Happy Centennial, Mother!

If my mother were still alive–which, given her lifestyle, would be beyond a freak of nature–she would be 100 years old today. Supremely unlucky through most of her life–her parents divorced when she was 4 and she spent her childhood and adolescence being shuttled, first from relative to relative and then from boarding school to boarding school–she was perhaps nowhere less fortunate than in her “choice” of a birthday. Not only was March 15 the notorious “Ides of March,” and cursed on that basis, but it was, at least until her mid-30’s (at some point in the late 1950’s), income tax day in the U.S. While other women could have expected to be taken out for a birthday dinner, or at least have a special one prepared by their husbands, she had to spend all of her birthdays, until the tax date was finally changed to April 15, frantically scrambling through drawers and cardboard boxes looking for receipts and tax slips so she and Dad could make the midnight deadline for postmark of the tax form. I can’t remember if they even ate dinner on income tax day.

It has now been very nearly 30 years since Mother died, on March 31, 1991, having just barely attained the biblical threescore and ten. Given her four-pack-a-day smoking habit, she was probably lucky to have lived that long. The mother of a good friend of mine from college days, also a heavy smoker but probably not as heavy a one as Mother, died, also of lung cancer, before reaching age 45. But it was that same woman, who essentially spent the final five decades of her life committing slow suicide through self-asphyxiation, who was years ahead of her time in nutrition, proclaiming and in her own cooking practicing the virtue of cooking vegetables just to al dente, long before anyone else I knew had thought to do so. And it was that same woman who, despite never being able to muster the discipline to complete her own Ph.D. in sociology, even after I offered to help ghost-write her thesis, who raised three children who went on to obtain doctorates, including one (yours truly) who very nearly obtained a second doctorate.

There are many things I could say about Mother on this occasion of her centennial. To put down even a small fraction of those things would require far more space than I have available here. So I’ll simply identify my most important legacy from her: the recognition that life is extremely complicated, and that before we start passing judgement on a person for the life that they’ve lived, we should be sure we know the life fully and in complete context. From my post-retirement involvement in theatre, I’ve learned a similar lesson. It’s probably no accident that Mother loved theatre, and that my lifetime passion of it was first nurtured by her, when she took me, even as a small boy, to Broadway shows and musicals.

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