Today, September 11th, my mother celebrates her 89th birthday and enters her 90th year. Since 2001, September 11th also has a particular historical significance because of the horrific events of that day. I remember it well – I was living in New York City at the time. A beautiful late-summer morning turned into a day that will remain forever engraved in my memory. It was a day that changed history.

Yet in a very different way, history also changed on September 11, 1930. On that day in Frankfort, Kentucky, Mary Dudley Harrod was born. In her own quiet and gracious way, she has made her mark in the world. And it was through making very conscious choices that she made her mark.

The Ripples We Create

By history-book standards, my mother’s life has not been remarkable. However, by standards of the human heart – by standards of lifting up others, by standards of brightening another person’s day with a smile or a simple gesture – my mother is a gift to everyone around her.

Actress, poet, and model Lana Wood said,

You don’t understand that
even though you feel like a pebble,
you’re leaving ripples, and
you don’t know where
those ripples will go.

At 89 years old, my mother’s presence continues to send ripples out farther than any of us will ever know. She makes conscious choices every day about how she lives her life, how she engages with others, and how she navigates the inevitable challenges that come with being 89.

Mary Dudley Seale

My mother, Mary Dudley Seale, at a Kentucky Derby party earlier this year.

The ripples of my mother’s life have certainly spread wide through my own. From her, I learned the arts of welcoming and hosting. I learned about elegance and manners and graciousness. To this day, she is always beautifully dressed and never misses her weekly appointment to have her hair done in the old-fashioned “beauty parlor” way.

From both of my parents, I gained great appreciation and love of travel and learning about other cultures. They traveled the world and taught me to appreciate cultures, traditions, and ways of living that are different than our own.

A Blessed Life, Yet Also Difficult Times

In many ways, my mother has lived a blessed life, as have I. Yet she has also lived through difficult times. She was the primary caretaker for my father throughout his 16-year journey with cancer. Some of those years were relatively good; many were hard and painful. Every day, she had to make choices about how to navigate their ever-changing circumstances.

My mother has also lived with arthritis pain for many years, yet rarely speaks of it. In recent years, she has also lived with congestive heart failure. An oxygen tank is now her constant companion. Only to me will she acknowledge the not-so-good days. Although her feet hurt most of the time and she cannot walk without the support of a walker, she remains determined to “walk around the square” of her assisted living home several times a day. She says with determination, “I have to keep walking or I soon won’t be able to walk at all. So I walk!” She chooses to keep on going.

Dudley Seale and Kitty Huff

My mother with her life-long friend Kitty Huff in 2015.

Although she has travelled all over the world, my mother’s personal world is now much smaller. She gets frustrated by her lack of energy and stamina and is learning to regulate her daily activities carefully. Yet she makes the clear choice to appreciate what she can do, and goes on.

Mentally, my mother remains sharp. She follows the news and keeps up with what is happening locally as well as globally. She has outlived most of her dearest long-time friends. Sad as that may be, at 89 years old, she seems to have accepted that loss is part of life, and continues meeting new people. She is generous of spirit with the residents of her assisted living home, and especially with the staff. They adore her. Every time I visit, the first thing I hear from both residents and staff is, “We love your mother.” Conscious choices.

Conscious Choices to Create a New Life

My parents met in 1948 during their first year in university and were married in 1952. They shared 62 years of deep love and devotion. When my father died in 2010, my mother was alone for the first time in her life. She had no memory of an adult life without my father. At nearly 80 years old, she realized that she would have to create a new life.

And step-by-step, she did.

My mother made very conscious choices about her grieving process. She met her grief face-to-face, walking with intention and awareness through each experience, place, or event she encountered, now without my father. She didn’t sugar-coat anything. Witnessing her process, I was deeply moved. Being with her grief and living with such enormous loss was probably the hardest thing she had ever done. Yet she did it. Now, nearly ten years later, she continues to find her way. She chooses to meet every day as a new day with new possibilities.

She also discovered that she had innate practical business skills that she had never had a reason to discover. She chose to learn and has become much more confident in handling household affairs.

Consciously Choosing to Evolve

My mother also continues to evolve in her beliefs and perspectives. Many years ago when I first told my family that I was gay, she struggled with that reality. Yet instead of fighting against it, she chose to accept and grow. Through that experience, she learned more about listening to the deeper wisdom of her heart.

In time, she became active in PFLAG, a national organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents, families, and allies. Long before gay marriage was legal in the U.S., she became the liaison between gay members of her church and the clergy and board on the issue of civil unions.

My mother continues to be a voice for dignity, respect, love, and welcoming in her church today. Although she lives in a very conservative region of the country, she does not hesitate to stand up for what she believes. She speaks openly and honestly about her love for both Johnathon and me as well as for my gay nephew, and about how proud she is of all of us. Conscious choices.

As a woman who came of age in the mid-20th century American south, she has evolved tremendously in her views around gender and racial equality. Her perspectives on societal issues and how life works continue to evolve with each passing year. Tradition is very important to her, yet she recognizes that changing times demand changing attitudes and practices. Not every tradition is to be carried forward. She makes daily choices accordingly.

Today as I celebrate my mother’s birthday, I celebrate the role model that she is. She shows us that, regardless of our circumstances, we can make conscious choices about how we live, what we believe, and how we engage with others.

How We Can All Make Conscious Choices, Even In Uncertain Times

We live in challenging and uncertain times – times that are taking a psychological toll individually and collectively. We may not be able to change what is happening right away, nor can we always control our first reactions or first thoughts about situations, news, or events.

However, we can choose our second thought. We can choose how we will consciously respond to what is happening rather than unconsciously react.

We can choose our relationship to the world around us. We can make conscious choices about how we meet each day. We can be intentional about the energetic space we create around us.

We can take good care of ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. We can be honest with ourselves about what we need for our own wellbeing, and make sure that we provide that for ourselves.

When someone else offers us nurture, care, and support, we can acknowledge and appreciate the gift. And we can do our best to provide that space for others. As I heard Bill Moyers say at Chautauqua a few weeks ago, we can move beyond “live and let live” to “live and help live.”

The bottom line: We always have choice about who we are and how we respond to what is happening. In author Vivian Greene’s words,

Life isn’t about waiting
for the storm to pass.
It’s about learning how to
dance in the rain.

 Thank you, Mother, for being a role model for learning how to dance in the rain. Happy Birthday!

~ ~ ~

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