The voices of our mothers

Four hygienists share the lessons and legacies of their mothers

By Diane Brucato-Thomas, RDH, EF, BS, FAADH, OMT

In many cultures, individuals are considered to have the responsibility to be the "voice of our ancestors." I believe that is true. It has been more than a year since my mother passed, and I have not been alone in my grief. Quite a few other prominent dental hygienists lost their elderly mothers recently. The grief experienced is just but one common thread between us. I reached out to some of them and what they shared fascinated me.

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These particular thought leaders in dental hygiene recently lost their mothers, who had reached the age of 90 and beyond. They are eternally influenced by their mothers, and the ripple effect of that influence is passed on to the profession of dental hygiene. Here are the stories of four extraordinary women who unintentionally influenced the profession of dental hygiene from behind the scenes.

Toni Adams, RDH, MA, is the 2009 Philips Sonicare/RDH Mentor of the Year. She is a speaker, writer, editor, publisher, and a specialist in communication issues in health care.

Toni shared these memories about her mother:
"I cannot say that my Mom influenced my choice of dental hygiene as a career. In fact, I don't think that in the early 1970s she even knew what a dental hygienist was. But she always encouraged me to do what made me happy, and she was proud when I did well. One legacy from my Mom is an interest in a variety of topics and openness to new information. Mom and Dad always loved reference books — dictionaries, atlases, anthologies, and encyclopedias. We looked things up, and often while reading about one topic, we would become distracted by another on the same page, then another, so that we could get lost in the encyclopedia. These traits have served me well in dental hygiene. I want to know whatever I can about a given aspect of care and the evidence behind it.

Doris "Dorie" Siegrist with daughter, Toni

I don't just mean Mom was organized; I mean she was OR-GAN-IZED. I grew up in a military family so we moved about every two years for most of my childhood. That meant that Mom had to pull up stakes and put down roots quickly and often. Mom could put a room into a suitcase, and hardly anything was ever lost or broken. My organizational skills have been practical throughout my years in dental hygiene. I organized my continuing education, my chart notes, my operatories, and, on one occasion, helped organize an entire new dental hygiene department. I trace that ability back to my mother. Now, I see that my eight-year-old granddaughter has inherited the organizing gene. Just this week she created a book to keep track of her silly bands. She has them catalogued according to color, shape, and category. Yikes!

Mom taught me to respect everyone. We lived in many different places and were exposed to different kinds of people long before globalization and world travel were as common as they are now. I was often frightened, but Mom led the way with her generous and welcoming hospitality for everyone. When I was growing up and a new child would move into our neighborhood, Mom reminded me how it felt to be the outsider and insisted that I go to the house, introduce myself, and invite the child to play. As a painfully shy little girl, that was torture for me. But I did it, and I have always been grateful for the lesson. I have applied those lessons to classmates and patients and coworkers of all kinds. I am a richer person because of it, and like to think that it has enhanced my work throughout my life. My mother had an unvoiced spirituality. She did not proclaim it, she lived it.

My Dad died about two years before Mom and, though she missed him in a way that only people who have been married for 66 years can understand, bore the loss with typical courage and grace. After that she said many times, "Life goes on." She had lived that philosophy all of her life. She continued to enjoy life as much as she could while thoughtfully preparing for her own passing in a way that would make the transition easiest for the rest of us. The "life goes on" philosophy helped me when I was forced to retire from clinical practice due to hand disabilities. I am clinging to that lesson and have shared it with others who are grieving. My goal now is to proceed with my life and my work in a way that would make my mother proud. When my children were almost grown and too cool for such things, Mom and I went to Disneyland together just for fun. We took every ride that we could for two days. We laughed and laughed and did all of the silly things that people do at Disneyland. At the end of the second day, Mom noticed Space Mountain. I had been steering her away from roller coasters because I worried it would be too much for her, but she wanted to try it. We had so much fun that we rode it twice and she said, "How did we almost miss that?

Laura Mallery-Sayre, RDH, MSDHEd, is a past vice president of the American Dental Hygienists' Association. During her career, she has received the ADHA/Warner Lambert Award, the ADHA Irene Newman Award, the ADHA Alfred C. Fones' Award, ADHA Oral Health Institute Liaison of the Year, and the ADHA Distinguished Service Award.

Laura shared these memories about her mother:
Mom excelled in high school and was preparing to go to college when the Great Depression struck. She met my father while working as a nurse's aide. They fell in love, married, and she moved with him to the wilderness of Northwest Montana. After five years of living mostly in tents without running water or electricity, they found a cabin to purchase with electricity but without running water. Mom learned to hunt and fish alongside my father and was an equal partner in caring for the animals on the ranch. Life was difficult financially, and jobs were scarce. When I was born, Mom decided that I was bound for college. She did not want me to have to haul buckets of water in the freezing cold to wash my children's diapers. Dental hygiene was my choice for a career. My mother taught me to be an independent thinker and to not be afraid to push the envelope. No one in my community had ever become a dental hygienist and few existed in the state. If I were to strive toward any goal, she taught me to put all of my efforts into achieving that goal with excellence. She celebrated with me when I entered the honors pre-med program at Montana State University. When I was accepted into the University of Oregon Dental School's dental hygiene program, she drove to Portland with me so I didn't have to go by myself to a strange city and she took the train back to Montana alone. My graduating from UODS would have been sufficient reward for her for all of her sacrifices, but by graduating at top of my class academically and in first place clinically I honored her dreams for a better future for us both.

Isabella Mustard with daughter, Laura

My mom always said, "Don't choose to be a caboose when you can be an engine!" This statement speaks for itself. She taught me leadership skills at a very early age and taught me how to be comfortable with myself as well as with others when I was in a leadership role. My mother taught by example by holding all of her standards high and never qualifying her integrity. Being able to tackle complicated political situations in dentistry and have the opposition walk away respecting my level of professionalism is a direct result of her mentoring.

My mom was a very strong Christian and I grew up knowing that God was watching over me at all times. This was both reassuring in times of stress and fear but it was also intended to keep me in line. The word from Mom was that even if she couldn't see me do something out of line, God was watching! In many ways, I was also very much like my strong-willed, daredevil father who feared nothing, so I believe that she had to pray a lot. My mom was an angel in her community. During her memorial services, I heard one story after another of how she had cared for families who had lost their income, had medical mishaps, or had severely ill family members. She fed an entire family for six months and helped them to keep a roof over their heads by paying their bills when she had little to pay her own bills. Her heart was enormous. Her philosophy was to treat everyone the way that you would wish to be treated. I try!

Mom had a great sense of humor and we laughed daily over jokes and situations that were comical, so just sharing her life was fun. She thought that it was hysterical that every time that I took her to our annual ADHA meeting — and she attended nearly every one from 1988 on — that inevitably someone would want her autograph or a picture taken with her because they thought that she was Esther Wilkins. It just cracked her up! She would happily oblige the photo and come back laughing. Lucky me to have had such a special mom. RIP Isabella!

Diane Brucato-Thomas, RDH, EF, BS, FAADH, is the immediate past president of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene and past president of the Hawaii Dental Hygienists' Association. She received the 2008 ADHA/HuFriedy Master Clinician award, and the 2002 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction.

Diane shared these memories about her mother:
My mother was an old-fashioned, first generation Italian-American woman, who saw value in having a certain amount of independence. She empowered me to believe I could do whatever I set my mind to do, and she supported me in every way that she could. The values that my mother instilled in me as a human being completely carried over into my practice of dental hygiene. She had a definite sense of right and wrong; no prejudice; and always went out of her way to help people in need. There is no doubt that my sense of ethics came from her. She encouraged me to assert myself 110% and find the joy in every task. Several years ago, the movie called "The Secret" became a popular buzz. I bought a copy, watched it, and laughed. It was like sitting there listening to my mother talk with all of her life lessons there in one production. That is where I came from. A mother who believed anything is possible.

Anna Brucato with daughter, Diane

My mom was a very practical woman. She taught me to never procrastinate. The sooner you jumped on a chore, the sooner it was done, and then came fun. She was extremely creative and resourceful in solving problems too, with a "no fear" approach. This gave me discipline, self-motivation, and determination to complete projects. She had a system for everything she did. She insisted: "If your bed is made and your dishes are done, your house will always look clean." Of course, my mother never had a desk! I developed a great appreciation for systems because of her, especially in leadership and client care.

While my mother was raised Catholic, she stopped going to church when I was 12, because she did not like the organist's music and my dad refused to change churches. My mom insisted: "You can pray in your closet! You don't show your love for God by going to church every Sunday; you show your love for God in the way you treat other people." In considering so many religious choices, I thought no one could possibly be the only right one, so I decided Mom was right; it is more important to treat people with acceptance, consideration, and respect. I completely applied that to my whole person approach to patient care, accepting people at the level of health they chose for themselves, and in doing that, creating a safe place for trust.

Here was a woman who was kidnapped and raped at age ten, and sheltered through her teens, believing the doctor delivered babies in the black bag carried to house calls. Still, she moved past her fear to become an outgoing, joyous, and flirtatious woman; always the life of the party. When I was a teen, I came home from a basketball game, late one Friday night, to find my mother lying on the couch, in front of the TV, in a red negligee, donning a provocative red wig! I gave her a questioning look. She responded, "Oh, I'm just waiting for your father to come home from bowling." I said, "OK, so I get the negligee, but what's with the red wig?" She looked at me seriously, pointed her finger, and said with conviction, "Diane, I'll tell you something. Variety is the spice of life! Your father never knows whether he's coming home to a blonde, a brunette, or a redhead!"

My mother was a good sport when we'd pull pranks, quick to laugh, and always had the right thing to say at the right time. Sunday mornings, my sister and I would bring her coffee in bed, sharing every detail about our dates the night before. She would listen, laugh, and share her stories. From her example, when she got old and could not hear, I learned to be content to simply listen, even to the same stories repeatedly, followed by her observations and wisdom. Often, I've found myself in conversation, sharing my mother's philosophies or words. One message most repeated was: "This or something better!" Whether about a job, a relationship, a new home, the situation didn't matter. If there was any worry about what to do or how it would turn out, "This or something better!" would fit with a positive spin that always rang true.

Maria Perno Goldie, RDH, BA, MS, is the immediate past president of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists and past president of the American Dental Hygienists' Association. She is the owner of Seminars for Women's Health and the editorial director of RDH eVillage Focus.

Maria shared these memories about her mother:
My mom always supported my goals and aspirations, and encouraged me to succeed. When the nuns in eighth grade pleaded with my parents not to send me to the public high school, Mom and Dad agreed that they would do everything in their power to see that I went to the Catholic high school. It was a sacrifice, as I was one of four girls, and parochial school was expensive. If I had not gone to Camden Catholic, and enrolled in a "special" college prep course that was new and being tested in five schools across the country at that time, I would not have been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania dental hygiene program.

Rose Perno and daughter, Maria

My mom taught me to be kind, and she taught by example. She not only took care of us (my dad and sisters) but she took care of her mother, her sister, and her brother-in-law at various times in their lives. She also taught me to cook, and to always make plenty of food in case visitors stop by! Sunday dinner was always a big production at our home, and we could have six at the table, or 16, for Sunday dinner. There was always plenty of food, and one meal blended into the next. Antipasto, spaghetti, meatballs, other meats, chicken, or fish were staples at the meal. They were followed by fresh fruit and nuts. Vino rosso. Dessert. Practically, Mom taught me how to cook, and that food is not just sustenance for the body, but the act of sharing a meal was nourishment for the soul. One of the funniest things I recall is Mom chasing me with a flyswatter when I was naughty. She never caught me as I ran too fast.

Although a devout Catholic, Mom was very accepting of others who were "different" from us. She was a simple woman, raised on a farm, never having much money. She was Italian, born in N.J., although all her siblings were born in Sicily. She was not highly educated, but had common sense and a sense of fairness that was inherent. She associated with primarily Italians or Italian Americans, as that was her world. She did not have exposure to people of different religions or country origins. But when her children were exposed to friends of different ethnicities or religions, they were viewed as friends and not "different" from us. She stressed that we cannot always find answers. Her faith was sorely tested when she had not only two miscarriages, but a full-term stillborn baby. Things were different then, and Mom was anesthetized for the delivery. The deceased baby was given to my dad to bury, alone, and Mom never even got to hold him. The physician thought it would be "too much" for her. As a result, Mom never had real closure and she never forgot, or stopped mourning her baby boy. But she never lost faith. Some of her last words when she knew she was transitioning to another world were, "At last, I can hold my baby boy."

Her main message is that family reigns supreme. It is the central core that brings us the strength, support, and peace in times of joy and sadness. Finding inner peace brings a great sense of calmness and contentment, when you accept yourself, forgive yourself, and understand yourself and the world around you. I read a poem at her Mass that included these thoughts. I think of Mom every day, and the smell of pasta gravy cooking or bread baking reminds me of her. I think of her when it rains, when the sun shines, and when I see a rainbow. I think of her when I call Dad every day, and when I find pennies. Mom, I know you are there in the universe communicating with me.

Through these four separate stories, certain shared values taught by all of our mothers shine brightly. They gave us a love of learning, the courage to persevere, and the confidence to excel and lead. They taught us life skills that crossed over into our operatories and onto our desks. They taught us ethics and acceptance, so we could cross cultures to give of ourselves, and to genuinely care for others. Perhaps, they even taught us not to take ourselves too seriously, so others could feel safe in approaching us. They emphasized the importance of building and maintaining relationships, through sharing food, stories, and precious laughter.

So deep are the lessons our mothers imparted to us that we execute them flawlessly in our daily tasks, in our work, and in our play. Certainly, by example, our mothers taught us how to mentor, and in mentoring, we guarantee a future for dental hygiene that will continue to move forward, fearlessly!

The lessons are the legacies perpetuated through the voices of our mothers that we continue to hear, whether dressing for the day, setting up our operatory, warmly greeting our next patient, preparing a lecture, writing an article, or simply sitting in quiet contemplation. When we open our mouths to speak, we are often surprised to hear our own voices speaking our mothers' words, imparting their wisdom to anyone who would hear, unaware of the effect we have. The words ripple profoundly through our profession, raising the bar, and empowering others with encouragement to excel. These are the lessons and legacies — the voices of our mothers affecting forever our lives and our profession.

Diane Brucato-Thomas, RDH, EF, BS, FAADH, OMT, AADH Immediate Past President, is a creative writer/storyteller with published professional articles and stories in Chicken Soup for Soul, Love is the Best Medicine, and Grand Prize story republished in Kids in the Dental Office. Among first 2002 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction recipients, in 2008, Diane was recognized as first recipient of ADHA/Hu-Freidy Master Clinician Award and AADH Fellowship in Periodontics. Having served as 2009-2010 Hawaii Dental Hygiene Association President, she, twice each, received HDHA Outstanding Member, Dedicated Member, and Rosie Wall Community Spirit Grant. Limited to conservative periodontal therapy/endoscopy in clinical practice, she owns Tung Fu Masters, LLC, offering orofacial myofunctional therapy and Buteyko breathing.

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