I’m holding a red spiral notebook from 1983. The pages are crisp, the rule lines faded, but the penciled-in writing— Mom’s words and mine— is still visible. I don’t like to hold on to objects, but I’ve kept this notebook through many moves, many purges. And in this year of a big birthday for my mom it seems extra important.

A story for my mom’s birthday could be dramatic: Mom was born at the moment India fractured into two nations. As a teenager she left India behind, crossing borders and cultures to live in the U.S. Years later her husband died and then two weeks later, her mother. A few years after that her son was diagnosed with colon cancer and then months later, her daughter.

But those events are documented in my mom’s artwork and in her book, too. (My mom wrote a book! A big, beautiful, introspective art book!)

This story is about working mothers who have full side careers as artists. Mom might tell a different version. Here is mine:

One Saturday morning when I was about seven my mom, a public school art teacher, realized that on the weekends I would wake up and stay in bed to read. That’s when she started to paint. While I was lost in Ramona Quimby’s world she claimed a room in our basement, installed a desk and some lights and started her career as an artist. This is the career she always wanted, before her practical parents steered her into teaching. At first she painted still lifes and figures, perhaps honing her technical skills.

It was around this time, in first grade, that she gave me the red notebook. In it she, ever the elementary school teacher, gave me prompts to write about and illustrate. I loved that notebook, which I titled Story’s and Pomes, and over the next few years I produced some of my favorite drawings and my earliest stories and poems: the winged unicorn colored with a bright rainbow of Mr. Sketch’s scented markers; the poem based on the true story of my neighbors and I burying each other in the snow (Buffalo!); a story of thanks for a Christmas doll.

Over the years, my mom’s work became more and more complex, with deep ideas (read her book) woven—figuratively and sometimes literally— into the images. She continued to teach elementary school art, cook dinner every night but Friday, keep an immaculate house, and raise my brother and I (and at nearly six years apart, that process went on for a while). But every weekend morning she was in her basement studio unleashing the creativity bound up by all those practical tasks.

I continued to write through high school, long after I set aside the red notebook. After that, other than a few short stories I wrote in medical school, I put down my pens. I didn’t know how to fit in writing between the science classes, and later, the 30 hour work shifts. I didn’t resume writing until I started this blog to chronicle our home-building. I paused once the house was complete, had a couple of babies all at once, got sick, got well and tried to find space to breathe. Then, when the kids were five years old, I had a career epiphany and it had everything to do with Story’s and Poems.

That epiphany was: I can be a writer and a doctor and a mother just as my mom was an artist and an art teacher and a mother. I can take the time to write about all that I have experienced as a patient, a doctor and a mother. As art does for my mom, writing challenges my imagination, and deepens my understanding of the strange twists that life brings. And Mom showed me how to fit into to a regular working mom’s life.

It’s no surprise that Mom is one of my two biggest supporters on this twisty path to becoming a writer. Maybe she, too, remembers the red notebook she gave me so many years ago. Maybe she saw a budding writer, or the word-lover in me when I was seven. Maybe she just wanted me to know that art is a part of living.

Now, in the wake of a very big birthday I have to say to you, Mom, thank you for showing me the way.