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Mother Confusion

May 10, 2015



Anne Whistler Peek – 1935

On this day, 107 years ago, Anna Jarvis created the first Mother’s Day in Grafton, West Virginia. She never had children, but like all of us she had a beloved mother and wanted her recent death to have a wider meaning. Anna died penniless in an insane asylum about 40 years later.

She had a tragic end because her baby, Mother’s Day, had spiraled away from a spiritual intimate day of personal rebonding, (note the “‘” location makes each Mom the focus, not all Mom’s) into the crass profit-generating commercialized make-up call opportunity that today guilts $170 out each and every American household that has Moms. She had created a focus for a world where child mortality was beginning to become less overwhelmingly common and the Industrial Revolution was in the middle of birthing “the work week” – which came to mean that 40 hours of toil left about 100 hours of waking time for things like Mother’s Day.

The changed reality to a world where children are now expected to leave the home, versus growing old in a multigenerational entity meant moving away from Mom became the norm.. Just as familiarity creates contempt, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and, Voila! Mother’s Day. My mother was born in the first year Mother’s Day was nationally celebrated, 1914. Her parents were teachers, college educated and pretty “modern”.

There is a rumor that my mother’s mother may have been “involved” with the leader of the cultish Roycrofters arts enclave (Elbert Hubbard) in upstate New York, were my mom grew up. Having been undecided what to do after high school, my mother opted for art school at Cornell (a fairly radical place of relative equality for women in the 1930’s) got in at the last minute, joined a sorority and, then, well, quit after a year and essentially told her parents she was going to New York in 1932 “to be an artist”.

She was the apple of her Dad’s eye, and her Mom, also a libertine thought there was no way to force her to go to school, so she went. In her first year there, she met a dashing lawyer and completely fell in love with him. Fulfilling her predilection for doing as she pleased, she moved in with my father at 19, without “benefit of marriage”. (The fact that she told her children this when we were teenagers rounds out the story pretty well for me.) The decade before World War 2 had seen my father live the American Dream: first person in his immigrant family to graduate high school (Boys High, Brooklyn), then college, then law school (both Cornell) onto a partner-track law position at one of the firms with offices at 1 Wall Street where virtually all “the best firms” were – according to my father, anyway.

Finding this hot, artistic, go-for-it girl meant the endless nights going uptown to the Onyx Club, the Kit Kat Club and thence to 21 was a play-hard/work-hard Nirvana. No thought of children or leaving their incredibly cool East 10th St. apartment with the huge terrace, just law 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, August off, and coming home to a saucy artist.

Then the world blew up.

My 32 year old dad had, naturally, been honorably relieved of his ROTC commission after the standard 8 year commitment to the Field Artillery. In 1942 he was subject to the draft and to being a grunt in the trenches. 50 years later, my mother described a near mental breakdown, where my dad scrambled to get his commission back, and finally found a home in Naval Intelligence for the 4 year Hell that was WWII.

The shock and awe of having a world of hip privilege in the Depression blow up doubled down on the impact war had on my parents. Partying and golfing and socializing was replaced by steaming thru the Pacific on the Yorktown or the the Lexington (often just avoiding serious action by simple chance). Dozens of friends and acquaintances were killed. Everyone was hurt, one way or another. Upon return everything was gone: no partnership track (the 4F Associate saw to that).

No more unbridled joy with jazz and party – it was time to try to recover from a 4 year near-death experience. Part of dealing with what we now call PTSD then was having children: death flipped to life. Battlefields became suburbia. Things were done to heal without knowing they were being done to heal: they were just the “right thing to do”. That meant kids: first a stillborn boy (the doctor was golfing) then 3 decade-spaced apart, delivered-while-unconscious, bottle-fed kinder, all conceived in my Mom’s ’30’s.

My favorite snapshot of that decade was her unabashed statement I often repeat (as it may explain much about me) “I loved being pregnant! I LOVED being pregnant! I could drink and drink and drink and never get drunk!” Knowing all this, because they told us (and because we witnessed it) the unending flow of alcohol, cigarettes and bigotry that were applied to wounds so deep they were invisible, it was not surprising that motherhood was not the central value in my Mom’s life.

Birthdays after 6 years old were visits to my favorite hobby store, Christmas was an insane over indulgence to make up for the screaming. I was sent to Buffalo at 13 to stake out a place for my mother to retreat to , and, at the end, her life as a part time interior designer was what she was proudest of.

At a wine-infused 1989 baby shower with my wife’s female friends who were doctors, lawyers, MBA’s, PHD’s (all wearing shoulder pads and perms BTW) my widowed mother robustly blurted, with me at her side: “You know, girls, I was just born too early, if I had been your age, I never would have had children!” True that. But what do I do with Mother’s Day?

My wife and I have tried to be good parents: but it was often a guess, a simulation as we could not pick our parents, and somehow they never quite knew what to do with us. Creating a national holiday for an intimate human condition is absurd. Like each bit of DNA in our cells, each one of us has an exquisitely unique back story: We may all have parents, but our families are not all Hallmark worthy. Anna Jarvis knew that.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2015 10:44 pm

    Having lived a great many years as a misfit and a rebel, it is possible to summarize that period of life as being captivated with a strong, central, and ever-unfulfilled desire be acknowledged and understood. This piece seems to reflect a similar unfulfilled desire on the part of the author with regard to how cultural norms fail to square with his experience of motherhood as a child.

    The concluding paragraph begins with the assertion that “Creating a national holiday for an intimate human condition is absurd.” I disagree. While it is clear from the author’s given account that his maternal relationship stretched the very definition of what our culture would consider motherhood, its primary, God-given purpose of being the vehicle for a new life full of passion and talent appears to have succeeded– and is therefore worthy of being celebrated.

    Warts and all, motherhood remains the most successful human enterprise ever by any measure; spanning every age, every society, and every culture. Statistical deviations, whether they be agreeable or not, stray from even the most robust of scientific proofs, offering us a bell curve to represent just about every measurable aspect of life — including motherhood.

    The purpose behind this response is not to diminish or question the experience of the author, but rather to elevate and maintain not only the sense of order that reveals the flaws, but also the sense of grace that provides a positive reason and means to move forward.

    In the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Roman Church, the Apostle Paul writes these words: “If I do what I do not want to do, I agree the law is good.” That is to say, I do not nullify the standard by my inability to keep it. Why should should the standard be diminished if someone else is unable to keep it? After all, nobody keeps God’s standards of their own effort.

    It is an uncomfortable fact of life that the disadvantaged and offended must, more often than not, be the instigators of grace. Our Western sense of fairness and justice bristles at the idea of seeking-out reconciliation with what is wrong; and yet this very concept is indeed bedrock Christian theology. The experience of brokenness is not a pleasant business, but it adds value to our ability to explain and understand why the ideal is ideal.

  2. May 11, 2015 12:22 pm

    Amazing how words resonate so differently when written and then read: if anything the compliant nature of my childhood was the antithesis of rebellious: never missed a day of school, never smoked, did not drink until “of age” or ever use drugs, no sketchy friends, no acting out…my mother’s 3 children simply lived in the wake of a life their parents made that was more about memory of the good times gone and unhappiness with the present…

    But the notion that playing on emotion to pander for profit is never in Saul of Tarsis’ words, but it is indeed present at the Hallmark Factory: there are no generalizations available from my childhood, save that it makes “Mad Men” very (very) hard to watch. Those generalizations so many hope for in holidays, children, politics or religion only provide definitive answers to those that can blur the inevitable misfits with expectations the human condition inevitably provides: sadly some realities are etched too clearly to blur…

    • May 11, 2015 9:35 pm

      My apologies for any misunderstanding as to the first twelve words of the comment, which were meant to describe only myself. The intent of the response was to explain how a principled and lasting peace with an uncomfortable reality is possible.

  3. May 12, 2015 6:20 am

    Hah! My point taken against my own response! I greatly appreciate you thoughtful replies – THANKYOU for reading: its why I write?


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