Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Girl from Ohio: A Mother's Day Tribute

A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts. – Washington Irving
Richard Nixon once said that his mother was a “saint.” On this point, at least, he may have told the truth. Even saints give birth to sinners. It is a sentiment shared by many sons, including me, about their mothers. But we are often reluctant to speak of our mothers in such sentimental terms. I am not trying to suggest that my mom is a saint in the ecclesiastical sense. In the movie Michael, John Travolta portrays an angel who protests, “I’m not THAT kind of angel.” My mother might also protest that she is not THAT kind of “saint,” but her life is surely a testament to the goodness of God’s creations.

Born and bred a country girl, Mom spent the first three years of her life in Parkersburg, West Virginia, then moved with her family to a large, white-pillared estate in Akron, Ohio, the place she called home the remainder of her childhood. But it was neither an ideal setting nor an ideal childhood. Her father was an attorney who made his money in construction and real estate, a conservative and serious man with traditional notions of gender roles and class structures. Although he never showed my mom much love or affection, she continues to hold firm to the notion that he tried his best. You see, my mom always sees the best in everyone and refuses to believe that some people can be simply self-absorbed or cruel.

When my mom was eight years old, she was sent to live in West Virginia with her Aunt Boe, her father’s sister, for part of the summer. She had fun there, but looked forward to returning home to her mother’s embrace. When she arrived home, however, her mother was not there. Annoyed at her questions - “Where’s Mom?” - her father deployed Norm, Mom’s 13 year-old brother, to inform her of the news. “Mom is no longer living with us,” Norm said, “Pop and Mom are getting divorced.” Her father never said one word about it nor concerned himself with the effect of this news on his daughter. Although unusual in those days, Mom remained with her father in the cold, formal house in Akron, only occasionally seeing her mother, until she could be sent away to boarding school. Never really understanding why it happened, Mom remained close to her mother and chose not to assign blame to anyone for this turn of events. Years later, it was my mom who took care of my grandmother when she was old, sick, and lacking financial means; and Mom was by her side the night she died.

For any young child, the news that your family is breaking apart is devastating, as it surely was for my mom. Yet, she always possessed a soulful, powerful sense of God’s presence. Anyone who does not believe in God should speak to my mother. Raised in a religiously indifferent family, her father rarely attended church and did nothing to encourage it. But from the time her parents divorced, Mom awoke every Sunday morning and walked alone to the local Presbyterian Church, where she attended Sunday school classes and worship services. When she returned home, she would find her father and two brothers asleep, or off to the racetrack, or attending to their more secular concerns. Looking back, Mom has said, “I really think God took me in my arms and held me. It is something I always felt.”

When Mom was thirteen, her father sent her away to Hathaway Brown, a select all-girls boarding school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. Her classmates came from some of the wealthiest and most accomplished families in Ohio. They were fast and sophisticated, far different from Mom, who remained in many ways the innocent country girl from West Virginia. Alone among her peers, she continued to attend church each Sunday – a prominent American Baptist church with an engaging pastor and innovative worship services. Many of her classmates would go on to attend some of the nation’s finest universities – Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe and Barnard. As a straight-A student, Mom could have attended any of these schools, but my grandfather believed her education was sufficient at Hathaway Brown, which he perceived as a finishing school, a reflection of the times and of women’s role in society in the late 1940’s. Though she rarely contradicted her father’s decisions about her life, Mom had other ideas about college. There were no father-daughter college visits, but at least Grandpa accepted Mom’s ambition to attend college. Although she seriously considered all-girls Smith College in Massachusetts, she opted instead for the less pretentious, coeducational Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, where she would eventually meet my dad and begin a new life.

Mom and Dad exchanged vows on September 1, 1951, and, nearly six decades later, they remain happily married, two people who share a love and devotion rarely seen in today’s fast-paced culture. That she has remained with my Dad for sixty years alone may qualify my mother for sainthood. I tease my father often that he “married up,” but he only laughs a little at this remark, for secretly he realizes just how true is the sentiment, and what a lucky man he has been.

A lesser person might well have despaired the kind of childhood that my mother lived, separated from a loving mother, living with an uncaring father and sent away to boarding school. But through it all my mom maintained a deep and abiding faith. It is, I believe, why she remains to this day secure in the face of life’s challenges and why her life is devoted to serving others: her family and her church, her former students, the PTA, a neighbor grieving over a lost relative, a homeless man on a street corner, anyone needing a helping hand. She is a woman of great empathy and compassion for others, almost to a fault, with little concern for self-recognition. Everyone who has ever met my mom has been swept away by her abundant optimism and sunny disposition. Whatever life throws her way, she can turn darkness into sunshine with an almost surreal energy.

My mother has always been compelled to serve. When I was growing up with my sister and brother in New Jersey, Mom took care of everyone and everything. She tended to our family in a way that is less appreciated in current times, but was profoundly important in developing our family’s character and strength. She was always there for us and, even when she started work, first as a librarian and later as a school teacher, she always managed each night to have dinner on the table, keep the house neat, and clean and fold the laundry. She fed and walked the dog, cleaned the dishes, chauffeured us to basketball practices and orchestra rehearsals, helped with our homework and still had time to prepare her lesson plans for the next day. When I played Little League, it was Mom with catcher’s mitt in hand, crouched down from forty-five feet away, who caught my formidable fastballs. She would never allow me to take something off my pitches to her, to treat her as a “girl,” for she was a solid athlete in her own right. At Hathaway Brown, she often reminded me, she was a star field hockey, basketball, and softball player, one who could keep up with her older brothers.

If that were not enough, Mom also faithfully fulfilled the role as a pastor’s wife and, later, “First Lady” of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod when my dad was its President. She hosted dinner parties on Saturday nights, attended both church services on Sunday mornings when my dad preached, helped with the coffee hour, and then volunteered for church activities during the week. She rarely said no to anyone, constantly overextending herself to serve as a Sunday school teacher and chairperson of the Lutheran women’s group. She coordinated a prayer chain one week, visited shut-ins the next, and made cookies for the Girl Scouts when she was not otherwise packing our lunches or folding our laundry or putting us to bed. Come to think of it, Dad, what the hell did you do?

“A mother is a person,” quipped Tennerva Jordan, “who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.” Self-sacrificing to a fault, there have been times that my mother’s excessive zeal to serve her family and others has caused me to become a touch exasperated. When we visit, even now, I will enter the kitchen in the morning and exclaim, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll make my own breakfast.” But I have to elbow her out of the way, as she insists on buttering my English muffin (“I don’t want butter”) or pouring my coffee (“I can do it myself”). If she would only listen to me, I painstakingly protest, I could go about my business and all would be well. But it is to no avail.

I know, I know. What’s a son to do? I feel guilty for insufficiently appreciating Mom’s unwavering efforts. Despite my exasperation, I know that Mom’s insistence on doing these things is an expression that she wants only the best for me and for all of us, that her love is infinite and endless. If she could, she would give us the world. Instead, she has attempted to serve the world. As a schoolteacher in the 1970’s, Mom taught scores of first-graders to read and, as the letters from her students attest, she greatly influenced and molded their young lives. Today, as a grandmother of six and the adopted grandmother of several young families in her neighborhood, she continues spreading to others a bright and shining love that perhaps, in today’s cynical and fast-paced world, only young children can fully appreciate.

“Most of all the other beautiful things in life come by twos and threes, by dozens and hundreds,” wrote Kate Douglas Wiggin. “Plenty of roses, stars, sunsets, rainbows, brothers and sisters, aunts and cousins, comrades and friends – but only one mother in the whole world.” There is a reason why mothers are special, for they bring us into this world, then watch over us as we try to find our way. In the end, for a special few, they remain true to their lifelong purpose, to make their children feel the unique love that only a “Mom” can dispense. And that is what makes a mother a “saint.”

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your mom. Thank you for some insight into the life of a woman who I always thought the epitome of beauty and grace. Happy Mothers Day Great-Aunt Janie.