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Amy Donaldson: Running Ragnar Hawaii with my 69-year-old mother offers lessons in perseverance

WAIMEI, Hawaii — Pride and affection washed over me as I watched her employ her trademark power walk-jog in conquering the first of her three Ragnar legs outside the city of Waimei on the Mamloahoa Highway.

The sun turned the sky into a breathtaking array of pinks behind her as she put her head down, pumped her arms and pushed into the headwind that might slow or discourage anyone else. I felt tears in my eyes until my sister’s commentary on our 69-year-old mother’s red-faced determination made me laugh. Lora Jean Donaldson was, as my dad often said, something else.

I did not always realize I was raised by a Superhero. That was, in large part, because her superpowers seemed so ordinary to a child with big ideas and an even bigger ego. Her easy-going nature, almost incomprehensible patience and endless generosity obscured just how tough, gritty and determined my green-eyed, quick-witted mother really is.

And while I have always loved her fiercely, it took facing my own challenges before I understood why she also deserved my admiration. As she ran her final leg last weekend, in brutal heat and humidity on a highway that traverses some of the least picturesque parts of the Big Island, I started to worry about her. I was afraid her Alaskan thermostat would overheat in Hawaii’s afternoon sunshine. I was afraid I’d asked too much of my mom, who will turn 70 in February, when we needed one more runner for our family Ragnar Hawaii Team — The Best Family Reunion — Ever.

I offered to run for her, as did my sisters. I offered to run with her, but she took a sip (and I mean a dainty, neat, didn’t-spill-a-drop sip) of water and waved me away. So I just thought about all the times she’s surprised me, taught me and inspired me.

My mother is self-deprecating to a fault. She used to joke that when God was handing out beauty and talent, she was, instead of dutifully standing in line, goofing off somewhere. If I’m honest, I really liked that my mother didn’t care about standing in line for something that other people valued. I relished the idea that she was too busy having fun to worry about being practical. The reality is she has both in spades, along with an adventurous spirit. I think it was more that, like most of us, she didn’t get her gifts in the package she wanted or what she expected people thought was important.

She dealt with whatever life threw at her with such grace that for much of my childhood, I didn’t think she’d made any mistakes. I stupidly thought that she didn’t ask much of life, so she was never disappointed. In actuality, she has rarely known a day without struggle, but she just chooses to make the best of even the most discouraging situations.

She grew up in extreme poverty that was mitigated by an abundance of love from a large extended family. Her father died when she was 16, and she lost her mom when she was 29. She dropped out of college to marry my dad, and then he dropped out of college to join the Marine Corps at the height of the Vietnam War. My mom started her marriage with a soldier husband and two daughters just 16 months apart.

She worked minimum-wage jobs most of her life, and she made sure she drummed into my head that I needed to do better for myself. She was always a favorite employee because, like my dad, she worked hard, did more than she was asked and was pleasant to deal with, regardless of the tasks assigned. I remember going to work with her when she worked nights at a bank, and she got me a summer job at a different bank when I was 19. Working with her gave me a glimpse into the sacrifices she made for me and my siblings.

Being the oldest child affords you a view of your parents as people because, at least in my case, they were still deciding what they wanted to be in life. My parents were a mixture of hard work and reckless abandon. We were among the first to own a trampoline, a VCR and an ATV. My dad made up games and competitions, while my mom always found time to play softball or bowl. Usually that meant taking me and my siblings along to whatever adventure my mom and her older sister, who had five children of similar ages, had planned. They were, at the same time, among the hardest working people I’ve ever met.

When life got complicated, they got creative.

Seldom was there time or energy for pity, and often the salve to any situation was laughter — and maybe, in a real crisis, a Hostess cupcake with a glass of cold milk.

She lived by simple rules — love a lot, give more and when you feel like you don’t know what to do, turn to God.

My mom taught me that there is no task that doesn’t deserve my best effort. She once made me scrub a tub four times, each time, patiently showing me where I’d missed something. She didn’t criticize me or yell at me. But I was not blessed with patience and I was in tears; I didn’t understand why she had to be such a perfectionist. It would take about 20 years for me to see the value in that lesson, and even longer before I felt gratitude for her willingness to teach me.

My mom’s mettle became more obvious to me as I aged. When I was young, I thought all mothers were paragons of faith, hard work and unconditional love. I had to leave home to learn that everyone wasn’t as lucky as me. I had to become a mother to understand just how uniquely gifted my mother really is.

Maybe the most beautiful lesson my mother taught me is that I should never give up on a dream. She regretted dropping out of college all her life. She went back in her early 40s, but then two more sisters blessed our brood, and she put her own desires on the back burner, once again.

In 2003, she finally earned her bachelor's degree at 56. I was so proud of her, I planned a trip for us to celebrate. Three years after that, she earned her master's degree, and began working as a mental health counselor — the field she’d talked about working in since I was a child. Just a year ago, at 68, she opened her own business.

I hear people talk all the time about what they would do if life hadn’t forced them onto a different path or what dream they might pursue if they’d been offered a more amenable situation. I have offered these excuses myself. Yeah, my mom has lamented lost opportunities, mistakes that took time and energy from her goals, and priorities that with six children and 14 grandchildren are constantly being re-arranged. But then she just puts her head down and goes to work.

It’s part of the reason I knew she could be runner 10, even as she warned me she couldn’t. I’ve been trying to keep up with that power walk-jog all my life. Which is why, even as I worried about her, it really didn’t surprise me when she kept waving me off as she conquered that final leg.

Jean Donaldson doesn’t know how to quit. I guess when God was handing out the ability to give up, she must have been goofing off somewhere instead of dutifully standing in line.


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