The Parting Gift


My mom was a phenomenal woman and the most awesome thing about her was her continued willingness to learn and change.  She didn’t stop growing until she was about ninety (at which point, hey, she had a right).  Mom was on the governance council of her retirement complex and well into her eighties when I can remember her saying, “Well, I tried this approach and it didn’t work so I’m thinking that next time I’ll try [something else].”  Change it up.  Try a new approach if the old one doesn’t work.

But the most courageous thing my mom ever did was say “I love you.”

She lived 270 miles away from me and one day at the end of a phone call she said, “I love you.”  I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond; I’d never heard her say it before.  I was in my forties and Mom was in her seventies.

I think that what precipitated it was that her brother had died.  My mother had loved her brother Dick very much, and I think that his long, slow death from cancer brought her right up to it:  she needed to tell him that she loved him.  I think she probably succeeded in doing that and then she started telling her kids that she loved them.

Can you imagine anything scarier than saying “I love you?”  What if the loved person you’re talking to laughs?  What if the person turns and walks away?  What if the person doesn’t believe you or doesn’t want to be loved by you?  You put your heart out there on your sleeve, and then what?

Years later, my mother told me that she had never heard her mother say “I love you.”  Grandma loved everybody!  I knew that—everybody knew that—but my mom never heard it.  My grandparents were farm people, and Grandma was descended from Quaker farm people.  You didn’t talk about your feelings.  You wore a plain gray dress and kept your feelings buttoned up inside it.  Grandma was a warm, cheerful, hospitable person—but she never told her children that she loved them.

My mom carried it forward and married my dad, who also was undemonstrative and ill at ease with his feelings.  In my home of origin, if something mattered then we didn’t talk about it.  We didn’t talk about God, love, sex or money.  We talked about politics, books, ideas, cultures, equality and justice—safe subjects.  We wore plain white cotton underwear, and we didn’t talk about love.

And then one day my mom comes up with this “love” thing.  Wow!  Slowly, hesitantly, I started returning Mom’s I-love-you’s.  It didn’t hurt.  Nothing blew up in my face.  I knew she was also doing this weird loving thing with my siblings, too.  Years went by—twenty years between when she started saying “I love you” and when she stopped saying it.  At first we just exchanged real quick I-love-you’s but as time went on we started talking about it—a little.  Sometimes we improvised.  We got spontaneous, and as expressions of love became more frequent and creative, so did the actual loving.

It was pretty amazing.  For the last twenty years of my mother’s life, she wrapped me in her love.  A few days before she died, I called Mom and she was particularly clear at the moment.  She told me that she’d been waiting to talk to me because she wanted to tell me how every much she loved me and that she was so proud of me. That was the last conversation we had.  Quite a parting gift.

So I want you to know this:  Elizabeth Hope Copeland Woodlen, in her seventh decade, dared to love out loud.  It is never too late to learn to love.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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