that mentors don’t normally create interest, they merely nurture the interests that are already there. They also serve to help remove the obstacles that frustrate the enthusiasm of newcomers, providing material, advise, or inspiration.

Gee, that sounds like a parent, doesn’t it?

Last week, I had the opportunity to think about this topic a lot. On Wednesday, I got to tell this
story, which I’ll go ahead and tell you now.

When I was sixteen or so, I can remember being in my grandmother’s dining room, excitedly explaining something about my (then new) Atari computer to her. Remember: this was 1981 or so, and I think it was moderately safe to say that grandmothers as a demographic were fairly ignorant of microprocessors. But my enthusiasm was bubbling over, and she patiently listened to me until I was forced to take a breath and wandered away.

She wandered back into the kitchen, and had the following conversation with my Mom:

Grandma: “Boy, Mark sure seems to know a lot about computers, huh?”
Mom: “Yeah, he’s pretty smart.”
Grandma: “I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about.”
Mom: “Yeah, me neither.”
Grandma: “He doesn’t seem to mind though.”
Mom: “Nope, just keep nodding and smiling. He doesn’t care if you understand, he just wants you to listen.

I used to believe that this story was about my grandmother. She was, after all, a remarkable woman. She taught me a lot: how to cook, how to crochet. Most of the money I spent on that first computer came from mowing her lawns. She made me lemonade on hot days. She would make pies and cobblers from the blackberries and huckleberries I’d pick. When I got my driver’s license, I would drive her on errands. Sadly, when college came, I saw quite a bit less of her. Her breast cancer reasserted itself, and she passed away about 26 years ago. I still miss her, and think of her when I make pickles, potato salad, or pork shoulder.

But I didn’t realize until last week that this story was also about my mom. She too, was a remarkable woman. After all, in 1980, she was willing to support the insane desire of a sixteen year old boy to learn about computers. She didn’t have any expertise, but she patiently accepted that what I wanted to learn about good for me, and she did all she could to help remove the barriers that might have stymied my initial interest. That early interest blossomed into a rewarding career and remains the core of the intellectual joys that you get a glimpse of through my blog. And of course, she was my mom, and loved me (and the rest of her children) with the kind of love that only a mother can.

On Friday July 8th, I received a phone call that my Mom had passed away. I got to tell the story I just related to you at her funeral to her friends and family.

In the grand scheme of things, expertise isn’t that important. Knowledge isn’t that important. My mother and grandmother didn’t have any expertise or special insight into what I was doing. What they did have was love, and that love gave them faith that the path that I saw for myself (even at age 16) was worth supporting and aiding. They removed obstacles. They loved me for who I was and what I wanted to do, unconditionally.

I cannot begin to express the degree to which she will be missed.

Addendum: You might have asked where Dad was in all of this. Dad was awesome too. At age ten or so, I got it into my head that I wanted to build a telescope. I had read some book that said you could do it. Without any real expertise, he supported the project. We sent off to Edmund Scientific and got a mirror grinding kit to make a 6” mirror. We dutifully ground and polished it. But in the midst of that project, he developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which eventually claimed his life in 1978, and I never got to finishing the mirror or putting it into a telescope. Years later, I moved to California, and discovered the Telescope Maker’s Workshop at the Chabot Science Center in Oakland. I got it into my head that I would like to finish the telescope I had started all those years ago. My mom still had it tucked away in her closet. With help from the workshop, I finished that mirror (and went on to help many others do the same as a volunteer instructor) and finished the scope (mostly, it could still use some paint) with the help of my brother. I still have the scope, and will never sell it.

This week, I do feel sad for my loss, but there is no need for pity. All three of the people I’ve lost have left my life full of joy. If I could do the same, I’d consider my own life “well lived”.