An Open Letter to Bob and Nancy Mommaerts

Mom and Dad,

I’ve been meaning to write you this letter for quite awhile–years actually—but like that sad beautiful Cat’s in the Cradle song, there never seemed to be quite enough time. Now here I am, just settling into a new job in a new city, sleeping on a friend’s couch after driving across the country with my sister and dog (don’t worry—both are safe at Zach’s farm). I’m exhausted and alternating between feeling brave, crazy, and lost, but I’m not making any more excuses. I need to get a few things off my chest.

Regardless of how my newest adventure turns out, I am infinitely grateful for your support every step of the way. I know I wouldn’t be here without you, and I probably wouldn’t have spent the last two years in DC, or traveled the world, or maybe even gone to college (remember when I wanted to be a jockey?). Since I was old enough to be aware, I felt lucky to have been born into a family that gave me so much love and opportunity. And the older I get, the more obvious that becomes.

Mom and Dad, you gave me two incredible gifts that really shaped who I am and enabled me to take on all the ambitious endeavors I’ve pursued in the last twenty-five years: confidence and imagination. You told me I was smart and talented so many times that I never doubted it. You read me stories and made me do homework during my summer vacation, but you also gave me plenty of opportunity to play and explore the great outdoors with my sister. Mom, as you know, we did not appreciate spending hot summer afternoons watering all your trees with buckets of water we could barely lift—it may have even violated child labor laws—but you taught me the value of hard work and I’m sure that’s where I got my green thumb. Dad, your constant riddles challenged me to think outside the box–as I recently discovered was your intention all along.

You weren’t very church-y, but you taught us the Golden Rule, and you modeled it. Though we grew up in a sheltered, small town in Wisconsin, you were never prejudiced. You taught me to really see everyone as equal, equally deserving of love and respect and opportunity. Maybe that’s because you grew up poor and had faced some discrimination in your own lives. Or maybe it’s just because you knew it was right.

You showed us how to be strong women, but still warm and nurturing. Mom, you are one of the strongest women I know, and Dad, you are one of the gentlest men. Mom made me the “Breakfast of Champions” before I took my ACT test in high school to make sure I would have maximum brainpower, and Dad gave me the only Valentine I received this year, a handmade one he left on my pillow. Maybe it was because he knew this was the first year I’d been single on Valentine’s Day since I was 16, or maybe he just wanted show me he loves me. And though you were both happy for Brittany and I to leave Wisconsin and seek new opportunity in the Golden State, you fought back tears when we left.

Mom, you always try to hide those tears, the ones I’m sure you’re crying now, but you shouldn’t. Vulnerability is a beautiful thing, it’s what keeps us human, and it’s a certain kind of softness that you’ve certainly passed on to me.

Mom and Dad, the day I walked into your house this past September after a 15,000 mile soul-searching road-trip, I looked at it with a fresh set of eyes. I saw a bountiful pile of veggies on the kitchen table that you had just harvested from your garden, and I looked outside at all the trees you’d planted over the years, all the birdhouses you’d built and stocked, the pasture we had kept our horses in surrounded by the fence you built by hand. I saw the walls covered in photos of my sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews, and even though you weren’t home, I felt an overwhelming amount of love. I thought I might like to stay awhile, to soak up your unconditional love and maybe even learn something from you now that I’m old enough to know I don’t know everything.

I planned on staying for a month or two until I figured out a new life plan, but of course the universe had a bit longer time-line. I was lucky enough to spend five months under your roof, the longest since I left home seven years ago. Five months of taking evening walks with you through the woods and around the farm, of tormenting Dad with vegetarian meals, of commiserating with Mom about our crappy minimum-wage jobs, of family movie night, of lamenting the state of the world, of playing with our very cute kittens, of discussing the weather and birdwatching. Dad, you rescued at least two wild animals with your bare hands. I think the cardinal you saved on Christmas Day was particularly auspicious.

During that time you supported me emotionally and financially—never once saying you were disappointed in me for discarding a perfectly good life without having a back-up plan. In fact, you’ve never said you were disappointed in me. Not even those few times back in my unruly days when you had to collect me from the police station.

Rather, you continued encouraging me to follow my dreams, as always. You put up with my yoga and sage and art projects and worm bin and scobies and even my plan to convert your home into a community organic farm and reality TV show. Dad even tried to revive my singing career (without my knowledge) by contacting the Green Bay Packers to see if I could sing the national anthem at one of their games.

You told me the world needs people who aren’t afraid to speak up or take risks. I get that from you, you know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of you truly afraid of anything, and you never just turn your head when injustice is occurring. You fight back.

I’ve definitely inherited some of your fearlessness, but aspire to embody it more fully. In fact, the two goals I’ve set for myself these days are to live freely and love unconditionally.

Mom, you gave me a wooden sign that says “Follow Your Dreams” when I graduated high school that I take everywhere with me, and it only just occurred to me that the sign is still on the bookshelf in my bedroom at your house rather than here on my new desk.

Maybe it’s time to pass on the sign to one of your grandchildren, because I don’t need it anymore. You’ve trained me well enough.

Thank you.

Love, RissImage

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