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The Timeless Gifts My Mother Gave Me

Updated: Mar 23

It’s wonderful to have a special day to celebrate all mothers and what they do, like Mother’s Day! Hardly a day goes by when I’m not grateful to my mother for what she did for my brother, my sisters, and me. My mum and my dad, an ex-army officer, stayed in India after the British pulled out. It led to a life of poverty, hardship, and social segregation.

Somehow, in some of the most oppressive living conditions, my mother managed to not only make our childhood tolerable, but to give us the tools to better our lives and fight our way out of the slums of Calcutta.

I will never forget the kindness and courage of this incredible woman who gave us so much, often at huge personal cost. Although I remember many of the wonderful things she did, there are five key values that she instilled in us that gave us the perfect preparation for the harshness of life.

1. Family is precious: Hang on to it at all costs

It was always tough getting a good education, and up to secondary school most of it came from my mother. However, in the late 70’s I became eligible to join a boarding school that was started by the British in India (St. Thomas Girl’s School, Kidderpore).

It was a relief to my mother that we were fed with a roof over our heads and received a decent education. Some of the sponsors who funded the school would visit seeking to adopt children who came from underprivileged backgrounds, and I learned later that from time to time they approached our mother with offers to take us off her hands.

There was definite temptation in the offer. It would mean we were cared for and had a chance of a better life, and it would also reduce the worry and load on the rest of the family. However, my mother was adamant and in replying to the school she did not hold back. “We might be poor and might not have any worldly goods, but I love my children and no amount of money in the world can part me from them or part them from each other”.

She knew with those words that she increased the pressure and burden on herself to provide our care. But it never occurred to her that this wasn’t a burden she wasn’t more than willing to carry.

2. Caring for others is a habit

Jillian, her mum, two sisters and brother when they were little

Everyone who met my mother loved her. The matrons in my school loved her, student boys and girls loved her, our neighbours of all castes and cultures loved her and every child she met loved her too.

Why was that?

She was just a person who would stop at nothing to help another. She would take an elderly person to the hospital. She would pick up a lady who was struggling and take her to different churches and associations to try and get her some help. She taught children English in our little room. She would make soup out of dry bones and take it to our schools and give it to all the other students in bottles. All she wanted, every day, was to help, to share, and to wipe the tears away from as many eyes as possible.

It was from her example and teaching that I set up a charity in India. It has helped hundreds of youngsters learn the trade of tailoring, beauty therapy, and secretarial skills, so that they can make their own way in life and help provide for their families. Sometimes, this takes a lot of effort. However, I remember that my mother was relentless when it came to helping others. Although I left India many years ago, to this day people contact me just to tell me what my mother had done for them.

There are many times I feel the pride of looking at how the joy of helping others far exceeds the joy I feel of achieving something for myself. My mother certainly left us with a powerful legacy.

3. Be grateful for what you have

We were certainly never rich in worldly goods. But despite not having many of the things other children took for granted, my mother always taught as to be grateful for what we did have. One of her favourite sayings was “life could be a lot worse.” There were times when I couldn’t quite see how that was true, but her constant gratitude made me focus on what we did have, rather than what we didn’t.

I remember on one occasion after we’d fled the dangers of being kidnapped in Dum Dum, we had nowhere to stay.

A “generous” friend said we could stay under their dank stairwell, next to a drain. It was close to the local water pump and sewer. Slime and mildew draped the single back wall and the underside of the stairs and vermin crawled constantly over the entire space. My sister and I thought it was absolutely horrendous. But my mother would have none of it.

In her resolute way, she soothed and lifted our spirits with beaming smiles and boundless energy. “We are together and the bad people from Dum Dum can’t find us now,” she would say. She also said, “We have a roof over our heads and shelter from the heat and rain. There are many others who are worse off”.

4. Framing a positive mental attitude

My mother put a lot of focus on how we mentally viewed our situation. She was an expert at framing any situation with a positive slant. It never made our situation better, but it certainly built our resilience.

We had no real money for clothing. We begged for the scraps of material tailors threw away. We would take them back to our mum who would sort them and make them into garments.

On one occasion she made us colourful coats of all the offcuts. The other schoolchildren laughed at us because of these peculiar clothes, and we would arrive home from school in tears.

However, my mother would reframe the situation. She told us the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours and then said, “Ignore the laughter. These kids are just jealous because you have splendid coats that none of them can have”.

This constant positive reframing helped us cope with all the negative comments you get as a result of being poor.

5. Show your pride

Given the hardship and trauma we had faced, it stood to reason that even if we did get into a formal school, we were never going to be top of the class. However, my mother was determined that I should do my best. Thanks to her example, I was inspired to work hard.

When it came to the end of term prize-distribution day with 2000 parents, pupils, and teachers I was happily daydreaming when my classmate poked me and said, “They called out your name.” I just sat still because I was sure they were wrong. Then I heard “Jillian Haslam, please come forward and collect the progress prize for class 5E”. In the daze, I floated onto the stage to receive my prize.

As I turned to walk off the stage, I saw my mother. Her face radiated sheer happiness, pure love, and boundless pride. The look I saw in her eyes has stayed with me forever.

In whatever you do, you will always feel inspired to go forward and do better if somebody shows immense pride in what you’ve done. All mums seem to be blessed with this skill, but no matter who you care for, you can accelerate their progress by letting them see just how proud you are of their accomplishments.

These are just five of the timeless gifts my mother gave me, and I treasure them every day. This is especially true on Mother’s Day, when I just take a bit longer to reflect and give thanks for the generosity and unstinting effort that my mother, and so many mothers, put into each and every one of us to thrive.

You can read my entire story in my Kirkus-star reviewed memoir, A Voice Out of Poverty.


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