Every morning when I reach for my milk, I see the little wallet-size photo on our fridge.
Attached to the freezer compartment door with a small magnet is a 1972 photo of my family: me, my sister Lee Ann, my father Blair and my mother Wilma. It was our church directory photo at the West Seventh Street Church of Christ in Columbia, Tennessee.
My sharp-dressed dad looks like Johnny Cash; unseen in the photo is the walking cane that he used to steady his gait. At 45, he had already had multiple back surgeries.
(READ MORE: This is how I know my dad's suffering was not in vain)
There's me at age 14 with bangs in my eyes, dressed in my Sunday best (including a shirt collar that looks like it might flap like a bird and take flight at any second) and my little sister with her puffy-sleeved dress.
My mother is dressed in her favorite outfit, a sleeveless leopard-print dress that she also wore to office Christmas parties where she would sing the Loretta Lynn hit "Don't Come Home a-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)."
The irony of her singing that song always made people laugh. My mother was a sweet church lady, whose only vice was laughing unnaturally hard at slapstick comedy. She wasn't the kind of person you'd expect to belt out a honky-tonk tune.
She looks pretty in the photo with her home-curled hair and symmetrical features.
(READ MORE: 10 lessons I learned from my banker mom)
It was the year of pantsuits, "The Godfather" and the introduction of the Egg McMuffin at McDonald's. It was also my eighth-grade year, the year I began working sweeping up and cleaning toilets at Derryberry's Drug Store in downtown Columbia.
It was the nature of our family that my mom was closest to me emotionally. My dad, a war veteran, was stoic and detached. My sister was about five years younger, so we didn't have a lot in common back then.
But my mom wasn't afraid to shower me with love. And she kept tabs on me, too. The head teller at one of our town's largest banks, she was personal friends with my teachers and most of my friends' parents. She knew my bosses at the drugstore, my band directors and my youth minister at church.
Small-town life felt a little suffocating for a teenage boy, so I didn't always reciprocate my mother's kindnesses. In fact, in retrospect, I probably took her for granted. It took me years to understand the sacrifices she made to hold our family together through my father's disability.
She would always tell people, "I live for my children." It wasn't a boast, just a fact. She almost never bought anything for herself. Her one splurge in life was a trip to the Holy Land when she retired.
Mother died soon after our first son, now 21, was 4.
Maybe this is just the way of the world, but becoming a dad changed my view of my mother entirely. Instead of thinking she was sappy and overly sentimental, I suddenly understood that the immense love a parent feels for a child can fill up a tender heart and spill out as tears.
(READ MORE: Quality time with your kids is a blessing)
And it's not just when your children are young. With every prayer I raise for our sons, now 21 and 16, I feel echoes of my mom praying for me when I was a teen and young adult. When I was young, I never imagined that saying a prayer (or two) for me was perhaps a daily feature of my mom's life. Now, I'm almost certain that it was.
If not for her faith and earnest prayers for me, my life might have veered in a bad direction. By the time I was old (and wise) enough to thank her properly, she had drifted into dementia.
So I have things yet to tell her. Hugs yet to give. And I believe the time will come when we will meet again.
If your mother is still at your side today, please give her a hug. In the fullness of time, you may learn that her love for you is so boundless that it may take you a lifetime to fully understand. And by then she won't be there to hug.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-645-8937.