Written by Lydia Benedict.

When I was a kid, I had a neighbor named Jan. She offered my mother work sewing for her newly created backpack company. My mom wasn't a career minded woman, but she's a talented seamstress and sewing is in her blood: her great, great-grandmother sewed for the king of Denmark. Although working for a king wasn't in her cards, perhaps my mother could have used her skills in the fashion world sewing for a company like Calvin Klein. Instead she added a Juki, an industrial size power sewing machine, to our little house and started making backpacks. I still remember spending hours beside my mother stringing elastic through the casing of waterproof backpack covers for JanSport.

That's right, my mother sewed for the world-renowned backpack company started by our two neighbors that we knew as Jan Lewis and Murray McCory. After Murray invented and patented the exterior aluminum backpack frame, Jan sewed the pack. JanSport started in an old car parts store, above Murray's machine shop in North Seattle. When I reached Jan by phone this past week, she said that in the beginning half of their store front was filled with backpacks and the other half, antiques. Asked if she ever dreamed of the business becoming a leader in the world of backpacking equipment, she said, "I just thought it would be a nice family company."

1984 American China-Everest Expedition.


And if my mother had a curriculum vitae (which she doesn't), she could finally take a little credit for making the JanSport suits for the 1984 north face ascent of Mt. Everest. It was called the American China-Everest Expedition and was led by Lou Whittaker, sporting my mom's red suit replete with a drop-bottom seat. But even on that occasion I don't remember her receiving any recognition. We simply watched on our little black and white TV as the men climbed Mt. Everest in the suits my mother had made.

My mother with me and two of my siblings.


My mother chose a simple life filled mostly with her children and husband. Her goal wasn't fancy. She just wanted happy. Together with my dad, she saw her kids through the bumps, bruises, scrapes, and injuries of life, receiving a few bumps and bruises along the way too.

My mother has a mischievous side to her too. When I was a teenager, she helped me sneak into a boys' camp. Disguised in my dad's Army fatigues, I ended up playing a nighttime game of Capture the Flag with the boys, including my brother and his friends. And when I got too close to the flag, the biggest boy (whom I had a crush on, by the way), lifted and tossed me aside like a rag doll. To this day, I don't think he knew it was me. That's one of my favorite memories and it wouldn't have happened without my mom.

Me (with Jeff) wearing dress made by my mother


I'm not sure whether my mother was born with spunk to help her through life, or if she developed spunk as a result of life. Either way, she liked to have fun. If water fighting was a sport, she'd be champion. There wasn't a bucket big enough, or a garden hose long enough to stop my mom when you came up against her in a water fight. Any warm summer day (and sometimes if it weren't) my mother considered fair game to douse someone. She'd get you with a cup, bucket, or hose. The only rule was it had to be cold. And there have been time when even the house has not provided refuge: she once dumped a bucket of water on my niece INSIDE the house.

Aside from playing hard, my mother has worked hard her entire life. She said that she had always wanted a dozen children. She stopped at nine. As second oldest, I helped with the cooking, cleaning, laundry and of course, babysitting. Then there was the big family garden each summer which translated to lots of weeding and canning. As if the physical work wasn't hard enough, there were emergency trips to the doctor, dentist, and –yes—the hospital. From busted out teeth, to broken limbs and flesh wounds, my mother knew her way around the ER.

My mother still spends a lot of time at hospitals. Almost four years ago my dad retired. Two months later, he had a massive stroke. Today, my mother spends her days (and often nights too) caring for him, giving him medicine, and making him comfortable. Her calendar is filled with doctors' appointments, blood draws, and surgeries. I can see my mother helping my dad into the car, positioning his legs, buckling his seatbelt, and putting his walker and wheelchair in the back. This isn't the way my mother pictured her golden years. Yet she is thankful she still has my dad.

Understand—my mother isn't perfect. But I don't need perfect—just the woman I call mom. As a girl, I learned from her example of love, commitment and devotion. As a mother, I learned that I am indebted to my mother.

This week, my mother reconnected with our old neighbor, Jan. She told my mom she had some work for her. My mom is considering dusting off the old Juki, one more time.