And now, something a bit different for Mother’s Day. . .
The talk around the bridge table had turned to date squares, a couple of us having just enjoyed some splendid examples brought by a fellow player.
“Just like Mother used to make!” said my right-hand opponent.
“Did your mother make date squares?” asked my left-hand opponent.
It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing. “Well, no. Not exactly,” I said, with commendable restraint. Truthfully, I’m sure she never ate a date square—something she’d have rejected as “church supper food.” Her idea of a snack was a can of sardines on pumpernickel, topped with lemon juice. While we’re on the subject of churches, they were places she never entered, except for christenings and weddings.
Imagine a mix of Paul Bunyan, Tugboat Annie, and everybody’s favourite eccentric humanities professor: that would be Mother. We had over 20,000 books in our house, and she’d read most of them, always with coffee cup and Chesterfields ready to hand, and usually lighting one Chesterfield from the butt of another, pouring the dregs of her coffee into her saucer to extinguish the old cigarette.
Besides being a great reader, and immensely knowledgeable about almost all non-technical subjects and even a few technical ones, Mother was a superb gardener and a fine cook. If she had a fault, it was that of overreaching. Her half-acre vegetable garden often went unweeded, because keeping up with the weeds was simply too much work. Her compost heap, some 35 feet across, never fully produced because it was too big to be turned properly, which would have allowed the organic matter to fully rot. And her fancy dinners, so delicious that you’d remember them for months, sometimes weren’t ready until 9 or 10 o’clock at night—far too late for kids to be eating.
Even her leisure-time pursuits tended to the Bunyanesque. While other women in the neighborhood swam or played tennis, Mother’s favorite pastime was going out into the woods and pulling up small trees by their roots. She was also given to trying to lift things far beyond her capacity to heft. When I was 8, she racked up her knee attempting to move a railroad tie that had been lining our driveway. During the time it took the knee to heal, I had to come home from school and cook her lunch.
Overall, Mother was like someone who knew the calculus but couldn’t balance her checkbook (which in fact she couldn’t). For all her vast store of book learning, she lacked many of the most basic homemaking skills. Her housekeeping was appalling. Even weekly visits from a cleaning lady barely kept our domestic chaos in check. Often the cigarette butts from her bedside table ashtray overflowed onto her bed, despite my warnings that she might burn the house down. She could sew, but it would take her weeks to get to a missing button or ripped seam. She rarely vacuumed and never dusted. And the mail and important papers might be in any of 30 different piles. Income tax day was always a nightmare, with her and Dad plowing frantically through those piles looking for W-2 forms and receipts.
An important part of the 1950s mother’s job was providing comfort to kids when they came home from school. We never knew what we’d find. When she was awake and in good spirits, Mother was companionable enough, and quite happy to chat with us over our after-school snacks. Other times, she’d be sitting completely silent, reading or staring into space. Still other times, she’d be in bed, finishing a lengthy nap. It wasn’t until later, after I’d studied psychology, that I realized the long naps were likely a sign of untreated depression.
Her ambitions for us kids, and particularly for me, as the oldest, were boundless. She once told me I should become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Associate Justice wasn’t good enough. Concerned about our math skills (despite the severe deficit in her own), she took to running math flash cards at us at the dinner table, until Dad finally exploded: “For Christ’s sake, Carol, can’t you at least wait till we’ve finished eating?”
And she could be impossible in other ways. Though I’d “graduated” from a six-week summer typing course in nearby Norwalk as the fastest typist in the class, and among the most accurate, the teacher didn’t like my attitude, and after the last class sent me home with a handwritten letter to my mother saying as much. The letter set her off on a lengthy, finger-pointing rant about how I would never succeed in life with my bad attitude. Given that I’d actually succeeded extraordinarily well, I was in no mood for this, and soon left the room and headed out to our backyard pool for a swim.
Years later, at our summer house in coastal Maine, she was doing yard work, decked out as usual in her Truman-era paint-stained coveralls. When she bent over to retrieve something, I saw, to my horror, a six-inch hole in the crotch. “Mother!” I said. “These coveralls are no longer decent.” Though she at first thought me petty for mentioning such a trivial thing, she finally admitted I had a point, and went indoors to change.
But what a sense of occasion she had, and how she knew how to excite us all and stimulate our imaginations! A special show on TV and a fancy lunch were like a party. A train trip to New York, whether to a museum, to Macy’s for school clothes, to the Empire State Building, or to the theatre or a ballet, was the grandest of adventures. On these trips, we’d be introduced to new plays, new types of music, ancient history, and even different restaurants, such as Longchamps, a pioneer in cooking vegetables al dente. Mother was particularly fond of theatre, with a catholic taste that extended from Shakespeare through the flashy early postwar musicals to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Thanks largely to her, I myself developed a passion for theatre, now among my most rewarding retirement activities.
She also motivated us educationally. Three of us four kids wound up getting Ph.D.’s; the fourth became a poet and visual artist. And her mid-life switch to sociology, at age 43, done at the New School in New York, directly inspired my own, economically-motivated career switch from English to industrial relations at age 39. Her example made me intellectually fearless, unafraid to flaunt worn-out conventions and break rules, and willing to take risks—like that of changing my career at mid-life.
Beyond that, the example of my mother shows that we can’t and shouldn’t judge people by their official roles. As a traditional mother, she was an unabashed failure. But as an intellectual and imaginative role model, as cook, host, bon vivant, and story-teller, she was an amazing inspiration. It’s for those many gifts that she should be remembered.
Seven months pregnant with my youngest sister, or so she always maintained, she climbed a tree at midnight, at the end of a wedding reception, to share the last bottle of champagne with a likable but disheveled young man. Whether apocryphal or not, that story is my mother in a nutshell. Totally unsuited to the role she was expected to play, she took the hand she was dealt and played it, with panache and daring, if not always with good judgment. And each adventure always produced a great story.
Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce