Karen Swensen: My mom is all I aspire to be as a human being

I have often said anything good I do during my life will have been inspired by my mom and my dad. Conversely, the mistakes I've made are mine alone, likely the result of not taking their advice.

I was asked to write about my mom as we look ahead to Mother's Day. Wow. She's everything. She's all I aspire to become as a human being, not just as a wife and mother. To me, she has set the bar for love, integrity, courage and perseverance. It's why I named my daughter after her. I want "little" Catherine to grow up to be just like her grandmother.

My mom is smart (we call her "Jeopardy Mom"), kind, as beautiful now as she was in her youth, laugh-til-you-cry funny, brave, compassionate, unfailingly optimistic and the most humble person I've ever known. Literally, every accolade she's ever earned, I've learned through others. Never once has she said or done anything that's even implied "look at me." I remember as a kid finding yellow newspaper clippings in my grandmother's desk. That's how I learned my mom was homecoming queen of her class three out of her four years at Oswego College in New York (also the alma mater of Al Roker and Jerry Seinfeld). An old sorority sweatshirt on the top shelf of her closet was how I found out she CO-FOUNDED her sorority-- Phi Lambda Phi. I was young at the time and didn't understand sororities, but I understood why she did it. "Because not everyone was invited to the others," she said. She never made a big deal of it; she never said it took courage or guts; she just said the way it was "wasn't fair so we started our own." That's it. Founded in her freshman year, 1959, Phi Lambda Phi was proudly INTEGRATED and is a thriving sorority to this day.

My mom always puts others before herself. The daughter of Greek-Romanian immigrants, she was the first to attend college and worked hard for her education, earning a bachelor's degree in teaching and a master's in guidance counseling. She used both to help pay my dad's way through law school and then a few years later, happily gave it all up when he joined the FBI and I came along, followed by my brother and sister. My mom was singularly focused on our family. We used to have a plaque that hung in our hallway that said, "Home is where the FBI sends you," but I'd argue home was anywhere mom answered the door. Whether it was Tampa, Chicago, D.C., Phoenix, New Orleans, or Boston, she made every new destination an adventure. Happiness is a mindset, she taught us. That took me awhile to learn. Moving around a lot as a kid, I tended to miss, well, the past--past friends, past cities, past schools. But not mom. She always embraced the newness of each destination--it's culture, people and traditions. And you know what? No matter how long we stayed in a city, we left loving it, leaving behind cherished memories and friends across the country.  

My parents have been married for 52 years. I remember way back, when we were celebrating one of the less-than-milestone anniversaries, I said or wrote on a card something about them having a 50/50 partnership. The reason I remember it is because she did NOT agree. At all!  "For any marriage to work, it can't be a 50/50 deal. Each person has to give it 100%, all they've got. Remember that."  And to this day, I still do. Theirs is a marriage that's stood the test of time, countless moves and Stage IV cancer. My dad was diagnosed with melanoma when I was 19. I watched as she lifted his spirits, took over all the household responsibilities, consoled us kids and put her faith in God...and St. Jude. Hers is a quiet faith but, my God, its rock solid.  Keep the faith, she's always said.  Just keep the faith. (Dad, by the way, is celebrating his 29th year cancer free!)

And whatever you do, she'd say, let the Golden Rule be your guide. That's it. Just treat others the way you'd want to be treated. After that, she encouraged each of us kids to think for ourselves, believe in ourselves and just go for it-- whatever "it" is. Better to try and fail than live with "what could have been" regrets, she taught. And she led by example.  I'll never forget when she decided to run for the president of the school board in the town where they retired. She delivered a speech after which someone asked what in her past gave her the financial experience to manage a huge budget? The newspaper reporter was there when she bluntly responded, "Well, I raised three kids on a tight budget. And they call me "Econo-Mom" because I can stretch a dollar." She ran unopposed after that and the headline literally referred to her as "Econo-Mom." But this story also reveals another side of my mom: The Worrier. The night before the polls opened, she called me, nervous, worrying, "What if I lose?" I remember saying, "But, Mom, you're running UNOPPOSED!" And typical Mom, she said, "Well what if there's a write-in campaign?  You know Susie So-and-so is very popular." We're still laughing about that.

She's a worrier but she's also a warrior. She fights for what she believes in and never, ever gives up. She's got grit and perseverance and the strongest constitution. I remember on the day my daughter was born, my grandmother, my mom's mom, started dying. My mom never let on what was happening so as to keep my happiest day my happiest day, but as we walked from the nursery, she held my hand and said, "Remember something, you come from a long line of strong women." I sure do. There is no standard by which I could measure my love or admiration for my mother but I sure am grateful for her. And for my grandmothers and their grandmothers...and for my daughter, Catherine, who made me what I'd always dreamed of becoming...a mom. Happy Mother's Day!

© 2017 WWL-TV


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