I had planned to save this edition of “Some of the People in My Life for Mothers’ Day. However, while out on a recent run, John Mayer’s “Say What You Need to Say” shuffled into “play” mode in my earbuds, and I realized that May was still over half a year away. Neither my mom nor I are getting any younger, and words left unsaid are not really words at all, just intentions. And, for better or worse, words are my best currency for sharing my love and appreciation for my mother. My brothers and sisters do it in their own ways: regular visits and phone calls, doing her shopping and sharing meals, making sure she gets to as many of her grandchildren’s sporting events as she wants, etc. They have their ways; this is mine.
Growing up as a Roth in the Sandusky area, you regularly are asked, “Who’s your dad?”, as one can hardly swing a dead cat in this town without hitting one, and most of us are related. It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I realized that the more appropriate question might have been, “Who’s your mom?”, as more often than not, they were the ones keeping their own Roth brood fed, clothed, bathed, disciplined, on time for school and practices, and the list goes on and on. In order to right that wrong, I proudly say my mom is Barb (Benkey) Roth, and she has always been the most important person in my life.
From her own Benkey/Heiler roots she passed on to her children a certain silliness and love of laughter. I regularly encounter vestiges of her somewhat twisted sense of humor in my son Tanner, and I think of my mom. From her, I learned that a person’s true value has little to do with money, materials, or status, and that everybody is deserving of respect and kindness. In her mind, there was never a reason not to be nice and polite.
My mother possesses a tendency for taking in strays, not pets, but people. Whether it was the brotherless neighbor boy across the street, who needed some toughening up; the Ontario School crossing guard’s son, who today would probably be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum; or the many cousins, friends, and roommates of her children who more or less just showed up at all hours and stayed for as long as they wished, there was always room for them in her house and in her heart.
Again, only when I became a parent myself did I realize how much she must have gone without, uncomplainingly, so that her eight children could have what they “had to have,” including cleats, baseball cards, ice cream from The Dairy Frost, penny candy from Mrs. Longs’ store, the latest toys at Christmas. Again, the list goes on and on. The gas tank on the station wagon was always precariously near empty, yet she’d buy a dollar of gas at a time – I’m pretty sure – so that she’d have something left to share with us when we “needed” spending money.
Unlike me, my mom has never been one for words. Rather, she lived the example she hoped her children would emulate. I believe the most valuable example she set for us was – in my words – that you are always the least important person in the room. In other words, one’s first responsibility is to serve others, not oneself. For example, I do not have a single memory of my mom sitting down at the picnic table in our kitchen to eat dinner with us. I have loads of images in my head of her rushing from cupboards to the stove to the sink and back again preparing and serving meals but none of her actually sitting and enjoying one. It was a lesson in humility and service that has always stuck with me and that I try my best to imitate.
Similarly, on many occasions when my mom could have turned vindictive or petty toward other parents, relatives, and her own friends, I watched her choose the high road. She taught me that holding a grudge or trying to get even usually costs you more of yourself than it hurts the target for your animosity. For her, it was always about forgiveness. Service to others and forgiveness are the two rules for living that that Jesus fellow tried his best to exemplify, and my mom learned and has lived his example as well as anyone I’ve ever known.
Perhaps the lesson I most value from my mother’s example remains the obligation to love, cherish, and support one’s siblings. You would think that, over the so many years and among so many of us, schisms would open up between us, if only by virtue of our separation by distance, but they haven’t. We don’t agree on everything, but we value one another too much to ever let petty differences break the bonds welded between us by our parents, especially our mom. She has never spoken of this filial obligation; rather, we learned this lesson symbiotically by observing the priceless value she placed on her own relationships with her siblings, especially her sisters. It’s something her mother modeled as well in her relationship with her sisters, my great aunts Elsie and Tec. They were each others’ best friends.
If I can claim any measure of success as a husband, father, brother, friend, and teacher, it is directly attributable to my mom. I’m willing to say that each of my siblings would second that claim as it applies to their own lives. I’m also willing to bet that nearly every tribute I’ve paid to my mom in this post can also be said of all of my Roth and Benkey aunts.
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