A Birthday Thank-You to My Mother

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.

My mother, Jorie Blair Long

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.

4 thoughts on “A Birthday Thank-You to My Mother

  1. Roderick,

    Thank you so much for writing this and for the link for additional parts of the story of your amazing mother and your life!

    Man alive, the differences in family/cultural settings of our beginnings! One’s home at the start is so much with one, and it is hard to really get a feel for what that is for others. Thanks for this window. I know Walter’s (beginnings and and folks and schools in NYC and up Hudson some), of course. I really enjoy the stories of friends sharing their stories of their beginnings and what was the makeup of adults bringing them on up. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2282172135355009&type=3

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a very sweet remembrance. Do you mind if I categorize it under “Memorials and Obituaries”?

    The last fifteen years of my teaching career were spent teaching students who were ill-prepared for college, and often unmotivated to do college-level work (or to be in college at all). I spent a fair bit of time and energy railing against them, and certainly, some of my complaints were justified. But in calmer moments, it occurred to me that many of my students had had terrible role models, not just in their parents, but in the schools they’d attended before college. Some of what explained their attitudes was a matter of misfortune, not moral culpability. “Cancel culture” was a relatively minor problem. The real problems either stemmed from bigotries inherited and internalized from their parents, or else from jaundiced attitudes toward the educational enterprise itself.

    I’m reminded of a line (well, a few lines, but especially the first line) in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

    He will not go behind his father’s saying,
    And he likes having thought of it so well
    He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

    That sort of summarized their whole attitude toward education. Education began and ended with their “father’s saying”–often some cynical, reductive, retrograde generalization about the world. And there it ended.

    When I tell the story of being arrested on campus for supposedly making “terroristic threats,” people often overlook the fact that the person who called the police on me was not a student, but the student’s mother. You’re blessed to have had a different kind of mother.

    Liked by 1 person

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