Attitude of Gratitude

My mother died a few weeks before Thanksgiving. She was a remarkable woman who gave each of her children a great love of learning and an appreciation for art, music, language and books, books, books! There was so much I loved and admired about her, and I tried to put as much of her as I could into her obituary (with many suggestions and corrections on the part of my dear but somewhat opinionated siblings!)

But I had forgotten one very important thing that she did for me that changed the course of my life, giving me a wonderful tool that would stand me in good stead always. What reminded me of the gift was a few casual words uttered by one of my family’s long-time neighbors who came to the memorial service on Thanksgiving weekend. She said: “I’ll never forget your mother letting you go so far away when you were so young.” At the time the words did not register—there was so much else to share and think about that day—but later on I pondered them and felt an enormous surge of gratitude to my mother.

Now I must point out that outwardly my mother seemed the most conventional of women. She dressed like everybody else’s mom, and would die rather than flout social mores. Her mind, however, was that of an intellectual adventurer; she was a fine scholar, an omnivorous reader of good modern literature and a writer of no mean skill. She was a James Joyce fanatic (a taste I never managed to acquire) and a published author in her own field of education. She was a marvelous conversationalist and, rarity of rarities, a really good listener. As she raised her four children, she managed to acquire a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Master’s degree and finally, a doctorate.

Unlike my father, who would go anywhere, anytime, she had no real love of travel; her travels were of the mind. So when I asked her what she thought about the possibility of my responding to an announcement for a Rotary Junior Year Abroad scholarship I had seen posted on my high school bulletin board, her reaction surprised me. She was all for it, and so, with the help of both my parents, I prepared and submitted the application. I heard nothing of it for a while, but then I found that my application had been accepted, along with those of various classmates. A rather shy fifteen-year-old, I was horrorstruck to find that I would have to go and be interviewed—by myself! Well, there was nothing in the world I wanted more than that Junior Year Abroad scholarship, so I went and somehow charmed those kind middle-aged gentlemen into choosing me.

Next the question was where I would be sent. Of course I hoped to be sent to some grand center of culture and sophistication—say Paris or Rome. But no. I was to go to Bolivia. At the time it was rather a let-down. I didn’t know then, but it was the perfect place for a young person to live and absorb another culture and really truly learn to speak another language. (I am now so very grateful.)

So far, so good. The thing was that the people we knew in our tiny town (like my neighbor at the memorial service) were aghast that my parents would let a child of theirs go far away to some heathen-sounding place where who-knew-what went on. Revolutions and all like that. To make matters worse, there was some mix-up, and we didn’t even have the address of the family I would be living with for an entire year.  All we were given was a sheet of instructions, the round-trip plane ticket with date and time of departure, and what seemed like magic words: Valderrama and La Paz.

How proud I am to think that my mother didn’t seem fazed in the least. I’m sure that she worried but she knew it was a great opportunity for me, a once-in-a-lifetime chance that I must grasp, and all I got was lots of encouragement.

So off I went to live with the Valderrama family in La Paz, Bolivia, for a year. Not one member of the family spoke a word of English, but I was just young enough to soak in the Spanish. I didn’t go to an “American” school, but to colegio with my “sister” Silvia, who was my own age. I had tons of friends and lots of wonderful adventures, and when I reluctantly came back to the United States, my Spanish was unaccented and very fluent.

Ever since that first fateful trip, I have made my living almost exclusively from my ability to speak and write two languages very well. After achieving some advanced degrees of my own, I worked as a college professor, a bilingual paralegal, and now an interpreter and translator.

None of this would have been possible without the the gift my mama gave me.

There is one thing I greatly regret, however. I don’t believe that I ever thanked her for the courage to let me go all by myself to parts almost entirely unknown to her. I hope that I expressed my gratitude by my love and care for her, but still it rankles that I never had the chance to tell her. You see, some time back, my dear mama started to suffer a series of small strokes that gradually affected her mind. I say that she died a few weeks ago, but she had not been really with us for about twelve years.

So, please, if you are glad to have work that you love, whether in interpreting or another field of endeavor, make it a point right now to thank those who have helped you in some small or large way to get to where you are today.

And, dearest mama, wherever you are, please accept my most heartfelt thanks for giving me so very many gifts, but most of all the gift of language!

0 thoughts on “Attitude of Gratitude”

  1. Al Navas says:

    Thank you, Kathleen! As I write this, my eyes are filled with tears – my glasses help me see what I type, but just barely…I bet she suffered, knowing her beloved little girl would be far away.

    It was also my dear mom who instilled in me a great love of books, and of language. But, above all, of compassion for those not as fortunate as we.

    Thank you, mom. You are the best – along with Kathleen’s.

    We are lucky, indeed!

    — Al

    1. Kathleen says:

      Thank you. Al. Your words have touched me deeply. Here’s to mothers everywhere!

  2. Al Navas says:


    I meant to also say I am sorry for the loss of your mother. I send a big hug 🙂


  3. You reminded me of my own mother who was unable to finish her education in the fine arts in Cuba before she got married, She came to this country with four children who turned into five and not only finished the art piece, being an accomplished painter, but also got her M.A. in Spanish literature to teach at a university in Boston.
    She likewise instilled the love of language in me. She would share the classics they were discussing in her literature courses (I was 11-12 years old). I would read them and we would talk about their relevance, all in Spanish. That is one of the ways I developed my vocabulary after coming from Cuba at the age of 9, with a third grade register.
    Thank you for bringing back the memories!

  4. Kathleen says:

    We were both so lucky! I find as time goes on that I am ever more grateful for my mother and fathter and the family I had growing up.

  5. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Kathleen– that was beautiful! Thank you so much for posting this. What a wonderful reminder for all! Although as parents, we are often so very blessed by what our kids accomplish and this is thanks enough and then some, it is an amazing feeling to hear them utter those words. You were indeed fortunate and she sounds like she was a wonderful lady. Q.E.P.D.

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