BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
MOTHERS’ DAY: The current holiday was created in 1908 as a day to honor one’s mother. President Woodrow Wilson made the day an official national holiday in 1914.
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“Who is the person you most admired from your childhood?”
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“It must be true. My mother said so.”
Yes, that worked for me for many years, with my pop psychology, my religion of motherolatry. I thought it was true: My mother was all-powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise–seeing all. M-O-M = G-O-D.
Then it happened: 9th grade for sure. World History. Discussion question about . . . and my answer: “My mother said so.” And the teacher’s response: “Your mother is not God!”
How could I have been so naive? How did I ever make it into high school believing that my mother had the VERUM VERBUM, the true word?
No, it is not true; I didn’t believe that . . . so late in the Game of Life. But when did I stop believing? When did I come to that realization the Game was changing? That I had to learn for myself?
Somewhere, sometime, I said, “NO!” to Mom-God. There I was, probably shaking while or after the words came from my mouth. My Act of Rebellion.
And so it goes in the Game of Life, as we grow through adolescence into adulthood (which my pop-psychology taught me. Or was that Gail Sheehy: Tryout Twenties, Turbulent Thirties, Flourishing Forties, Flaming Fifties, Serene Sixties?).
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“List FIVE traits, characteristics, or attributes of your mother and write about them.”
[Optional essay question.]
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I cannot imagine not having a mother, losing her to disease [Steel Magnolias], in a car accident [Raising Helen], in childbirth [The Sign], to a hunter’s bullet [Bambi], or to the many other awful things that happen to mothers before their children know them. “I lost my mother when I was five.” “I don’t remember my mother.” “My mother died of cancer, when I was seventeen.” “My mom never came home from the party.”
And on it went, as I read essay after essay, year after year, for over twenty years. This question was my choice. I wanted my students to do personal narratives by which they could express themselves–and do their best writing–I hoped.
As the semesters ended, I turned to my readings. Often tired, I usually would become pensive while reading. I tried to be an objective reader, weighing the writing against the grading standards. Yet so often I was sucked into the story being told. I think I am like Miss Lonelyhearts [by Nathaniel West], encountering sad story after sad story, truth stranger than fiction. I could not help it.
Essays ranged from the “My mother took care of me when I was sick” to “My mom had it rough raising the nine of us with no father…or with a druggie father…or with an alcoholic father…or with a___ father.” [How did she manage?]
While I was drifting off, and away from the papers, my own questions, my own answers snuck in: How did my mother manage to sleep, work nights (mostly), raise the four of us, and keep up with the household duties–and be a wife, too?
Doing the dishes was the job that fell to my sister, Janice, and me. We learned–and were outstanding dish-doers. “Glasses, knives, and forks. Dishes, pots, and pans.” That was The Sacred Order. That’s the way I learned, from Mom. [Trait One: MANAGER]
Years before (maybe when in 9th grade?) as I was washing coffee cups after supper, I reached into the soapy water, reaching after a cup that slipped from my soapy left hand. My hand went automatically to retrieve the cup, but the broken cup sliced into the fingers of my left hand. Blood in the water. Panic from the immediate intense pain, cut-in-soap. My sister screaming for, of course, “M-O-M!” [Trait Two: NURSE]
“Mom, can you read my story before you go to work?” [Trait Three: GRAMMARIAN] ‘Nuff said.
Mothers cheer us on: “You can do it. Go ahead! Go ahead!” I remember vividly, her feeling good on a warm Saturday evening in Chicago. She had just ridden the (used) small bicycle bought for me. I ran alongside her with glee. At the corner, she turned around, giving me the bike. My turn. My first two-wheeler.
“You can do it. Try again,” I heard as I tried to gain balance, but fell into the bushes. Getting up, scratched arms be damned!, I tried again. Her laughing encouragement behind me grew as I cycled away from her. At the end of the sidewalk, near the alley, I stopped (applying the brakes expertly), then fell over–and off. I turned back to see my mom waiting at the end of the street. I rode to her. “Expertly,” of course. Yeah, wobbling from side to side, houses’ steps and bushes on the right, grass-curb-city street on the left. I pedaled the gauntlet. To Mom. [Trait Four: CYCLIST TRAINER]
50s BICYCLE (CREDIT: LIVEAUCTIONEERS)
“What do you think I should do?”
If there is one question I ask, probably more than any other, it is “What do you think I should do?” My kids do it. My wife does it. We all do it.
Looking over my Early Asking Age to now, I realize this has to be The Ultimate Question: each of us is a Grand Inquisitor. We seek answers. I seek (and sought) answers. However, the answers that come from “What do you think I should do?”, though not unique to kids asking moms, make us Deciders. For the answer usually is, “You’ll have to decide.” It means, “You’ll have to make up your own mind–and live with it.” This is not cold, harsh, cruel, but is concerning, caring, and–when I think more about it–allowing the Inquisitor to grow and live. Therefore, we talk and discuss and ask: “What should we do?”
Yes, just like a mom, she said, “Yes, you’ll have to decide.” Just as I expected, not unexpected. [Trait Five: NON-DECIDER/DECIDER]
Good move, for, as we all know so well, not just Mother Nature, but “Mother knows best” (often).
So I would search student essays for goodness and admiration, stories that demonstrated “goodness” and “admiration.” “All the good” moms do . . . “is oft interred with their bones.”
NO! The good DOES live after them. I CAN recall the good times, the admired times; memories of the hard times, the rough times; illnesses, job layoffs, or . . . .”
Too, from Trait Five, I learned: to be able to reach decisions, come to conclusions, after rational thought, not impulse thoughts, but rather, like a good Indiana Jones Crusader, to choose wisely.
So, “The person I most admire from childhood . . . .”
© James F. O’Neil 2014
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~Irish Proverb: “A man loves his sweetheart the most, his wife the best, but his mother the longest.”