The Little Way


To be really great in little things, to be truly noble and heroic in the insipid details of everyday life, is a virtue so rare as to be worthy of canonization.

– Harriet Beecher Stowe

This Mother’s Day, I wanted to write about the little gifts that my Mother has given me throughout my lifetime. They added up to a major contribution. My Mother has always been a very spiritual person. She briefly went into the convent after high school and found it was not the life she wanted to live. So following college, she volunteered as a Catholic missionary in British Honduras teaching English to children. And after she married my Dad (He was fresh out of the Jesuit seminary.), she continued to explore her spirituality and question her beliefs. She taught art and then English for forty years in Catholic schools in Cincinnati, Ohio. And she raised me, her only child.

She has a particular devotion to a saint named St. Teresa of Lisieux who was known as “the Little Flower.” St. Teresa, in her short life of 24 years, devoted and wrote about her commitment to the little things in life. She desired grand acts of contribution and dreamed of becoming a missionary but had a small life lived in a cloistered convent. And so she resolved to do acts of kindness and care every single day in ways that oftentimes went unnoticed. She was a role model for my Mom. And I know my Mom emulated her “little way.”

Like a scene from Snow White, ailing birds, squirrels, chipmunks, cats and bunnies would show up on our doorstep and wait for my Mom. Word must have spread around the backyard animal community. She would care for those animals like they were her own children. And our small, urban backyard might have been a garden in the Cotswolds (and still is) with every kind of rose and flower. People rarely get to see it. And when asked, she will share it but does not show it off.

When I was a kid, my Mom regularly took soup or a magazine to our house bound elderly neighbor. Or she would just knock on the door, sit with her and ask her to tell stories of her youth. My Mom always brought me along and I watched and I wondered and I learned.

My Mom and I
My Mom and I

Mainly because my parents had very little money when I was a young child, my Mom made all of my clothes by hand. She took great care with every article. I always felt I had plenty and looked pretty for occasions because she stayed up late at night sewing dresses and other clothing for me.

Each daily meal and every holiday celebration was planned and carried out with the same level of care and attention to detail. Now, in her retirement, she finds many “little” ways to contribute. She takes food to her friend who is battling cancer and listens to her stories. She does all of the household chores, shopping and cooking so that my Dad, a writer, can work on his projects without interruption. And she uses her considerable writing and editing talent to edit my blog every week.

She has personally come to my rescue in little and major ways my whole life. Whenever a breakdown occurs, she’s there either physically or on the phone to provide emotional support. She has a near psychic level of empathy and can predict when I am going to need her, which is often. And it is my great joy to watch her share the little way with her grandchild, my son. She whispers secrets in his ear, reads him stories quietly, gifts him with donations in his name to those who need it most and he takes it all in.

As a high school English teacher at an all boy’s school, she was simply known as the best. She had a reputation for being incredibly tough but also deeply caring. I know from hanging out after school with her that she took extra time with any and every student who needed support. She sat down with each one – one on one – and offered direct feedback and counsel. She asked good questions and listened well to personal and academic challenges. She got involved in any issue when a student asked for help. She demonstrated her utter conviction that every student could learn and achieve. And with her support and confidence, they did. Students demonstrated dramatic improvement over the course of a year with her because she put so much time and focus into making sure that each person was successful. One student wrote this about her on the occasion of her retirement,

Mrs. Smith was my English teacher during my junior year, and certainly, she taught me much about style and tone, as well as the correct usage of parenthetical expressions and the accurate citation of scholarly articles. Yet, she taught me something of far greater value. Mrs. Smith revealed to me the importance of expressing my own personality, an entity that I had previously stifled. She liberated me from the figurative chains that were holding me down, not only in my writing, but also in my viewpoints and my behaviors. While it is true that Mrs. Smith was my English teacher, she was to a greater degree my mentor, my counselor, and my friend.

In planning my parent’s retirement party, there were many similar letters written and comments made.

Two significant researchers on school reform, Hall and Hord, have written, “When change is successful, it is the quality of the little things that makes the final difference.”1 This statement has always held great power for me and now that I reflect on the lessons my Mom taught me, I know why. How empowering to know that no matter my situation, the small, intentional acts of my life make a difference. I think of Rosa Parks and her small decision one day to refuse to sit at the back of the bus, to civilly disobey the social order and simultaneously change the world.

I learned so much from my Mom but perhaps the most important thing I learned was this – to express love through every small action no matter how mundane. She taught me we all have a multiple opportunities in a day to show care, contribution and respect for life.

Thank you, Mom. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.
1 Hall, G.E., Hord, S.M. (2001). Implementing change; Patterns, principles, and potholes. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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