When I was 25, I asked Mom if she would teach me how to decorate a cake. She said, “Well, sure.” She showed me how to pile the icing on top and level it out, being careful not to pull crumbs up from the side. I made a lot of mistakes. The icing was too thin in some places. Chunks of cake came loose and polluted the icing. I pointed to a hole that I had somehow made in the cake. She looked at it and said this:
“Oh, that’s just a good place to put a flower.”
She took a tiny, flat metal flower nail and spun it in her fingers as her hands moved swiftly and without any hesitation, creating a flawless rose. She placed it on top of the hole that I had made.
I cannot think of a better metaphor for Mom’s life. A master of turning the holes into something beautiful.
I want to tell you about who my mom was.
Her name was Cecilia. Born May 9, 1954 in Spencer, Iowa to Cyril and Virginia Bundy. She was the second oldest child, the oldest daughter of seven children. She spent her childhood on family farms in Iowa and Minnesota. When she was in high school, she moved to “the Cities,” a.k.a. Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota. She attended a Christian university, University of Northwestern, for two years. She met my father, Leland Tjaden in August 1974 at Cross of Glory Baptist Church. They were married here, in the same place that I’m standing right now, on September 6, 1975. From 1977-1984, they had four children, Phillip–who has since become Anna–Nate, Sharon, and Holly. In 1985, they moved to Dayton, Ohio for my father’s job with Supervalu, a grocery store chain in the 1980s. In 1986, my parents adopted Cecilia’s sister’s child, DeAnna–who has since become Dominic– and they raised him as their own. Yes, two of my mother’s children are transgender. And she recognized and loved them as beautiful creations of God.
In the summer of 1987, my mother received a phone call while she was decorating cakes for other people’s celebrations–her house was on fire. We lost everything. We were homeless. This event changed our lives. It taught me that the worst tragedies in our lives are almost always the times when we see humanity shine. I witnessed and felt the care of others so many times in this period of our lives. Our church sheltered and fed us until we were back on our feet.
Our family often lived paycheck to paycheck. Our furniture came from Rent-a-Center and we were frequent users of layaway. But we always had enough. We may not have had what our friends had, but we never went without what we needed. My mom could feed a family of 7 on $50 a week in the 1990s. Again, it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to eat. But we never went hungry.
In 1997, doctors found a slow-growing cancer in my mom’s small intestine. It was called a carcinoid tumor, a cancer that circulates in the blood and disrupts the endocrine system. My father’s response to the news was devastation and sadness. My mother’s response was level-headedness and optimism. This was just a thing that was true about her now and she would do what she needed to do to treat it. But beyond that, it wasn’t going to rob her of her joy and positivity. She believed deeply that God had plans for her and that those plans were ultimately beneficial to all those she loved–even if those plans included her death at an early age.
She kept that same spirit for the next 24 years.
I want to tell you some things that my mother loved.
Her Myer-Briggs personality type was ISFJ, like me and my dad. “The Protector” personality.
She loved musicals. The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel. Anything Rogers and Hammerstein. She could watch Christmas movies anytime of year. It’s a Wonderful Life. Literally all of the Hallmark Christmas movies ever made. And Lifetime movies. For music, she loved the Carpenters, Anne Murray, Josh Groban. Almost any Christmas song you can think of–she loved it.
But then there was her other side that loved action movies like Taken, Westerns, suspense, thrillers, and as Warren calls them, “men-bashing” movies, where the husband is the main villain. There was a period of time when Mom loved a TV series called Snapped, which was about wives who completely lost it on their husbands and ruined their cars or poisoned them or something like that.
She and Warren enjoyed something they called “Chicago Night,” with TV shows about Chicago PD or Chicago hospitals. Things she could watch over and over included Law and Order: SVU, Heartland, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Little House on the Prairie.
She was patient. She loved jigsaw puzzles, the more pieces the better. She loved crosswords and word puzzles in Penny Press puzzle books, particularly “Escalators” and “Magic Square Anagram” puzzles.
She was creative. Her passion and profession was decorating cakes and she truly loved the work. She worked at so many bakeries: Stumps, Cub Foods, the Rolling Pin, Cake Box, Ashley’s Pastry Shop, Kroger, and CJ Farms. She and her dear friend, Judy Smith, even ran their own cake decorating business for a period of time called “Classic Wedding Cakes.” I know she’s my mom, but really, her decorated cakes were among the best I’ve ever seen. She had a real talent for it. I remember taking her into a local bakery and she looked in the case at the cakes. When we left, I asked her what she thought. She just shook her head and said very simply, “Nothing special in there.” That was all she said.
Her favorite kind of cake was white cake with buttercream icing. If you were going to buy her a donut, she’d ask for a cake donut. Most people knew her for her decorated sugar Christmas cookies, but if she wanted to bake cookies just for herself, she’d make peanut butter cookies.
Although she was a fantastic baker, she was not known for her cooking. All five of us kids can remember the countless times that we would protest the “hot dish” that my mom had made for us, a concoction of elbow macaroni, ground beef, stewed tomatoes, onion, and sometimes celery? Actually, she put celery in a lot of things that shouldn’t have put celery. Like her chili. I remember my husband, Doug, taking a bite of her chili and a confused expression came over his face. He looked into his bowl and moved his spoon around. “Is there celery in this?” I said, “Yep.” “Who puts celery in chili?” I just shrugged. My mom leaned heavily on cream of mushroom soup and Lipton onion soup mix for seasoning a dish. One thing that it seemed that no one ever agreed with her on was her love of chicken hearts, livers, and gizzards. I remember a stuffing that my mom made. Holly took one bite of it and just said, “Mom… what did you put in this?” And she said, “You can tell?”
Beyond baking, my mom loved to do so many kinds of crafts. She sewed everything from matching Christmas and Easter dresses for her girls to curtains to handbags and even stuffed animals. There was a period in the 90s when she made–with Nate as her assistant–stuffed bunnies out of muslin cloth and dressed them up in little dresses. She quilted and made a lot of quilts for people, including me. She crocheted so many blankets, especially in her last years, when she volunteered to crochet blankets for people in hospice. In the 1980s, she went through a phase when she made barretts, all decked out in lace and beads.
As a parent, my mom recognized and valued each of her children for their uniqueness. She saw potential in each one of us, even if we disappointed her. She gave second and third and fourth chances. There was no end to the chances she would give. She was proud of whatever we did, as long as we did it to the best of our ability. She was the Keeper of the Peace in our household, the one that kept the ship sailing, even if we didn’t know the direction that we were going as the Sea of Life tossed us this way and that.
She was the owner of a perfect laugh and a Minnesota accent. And she always granted the most generous interpretation about others, even when she could have extended judgment.
My mom was an eternal optimist.
When I hugged my mom good-bye as I was leaving after my father’s funeral, I said, “I just want you to be happy for the rest of your days.” It was 2014 and the cancer was mostly asleep inside of her, but it was never too far from my mind.
She looked at me and said, “I will be.” So confidently and assuredly. And I knew she meant it.
I just couldn’t understand how she could be so optimistic, but she absolutely was. She hadn’t met Warren yet. As far as she knew in that moment, she could have been facing a lonely, financially difficult widowhood.
And yet she believed that the best was yet to come.
And by God–she was right.
My father was my mother’s first love, the father of her children, and what I say next does not take away from that cherished truth. Warren was her soulmate. Both children of farmers, lovers of the quiet land. They spent 6 incredible years together. He held her hand as she passed and still looked at her with the same adoring eyes that he had for her throughout their marriage. His last words to her were, “You gotta go, Sweetie. I’ll see you there.”
Warren, what a gift you were to my mother. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for being in her life. You will be in our lives forever now. You can’t get rid of us! You are my children’s grandfather and we will visit and care for you just as we would my own mother.
On the night before my mother passed, I read a letter to her that intended to read at her funeral. But she deserved to hear it in this life. I’d like to read that letter now.
We met on November 24, 1981 at 3:51 in the morning. It was a Tuesday, just two days before Thanksgiving. I don’t remember it, but now that I have two kids of my own, I know that it’s likely that you’ve never forgotten that morning. You told me after Felicity was born that I had been your hardest birth. That surprised me because I was your third child. You didn’t know why it had been that way. But it was. You and Dad had expected that I would be born before he had to leave for his early morning shift at the bakery. But no. At 1:00 a.m., Dad left for work.
And so, while the world slept and my father went to work, you labored alone in those final hours, which I know from experience are the loneliest, most painful, and most detached hours that you can experience in life. No matter how many people surround you, you are still alone in your pain.
These are hours when you are certain there is no one in the world who is currently suffering as much as you are. They are hours when you bear the entire weight of humanity, pushing, pulling, and pressing you from all sides. There would be no human life if not for the ability for women to bear this pain.
I repeat: Life depends on the strength and fortitude of women to bear this pain.
You bore so much pain in your life. You bore it without most people even knowing, a true testament to your roots and upbringing in rural Iowa and Minnesota, where the simple economics of farm life governed. You cannot reap what you don’t sow. You cannot take if you don’t give.
And so when life gave you pregnancies, it also gave you severe hyperemesis gravidarum. When it gave Dad the opportunity to turn his job into a career, it also gave you an extra 800 miles between you and everyone you loved. When it gave you the stress of raising teenagers, it gave you the stress of raising more teenagers. Sorry about that. That was actually completely unfair.
Mom, you were the oldest girl in a family of seven children. You talked about how difficult it had been to move from farm life to city life in high school. The teasing hurt you. So you turned to your faith. Your faith taught you that even if others didn’t accept you for who you were, you would always be accepted and loved by God. For you, being God’s child gave you the support and comfort that you needed as you grew up in a culture that you didn’t understand.
Losing Dad was tough, but why does it feel like it hurts more to lose you?
Maybe it’s because it feels like a world without your mother is a world without the greatest compassion and the most acceptance and unconditional love that you have ever known.
For a long time, I didn’t want to be a mom. Moms were so uncool. So passé. So not who I wanted to become. I wanted to be accomplished and talented and maybe someday well-known. I was going to do much, much harder things than being a mom.
What a fool I was. Such foolish, foolish thoughts. So full of pride. How could I ever think that you weren’t exactly the person that I should aspire to become?
How could I ever think that being a good mom was easy?
Being a good mom has turned out to be literally the hardest thing that I will ever do. And I’m finding now, over and over again, the empathy and the perspective that I need to understand just how difficult it must have been for you to raise 5 of us.
I’m so sorry, Mom.
Mom, it’s because of you that I’m able to keep the whole thing in perspective.
The world will always find another teacher or writer or employee. But your family will never find another you.
I know that my heart will always call out for you when I’m hurt.
I know that I will always miss your presence, but I know that I’ll miss it the most at Christmastime. Every time I smell those fragrant pine cones, covered in cinnamon and clove, I can almost hear the scratch of the record player starting up Anne Murray’s Christmas Wishes, the notes of Winter Wonderland blending into Silver Bells.
As deep as my sadness is right now, sadness is not what I want this to be about.
What I want to talk about is my gratitude—all the reasons that I’m thankful you are and will always be my mother.
Thank you, from the bottom of my soul, for not just being our mother but living your life for us, as if we were your true calling. We never felt like you had something more important to do.
Thank you for creating a home in which I always felt that there would always be enough—even when that wasn’t guaranteed.
Your optimism and positivity, which eclipsed all of Dad’s worrying.
All the times you were there when we needed you. In all the ways that we needed you. I don’t ever remember you telling us that you could not be there for us, no matter what the problem was.
For your lifelong examples of what it means to love God and live as a cherished creation of God. Through all of the financial and physical hardships, through Dad’s illness and death, you showed us how to feel grief even as you move forward.
Thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches and that I’d bite into while I was eating at school.
Thank you for the pair of shorts that you sewed for me late into the night when I told you I got laughed at for wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row in fifth grade.
Thank you for disregarding the doctors’ original prognosis in 1998 and going ahead and living your life anyway. You showed me why it was important to you to not allow people to only see CANCER when they see you. Even though cancer could consume your body, you would never give it the victory of consuming your spirit. You kept your identity and your wholeness until the end.
Thank you for teaching me that one of the very best things that you can do in this life is to be kind and generous to others—Because you never know when you will be the one that needs to feel that kindness, especially when you feel like you just cannot go on.
Thank you for filling my memory with positivity, laughter, imagination, and creativity.
Thank you for my freedom, how you basically dropped me off at college and said, “Have fun!” You gave me the space to take ownership and responsibility for my life.
Thank you for allowing me to feel a broken heart and giving me the space to learn how to keep on living after rejection and loss.
You were pretty amazing with space. Space to allow me to figure out marriage. Space to figure out how to be a mom. Space to feel my way through the pain of miscarriage. You were always there when I needed you, but you were always sensitive to how space could give me agency and ultimately, more resilience.
Life is funny and awful. Because now that I have all the space, what I wouldn’t give to give it all back just to have you back in my life until I’m much, much older. No matter how old you are, you’re never ready to lose your mother.
One of the first thoughts that I had when you told me in August 2019 that the cancer was back was… “Please don’t leave me alone in this world. I don’t know how to I can be okay in this world without knowing you are in it.”
But you have always been preparing me for this, haven’t you? For years, you have been giving me the space to steer my own life. You have been cheering me on from other states as you’ve gone on to live your life. You’ve encouraged me as I’ve developed my own social support network around me through friends and church. In my mind, I know that I will be okay. I know that I will wake up tomorrow, make the coffee, do all the things, and make it to the end of the day.
But my heart doesn’t know that. All my heart wants is to stop losing the people that I love.
When I first asked you why you gave me my name, you said I was named after Song of Solomon 2:1, I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. This didn’t really mean much to me, especially since I was eight years old.
But what you wrote in my baby book made more sense.
You wrote “The Rose of Sharon, the beauty of a desert.”
You saw me as a flower in the desert.
I came into your life at a challenging time. You were a stay-at-home mom to two young boys, aged 4 ½ and 2 years. Dad worked early morning hours at the bakery, often six days a week. We know now that Dad struggled with bipolar depression for years, but at the time, you just thought that he was moody and needed help seeing the positive side of life. And that’s what you were there for—to be his partner. To provide balance. From week to week, money was perpetually tight. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t complain about any of this, ever. That was your life. He was your husband and we were your children and God was God. And you rejoiced and were glad in it.
You saw me as a flower in the desert.
Desert flowers don’t have deep roots, but they do have extensive roots. They spread out far and wide to gather as much nourishment as possible, to prepare for the lack of rain. I really can’t think of a better metaphor for how I’ve lived most of my life. Drink up as much as you can now because the drought is coming. One way or another, it’s coming.
My roots have never been deep. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, uprooted from homes and cultures. Children of rural farmers, isolated for miles on every side. We moved away from all our extended family early in my life. For generations, this was how we lived: stretching out instead of digging down.
There were many seasons in life when you and Dad could not depend on your family because of how far away we lived. So we reached out to the church. And they were our support. They provided structure and guidance. Love and belonging. You showed me how to make a family with those around you. How to help others and how to have the humility to be helped when you needed it. And we often did. We often did.
Thank you for this, Mom. Because now that you and Dad are gone, this is how I will survive. This is how I will bloom and continue to grow in a life where my roots are almost gone. I will reach up and reach out. I will trust that someone will be there because I know the world is full of suffering—and because it is full of suffering, it is also full of empathy. My family that remains. Friends. Always friends. I will reach up and reach out because I need help to face this world without you.