Every mother is unique, yet every mother is the same.

Every mother is a perfectly ordinary woman, yet every mother is a remarkable creature.

Today my mother is eighty-eight years old. I took her for granted for many years (which seems to be a sadly frequent fate for mothers) but each year makes me more astonished at what she has accomplished, and what she continues to accomplish.

My father died of a brain tumor in his forty-fourth year, leaving my mother with eight children, age 2 to 18. I was the two-year-old, and I don’t have any memories of that time, but I can imagine it must have been difficult. At some point it became apparent that my father had left us with some good investments that kept us from living in a financial straitjacket. But even though she didn’t have to work, my mother still had to raise all of us without any help, and raise us in an era – the 1960s and 70s — that didn’t resemble her childhood in the least.

The thing that strikes me most from my youth is the number of different worlds my mother exposed us to – we were always taking trips to the planetarium, the stock exchange, the opera, the theater, historic sites, a two-week drive across the country – as if she were lighting up all these experiences, like little brushfires, to see which ones would spark our imaginations. She also exposed me to the range of social causes that became increasingly important to her over time, including weekly visits to the sick and dying, which frightened me as a child, but left me with a powerful sense of the durability and fragility of life, and of justice.

And my mother never hesitated to load us into the car to head to a nearby ridge in the hopes of catching a particularly stunning sunset. If she timed it right, she would gaze and exclaim repeatedly as gleaming golds and oranges settled into dusky pinks and purples.

The older I get, the more I find myself asking how in the world she ever did it. How, for example, did she survive almost twenty years under the same roof with multiple teenagers?

There are many answers, but one of the most important is her sense of humor. My mother has always been the favorite butt of her own jokes, endlessly amused by telling stories of her gaffes, taking pleasure in missteps she would never enjoy at anyone else’s expense. That humor, and humility through humor, has been a constant inspiration.

Now, at eighty-eight, she still makes regular visits to the hospital down the street to give comfort to the sick and dying, taking her diminished sight and hearing, as well as her decreasing mobility, in stride.

I’ve heard that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to age gracefully. If that’s the case, there is no birthday gift I could offer that is more precious than the one I’m receiving each day.

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