Wisdom From My Mother: I Would Like Everybody In The World To Know That They Have A Special Purpose—If They Really Listen To Themselves, They’ll Get Clues To What It Is

March 4, 2011

Note: This is long, but it’s for my sisters and my brother and my sons and nieces and nephews and my cousins to provide a record of what was shared at my mother’s FUNeral.

It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him [or her] for what he [or she] is. • Hermann Hesse

The buried talent is the sunken rock on which most lives strike and founder. • Frederick William Faber

In October of last year as her health continued to fail, my mother and I talked about the challenges facing artists in a world that often doesn’t seem to appreciate them. Mom began playing the piano by ear as a pre-schooler and until her death at age eighty-nine, made a living as an entertainer, playing the piano and singing. She was also a poet. She did not like housework of any kind although she had five children and did plenty of it. She was a good mother, but she was not a traditional one.

Before she died, she requested an inexpensive casket with pink satin lining and an informal service with only immediate family to send her off. She didn’t want anyone flying in for her funeral—“Save the money for a visit to Disneyland when everyone’s over being sad,” she said. Although her faith was strong, she’d not been able to find a church that shared her belief that that redemption would be a universal blessing and that a loving God would get everyone into heaven. Her service featured the piano music I’d secretly recorded her playing, hiding my iPhone so she wouldn’t know.

There is a Dakota Sioux saying that we will be known forever by the tracks we leave. My mother left her wisdom, she left her poetry, she left dozens of quotations she found meaningful, sending them to me and sharing them when we talked on the telephone, and she left the words of others—hundreds of others—who wrote to her over the years and who valued both her music and her poetry. The next time I write, I’ll share her poetry. Today, I’ll share other kinds of words we read at her funeral:

When I was going through boxes of mom’s correspondence, tossing much of it at her request, I found a Mutual of Omaha airline trip accident insurance policy. You used to be able to buy these policies in a vending machine at the airport. It isn’t dated, but on it was a note my mother had written to her sister, my Aunt Mildred:

If you collect on this policy, take a trip to Hawaii and think about how much Jesus loves you and I love you. Don’t cry, but be serious about meeting me later. My prayers will be with you.

Mom saved all the letters and cards her children wrote to her. As I divided them into piles for each of us, I read some of my own correspondence. In 2004, shortly after I graduated from a doctoral program, I wrote to her:

It has made a difference in my life to have your support and your belief in me. I have come to believe that these things are crucial in the lives of all of us who have dreams of possibility. It is difficult to remember dreams—and almost impossible to keep them alive in our “waking” real life. We need people who remind us of the importance of our dreams—and who believe we can achieve them. Of course, we must also believe in ourselves—it all starts there—but keeping the flame alight is infinitely easier if we are surrounded by people who will help feed our flames rather than extinguishing them.

Most of the cards and letters mom saved from the hundreds of people she corresponded with are gone now, but I could not resist saving a few of these testimonies to mom’s interactions with others so we could read them at her service:

I was cleaning off my desk and sorting out papers and every time I came across a card or letter from you, I glanced through it and by the time I was through, I felt so good and so deeply loved I had to get a letter off to you to tell you how dear to me you are. Did you know I have all your letters and cards in a box so now I have a box full of love. I bet this is the first time anyone ever had you organized and neatly put where they could find you when they want you. But having you organized and in a box isn’t any fun at all compared to having you unorganized and all over the place in person.

I’ve been thinking of you and I notice I smile a lot when I think of you and it’s such a pleasant feeling.

Thanks so much for the many cards, good thoughts, prayers, and encouragement. Your fudge always arrives at the right time. I call it “love calling.”

You restoreth my faith in myself just when I needed to be restored. Your very affirming letter is going to be tacked up on my wall.

My favorite letter is one that mom didn’t mail, writing that “Life is fascinating. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s full of surprises. I think you are in the middle of a big transition, so keep your receiving set open. I’ll be sending along some good thoughts and prayers to be oil in your wheels.” Before she died, she told all of us that when she was gone we should keep our antennae up for her messages of love.

Besides telling our own stories about mom, the other words we read were some of her favorite collected quotations, shared with me over the years:

There are two things that I want you to make up your minds to: first, that you are going to have a good time as long as you live—I have no use for the sour-faced man—and next, that you are going to do something worthwhile, that you are going to work hard and do something you set out to do. • Theodore Roosevelt in a talk with schoolchildren in Oyster Bay at Christmastime, 1898

The significance of a man is not in what he attains, but rather what he longs to attain. • Kahlil Gibran

Happiness is doing it rotten your own way. • Isaac Asimov

One who ruins the enjoyment of a wonderful experience with worry about things beyond his control is wasting a gift.  • John A. Nance, Turbulence

People are always waiting to be discovered. • Nathan Carroll

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid. • Albert Einstein

Mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams. • An elementary school teacher about Albert Einstein

If you can’t be yourself, what’s the point of being anyone else? • Tennessee Williams

A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back—but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you. • Marian Wright Edelman

Your heart is full of fertile seeds, waiting to sprout. • Morihel Ueshiba

Every baby’s a seed of wonder that gets watered or it doesn’t. • Dean Koontz (2009), Relentless

Every memorable act in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it because it gives any challenge or any occupation, no matter how frightening or difficult, a new meaning. Without enthusiasm you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, but with it, you can accomplish miracles. • Og Mandino

As a well-spent day brings a happy sleep, so a life well spent brings a happy death. • Leonardo da Vinci

The last thing I read was an anonymous quotation written in mom’s hand on a 3×5 card: Grieve not for me who am about to start a new adventure. Eager I stand and ready to depart. Me and my reckless pioneering heart.

What is your purpose? What is the adventure of your life?

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. • Charles Darwin (1887), Autobiography

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. • Katherine Mansfield



  1. Dear Zinn,
    I truly appreciated all the loving words about your mother, which reminded me of my own mom. Thank you for sharing her wisdom and reflections about life.

  2. Thanks, David. I hope all is going well with you. W-OZ

  3. Thank you for this gift, Z, your words, and the words of your mother, have elevated my spirit and expanded my vision.

    • Thanks, Malcolm. My mom was, as many mothers are, exceeding wise and her mission field was the world–she believed in the power of kindness and caring and lived fully in that belief. Z

  4. Z,

    I can’t even form a sentence to express my sentiment. I wish I had met your mother! My thoughts go out to you and your family.

  5. Hi, KJ–You would have really enjoyed her–and it would have been mutual! Z

  6. Dear Zinn, I buried my Mother and sister 34 years ago TODAY, September 20, 1977. They were in a car wreck on Sept 17, Mom died on Sept 18, my Sister died on Sept 19, and we buried both of them on Sept 20. My sister was 20 years old and had just made a decision about her career and seemed eager to be fully engaged in her education propelling her toward her goals in life. Going through my sister’s journal I found she had written the same words your Mom had written on that 3 x 5 card. “Grieve not for me who am about to start a new adventure. Eager I stand and ready to depart. Me and my reckless pioneering heart.” The first sentence is carved on her tombstone. They have become very special and guiding words for my own words. Some of your Mom’s others words are also very helpful to my own journey. Thanks for sharing them. cjh September 20, 2011

    • Thanks so much for commenting. Connections like this hearten me–they are one of the ways that our loved ones live on in our lives since I know that your sister–like my mother–would be glad to know that we are comforted by these seemingly small things that mean so much. I wish you peace on this difficult day. Zinn

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