“You’re stronger than you realize.”

In truth these words apply to pretty much all of us at some time or another. Life has a way of battering, testing and breaking us down…if we let it.

But more than 30 years ago I shared those words with my mom when she was going through a very difficult chapter in her life – a divorce she didn’t want (at the time) from my father. They were words she needed to hear and, more importantly, believe. Because they were true.

June 3rd, 2020 marks the 85 birthday for Diane May Kaufer and it’s a milestone that I want to honor by sharing some of her story. It’s really quite a remarkable story – so much so I know I won’t do it justice in this single post. But I will try. There are so many remarkable things about my mom that I want the world to know while she’s still on this earth – not when we’re celebrating her life after she’s gone.

“You’re stronger than you realize.”

Mom didn’t have the best foundation to build from as a child – but you would never know that by talking to her today. She was born a twin in 1935 and describes herself as the “shy one” while her twin sister was the outgoing one. After they were born, mom and her sister were given up to her grandparents. Her own parents were already too overwhelmed with the burden of raising 3 other children on an extremely limited income.

Mom’s grandparents were also poor. This was in the 1930s and the depression was in full bloom. Her grandfather was also battling Parkinson’s so her grandmother was in full time caretaking mode. With limited plumbing. And electricity. And income.

When mom was 3 her twin sister got very sick and was taken to the hospital, never to return. She died. Mom said she still remembers her waving from the window of the car. From an early age she had to learn about survivor’s guilt.

She went to primary and high school in Watsonville, California and had relatives in the area who had a big impact on her life – especially an aunt and uncle who we later knew as “Auntie & Uncle George.” Watsonville was a heavy agricultural community and her uncle had apple orchards and later a company that produced apple juice and cider.

Mom often talks about how it was in high school that she felt like she blossomed. She joined chorus and the service organization Jobs Daughters. She dreamed of going to Stanford but it wasn’t a viable option in those days – especially without financial means. She did attend junior college and later began working as a secretary. She shared a house with friends Betty and Pat near Monterey and worked at Fort Ord as a civilian (when we were kids we used to tease her by saying that “Mom was in the army”). It was there she met my father. They fell in love, got married and in 1959 my older brother George was born. They were now a family, with later additions from Lynette (1961), myself (1965) and my younger brother Paul (1967).

Before the family moved to Walnut Creek in early 1968, Mom and Dad moved a lot. Dad was consumed with building his professional career and Mom’s job was to “run the household” – which seemed completely typical and normal in the 1960s and 70s. I can’t imagine how difficult and challenging it was to raise four very different kids pretty much on her own. This isn’t a criticism of my Dad at all – he was more involved in my life than many other dads of that era – but the bar was pretty low in that category.

In spite of the non-stop work that went into cooking for and cleaning up after four kids (and a dog), Mom created an atmosphere in our home that made it a favorite hangout for all of our friends – from George down to Paul over the years. Mom loved kids. LOVED. Still does too. Being a grandma has been one of her greatest joys – I have no doubt about that.

Mom and I have always been close. I think there are two main reasons for this.

1) We both like to talk so we’ve always been able to talk and share with each other. Except in the mornings. Mom hated it when I would wake up (I’ve always been a morning person) ready to chat. She confessed to me later there were more than a few times she “wanted to reach over and strangle me just to shut me up.” (It sounds a lot worse than she meant it. I think).

2) I wasn’t the healthiest baby or kid – so we spent a lot of time together either cuddling/rocking (to comfort me) or going to and waiting for doctor appointments. But I’m glad we’ve been close and consider myself lucky that I’ve had this relationship with her.

At one point in elementary school (I think) I was tasked with writing a report about a relative. I chose Mom because she was convenient. I remember asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to be a mom. I didn’t really believe her – I thought it was the kind of answer a mom thought she had to give to her kid. But she was insistent. She said her dream was to have a family and a house full of love and children and she considered herself so lucky because as far as she’s concerned, her dreams came true. Even at that age I considered that to be a remarkable statement.

Mom has been ahead of the times in many ways. I remember another conversation I had with mom in elementary school. She told me that when I got old enough to marry that i probably wouldn’t have a wife who didn’t have a job too. She explained that the world was changing and it was going to be much more common to have working women than it was in those days. She later went back to work herself after we moved to Portland to help pay for college tuition for me and Paul.

“You’re stronger than you realize”

I think about how much I’ve learned from mom and the impact she has had on my life and the lives of my siblings, nieces, nephews and family and friends everywhere. Where do I start? Empathy for others? Again, I remember from a young age mom teaching me to “put yourself in their shoes and think about how they might be thinking about that.” I did and do. Empathy is powerful – I wish more in our country had it.

I also learned (or inherited) her “all or nothing” approach when it comes to projects and organizations. She and my dad were avid square dancers for a number of years and I think we all learned through observation and osmosis what it takes to help organize and motivate a volunteer organization – while also building lifelong friendships along the way. Mom and Dad held pretty much every job there was in the club – including newsletter editor/publisher (which I think helped encourage my own interest in writing). Friendships were developed during this period that do indeed last to this day for her – more than 40 years in some cases. Many of these friends had their own kids who were around our age so there were many family picnics and camping trips together – which created their own lifetime of memories.

Mom has always been incredibly creative – and remains so (amazingly). There hasn’t been a cookbook, recipe, piece of fabric or craft project she hasn’t looked at and wondered how she could make it herself – different or better. We tease her – and she’s gotten better about taking it – but she literally has a collection of 1000+ cookbooks and boxes of fabric. She did confess to me last week that she’ll have to live to be 150 years old to finish all the projects and ideas in her head. She and I have talked about how sometimes it can feel like a curse to have an active creative mind because it can be a challenge to remain focused – and it can also interfere with sleep.

I look at my mom with both respect and reverence. She overcame a difficult childhood and somehow maintained an optimism and hope for a brighter future – and made it happen. She created a family that while imperfect (as is every family), was (and is) full of love and laughs. She experienced a stormy chapter mid-life and emerged more confident and resilient than she ever had been before. And so while I was the one who told her she was stronger than she realized, seeing her make this prophetic has helped me as well.

I’ll be honest. I wouldn’t have predicted we’d get to celebrate Mom’s 85th birthday. She has battled health ailments (including pneumonia twice in the past few years) but has battled through and survived. And when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, we had to cancel what was going to be a Memorial Day weekend celebration and family reunion. This was especially difficult because nothing means more to mom than family time together. I know her favorite memories have been family get-togethers celebrating high school and college graduations; not to mention Thanksgivings and weddings.

Being isolated and quarantined has been a challenge for nearly all of us – and Mom is no exception. As soon as it became apparent that COVID-19 was something to be concerned about, she self-quarantined (in February) so her social life has been extremely limited. I’m going to take a page out of Mom’s optimism though and believe that better days are ahead and we WILL be able to spend time together again.

But for now I just want to say thanks Mom for everything you’ve done for me and all you’ve brought to this world. Look at the life you’ve created and the lives you’ve touched and know that it’s been a life done very very well.

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