Life in Mom’s Shadow

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Expectations were high
Moms get blamed for everything. This is a theme that occurs again and again, from the professional literature in psychology and counseling to popular books and magazine articles. Sometimes we hear friends lament that “the reason I’m screwed up is that my mother __________,” filling in the blank with the assumed cause of their adult dysfunction.

My sisters and I could certainly weigh in on this. Our mother had a larger-than-life persona, which posed for us many of the same difficulties as living with a celebrity parent. One was always in her shadow and under pressure to live up to expectations based on her accomplishments.

I was expected to get straight A’s in school and to take part in certain activities I disliked, such as student government, speaking and writing contests, and — worst of all — acting in student plays. Mom had a different, but equally firm, set of expectations for each of my sisters. There was no appeal from her commands, and any complaint was immediately met with an angry rebuke.

To be fair, there were both pros and cons to being her child, and in the end we had to recognize what a complex person she was.

Mom’s list of accomplishments
Mom’s full-time job was teaching high school English and Journalism. One of the things she always taught her students was the effective use of bulleted lists. Of course lists can be fun (think of all the “Top Ten” lists you’ve seen), but more to the point, readers appreciate not having to mentally extract a list from a dense paragraph of syntactically correct sentences.

So, without further ado, I’ll simply list some of Mom’s major accomplishments.

· Fluent in four languages (English, German, French, and Spanish) and had taught all four

· Accomplished poet

· All-round theater person: actress, director, makeup artist (and she also handled props, scenery, marketing, and business operations)

· Newspaper columnist and theater critic

· Puppeteer with her own puppet theater

· Calligrapher, expert in Gothic script

· Pianist and violinist

· Monologist: among other performances, her impression of Carol Channing was popular in the impromptu talent shows on the cruises she and Dad took in their later years.

With all of this going on, she somehow managed to raise three children and find time to be a Cub Scout “den mother” and Brownie leader, to play piano for lessons at a dance school, and to be active in the PTA and the teachers union. (This short paragraph could have been a bulleted list).

The center of attention
The first thing anyone likely would notice about Mom was her commanding presence. She would be the center of attention in almost any gathering and could be quite intimidating. This was a carefully cultivated act that family and friends mostly bought into.

It wasn’t until I was well into middle age that the actress was finally unmasked. Responding to some sharp remark Mom had made to my little niece about her behavior, the three year-old girl just blurted out “Grammy, you’re so silly!” Everyone who was at that family gathering remembers that moment. My niece? She was Mom’s favorite for the rest of her life.

The parent
Mom had a theory of parenting: the parent of the opposite sex should assume primary responsibility for bringing up a child. So, when I was born she was in charge of me. Three years later, when my first sister was born, Mom’s theory had changed. Now the same-sex parent was to be in charge. Several years later when my kid sister was born, it wasn’t necessary to change theories again.

To understand my upbringing it’s necessary to go into Mom’s past a bit. In photos from the late 1930’s and early 1940’s we see an attractive young woman who was undoubtedly hit on regularly and subjected to some of the worst male behavior.

To make sure I didn’t become like the vulgar men she had encountered, she firmly instructed me about how to treat women. To this day, without thinking I still hold doors open for women, offer them a seat on a crowded subway, and stand up when one enters the room. This must seem quaint and possibly raise suspicions about my motives.

Late in my teenage years, Mom told me she might have been too firm in her instruction: I was insufficiently aggressive and self-assertive and needed to toot my own horn more. She felt that her efforts had failed to yield the ideal man — courteous, sensitive, and caring but supremely confident of his strengths and abilities and willing to show them off.

The union officer
One year when Mom was a teachers union officer, collective bargaining with the school board reached an impasse. Mom and the other union officers were told they had to accede to the board’s demands or face legal action. Mom warned me and my sisters that she and the other union officers might have to go to jail.

Fortunately they were saved by a last minute agreement with the board. Of course I wasn’t at the bargaining sessions, but I knew that Mom fit right in with the male members of the bargaining team. I suspect that the board recognized there were no weaklings on the team they could exploit to peel off support for the teachers’ position.

The teacher
Mom spent countless hours at home reading her students’ writing and making detailed corrections and suggestions for improvement. Outside of her regular teaching job she helped other kids, often foreigners, improve their English.

A few years after WWII a German family with a daughter a little older than me moved in down the street. The girl’s mother wanted her to be able to speak English as soon as possible. Because she had heard that Mom was an English teacher who also spoke German, she arranged for the girl to come to our house for English lessons.

Mom got the daughters of two of her friends in the neighborhood to come over so she could teach them a bit of German (at no charge), which they could use right away to talk with the new girl. The German girl picked English up very quickly. The three girls remained close friends all the way through high school and beyond.

The storyteller
Much of Mom’s teaching in English and Journalism was devoted to teaching kids how to write effective stories. Mom herself loved to write and tell stories. As a natural raconteur she would never let facts stand in the way of a good story, especially if the story was about her.

For example, when asked about how she met Dad, her standard story was that Dad wooed and “won” her while she was engaged to someone else. But she inadvertently let the cat out of the bag one day when she described seeing Dad for the first time. He was playing in a student/faculty basketball game at the high school where they both taught.

She remembered that he was wearing shorts that were “a bright green that was brighter than bright red.” In snapshots of Dad from that era we see a dashing young Hollywood leading man. My sisters and I knew then who had actually pursued whom.

The final performance
During Mom’s last days, we were summoned to the hospital where she had been receiving care during the preceding weeks. Her doctor, a pleasant young woman from India, wanted to meet with the family to discuss Mom’s condition.

We sat there stoically listening to her go through Mom’s symptoms and their likely outcome. By the end her doctor was the one crying. I knew exactly what had happened. While she was still able, Mom — the actress and raconteur — had charmed her physician with stories, wit, and humor. She didn’t want to let Mom go.

The doctor seemed relieved that the family decided not to remove life support immediately. But two days later my sister phoned me and said that Mom’s condition had worsened. We agreed that for a take-charge person like Mom, being completely dependent on other people and medication was an intolerable situation. We sadly gave the hospital permission to remove life support, and Mom died the next day.

Over the next week or so, I was amazed as tributes to Mom poured into the memorial website set up by the funeral home. Students from decades earlier wrote about how important Mom’s writing classes had been in their lives.

Mom and Dad outlived three complete sets of friends. I was pleasantly surprised that children of some of the long-gone friends wrote about stories their parents had told them about Mom.

Now, about Dad: he’s a whole other story for another time.

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