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.