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A special Mother’s Day column from Mary Mitchell’s daughter

Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, left, with daughter and guest columnist Kathryn M. Johnson.

Kathryn M. Johnson, an aspiring writer, is the daughter of Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell.

As an infant, my mother and her twin sister were smuggled across the Mississippi state line in a picnic basket.

These babies were ferried to the North by their mother, a chestnut-colored sharecropper’s daughter. She hid them because they were fair-skinned and green-eyed. They could have passed for white. My grandmother went north with them, passersby unaware of the lives inside.

This old story of my mama’s has always been special to me. But, as an adult, I’ve found new meaning in it.

Mothers are like that picnic basket. To children, they seem plain, practical and unremarkably utilitarian. In spite of this, other people manage to see something special inside them. If we are lucky, as they carry us from helplessness to independence, we begin to see something extraordinary inside of them, too.

Mothers, don’t deny your children the gift of truly knowing you.

When we’re little, moms teach us the business of living through their cooking, chauffeuring, cleaning and counseling. Mamas teach us right from wrong in colors that children understand — stark black and white. Moms tell us to follow the rules to find our happily-ever-afters.

As we grow, we realize our maternal bond is the most significant in our lives because it shapes how we will relate to people. This was the hard work, turning us into beings fit to learn and love. Still, we don’t praise mothers unless this magic is done with a grace that makes it look simple. This is a slight, for it’s life’s challenges that teach us how to be.

A few weeks ago, I was in my mama’s kitchen, helping her make Sunday dinner. We chatted as we cooked, and soon our conversation turned to our relationship. I casually mentioned a conversation we’d had that I thought hurt her feelings. She turned to me and snapped, “You don’t have any idea what hurts my feelings.”

I was too shocked to reply, but when I got home I cried. She was right.

I’ve always considered her to be one of my best friends, and I’ve been proud of the thing between us that makes our relationship different, better than that of other women and their mothers. I thought it was because I was more her friend than her daughter.

I was wrong. Our one-sided relationship has been average. She’d done the motherly things right, but I’ve grown up and haven’t applied her lessons to our relationship.

My mother’s unconditional love and abiding compassion have served to protect me from outsiders. Her love for me is meant to equip me with care and concern for others.

My mama’s life, lived openly in black, white and shades of gray, urges me to live authentically. Her honesty is meant to teach me that the best friendships are supported by accountability.

My mom’s bone-deep belief in my talents has nurtured me through my failures and enabled me to shake off longstanding doubt. Her trust is meant to instill and deepen my faith.

I’m grateful that my mama has generously shrugged off my selfishness as one of the failings of youth. I hope she knows how many of my best stories are ours and how many of my memories include her.

We haven’t been best friends before now, but I hope we can be.