Today would have been my mother’s 96th birthday. (She died at 91.)
The other day, while indulging in my usual frustration over how my college students are so often ignorant of so many things that I was familiar with well before high school, it occurred to me that a substantial portion of those things were material I learned not in school or even through my own reading, but from my mother – not in any didactic setting, but informally. For example, I first learned about Versailles and Pompeii through my mother’s recollections of her own school projects on those topics; the mnemonic “SPA” (to recall the chronological order of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) she likewise recalled from her school days.
There were more conscious instructional efforts on her part too, of course – from teaching me about negative numbers (before I learned about them in school) to pasting “Cogito ergo sum” on my bathroom mirror and explaining what it meant. In addition (of course) to reading to me, and later providing me with frequent trips to the library once I could read on my own (and never censoring my reading), she also made sure to expose me to whatever cultural opportunities were in reach of her meager budget – such as recordings of Kipling stories and speeches from Shakespeare, and samples of famous pieces of classical music. Trips to museums – art, science, history – were a regular pastime.
Unable to afford art books, she would cut photos of famous paintings out of magazines and paste them into scrapbooks for me so that I’d be familiar with classic artworks. (If there were paintings on both sides of the page she’d put tape on one side so the cut-out section could be turned as on a hinge to leave both sides visible.) Whenever local libraries or museums were hosting free or inexpensive movies – whether foreign films from France (e.g., Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle”) or Japan, or the black-and-white classic comedies of Charlie Chaplin, W, C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, or the Marx Brothers – she’d take me to see them; so I grew up used to seeing films made in other countries, or in eras before my birth. (Of course it’s not just that I was lucky to have a mother who devoted so much energy to my cultural enrichment; she was also lucky to have a kid who eagerly ate all this up rather than being bored by it. It takes two to tango.)
My mother also talked to me as an adult, on adult topics, and took me seriously as an interlocutor. She always talked to me frankly about our financial situation, about her problems at work, about her fraught relationship with her own mother, etc. One factor that surely kept me on a trajectory toward a feminist and labortarian sensibility, despite the impact of right-libertarian ideas early in my intellectual formation, was my keen awareness of the shit she’d had to put up with in her own career.
Likewise, she modeled the value of independent thought; although she raised me within the tenets of a particular religion, she always reserved the right to interpret those tenets through the lens of her own judgment rather than deferring to the judgments of church authorities; and she encouraged me to think for myself on such matters also, rather than deferring to her own judgments. What I would be like if raised by someone else I really can’t imagine.
I don’t mean to suggest that our relationship was idyllic; there were tensions and frictions aplenty. We were both human beings made of crooked timber, and her own psychological scars and insecurities from her emotionally abusive childhood ran deep. But her love and care for me were unstinting, and my love and gratitude toward her go beyond words.
Happy birthday, Mother.