Friday, May 11, 2007
Mother's Day memories from very large and very small families
It's ironic that I've been asked to write about my mother for Mother's Day. She hated Mother's Day.
Yes, the mother of 11 kids, the baker of cookies, the woman even the neighborhood kids called "mom" would expound at length about the phoniness of a day set aside to honor mothers. Part of it was her dislike for being the center of attention, though she bore up dutifully as we presented our art-class-made gifts. But the bigger issue was Mother's Day at the county home for the elderly where she worked as a doctor. On that day, she said, there would be a rush of visitors never seen before. "If you love your mother every day of the year," she concluded, "you don't need a special day."
All my life I've found myself correcting pre-conceived notions of what a mother of 11 is like. My mother was born on a farm in Vermont, the oldest of six in a family that never had electricity or running water. She was educated in a one-room school house, and earned a scholarship to Bennington College. Having skipped a couple years of school (the Vermont version of a gifted program), she entered the University of Vermont Medical School at age 19, and became one of the youngest graduates at age 23 (one of three women in her class). Add to that picture: rabid Democrat, great cook, half of a medical partnership that catered to the poor — Annora McGarry was a person to know.
The first question people ask when they learn I am the oldest of 11 is "How did your mom do it?" Of course there was Dad — but he was a busy anesthesiologist who was often missing even on weekends. What most don't understand, though, is that Mom didn't try to "mother" us. Intensive mothering was not yet the norm in the '60s and '70s, and she couldn't have done it if she'd tried. Her focus was mainly on the youngest two or three with the rest of us getting attention only when demanded or needed. She was the originator of "management by exception" long before it became a trendy theory.
Indeed, my mother was a master of organization: we all did kitchen chores from age three or four (something I've found hard to enforce, with only two teens), and as we got older, washed, ironed, vacuumed the pool and did yard work. But my parents had a secret tool those of us with small families miss out on: peer pressure. Believe me, there are no better enforcers than siblings armed with the unwritten code of family rules.
The older kids happily took responsibility for keeping the younger ones in line. On the other hand, the younger often looked to older siblings for help and advice (and sex education; being doctors didn't make my parents any more comfortable with that subject). Maybe that's why we largely avoided the problems some families had — if it takes a village to raise a child, we had a village.
Believe it or not, the nurses my dad worked with would vie for the job of babysitting us. Maybe it was for the bragging rights, but I also think word got around that we were a cinch job. Other than maybe cooking dinner, the babysitter stood by as the older kids took charge.
But coming from a family in which the rules were enforced by the toughest of policemen (the kids), it was a shock to begin babysitting myself. No bedtime? No rules about snacks? Add to the average parental laxity the fact that the toughest jobs go to the eldest of 11 — not that combat pay followed. My mother's sympathetic response was to offer sad tales from her childhood of picking raspberries in the hot sun for way less than the princely sum of 50 cents per hour.
At Mom's funeral a few years ago, her medical partner Jesse Henderson told me, "Your mother was one of the funniest people I ever knew." I had to stop and think about that one. Yes, she was funny, but not in a "ha ha, great joke" way. Her humor was of the Vermonter type, understated and with little patience for fools, whether kids doing kid things or patients refusing to follow the doctor's prescriptions. Her tolerance was particularly low for politicians. I recall her assessment of Ronald Reagan: "If brains were dynamite, that man wouldn't have enough to blow his nose."
So, in spite of her feelings for it, I will remember her on Mother's Day. Maybe I'll record Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" and watch it Sunday — while I imagine what Mom would have had to say about the current political crew.
I am an only child, was the wife of an only child, and am the mother of an only child. I have lots of experience. I grew up believing my mother, too, was an only child until I discovered, after her death, that she had had a sister who died at 19. Her sister had epilepsy which, a generation ago in Europe, was much feared and was kept secret within families.
As a "lonely only," I desperately craved siblings — so much so that in first grade I created one. My "sister's" name was Joan, she lived in our attic, and often sat sunning herself on the rooftop. Having a sister, I reasoned, enhanced my status among my six-year-old friends.
I was undoubtedly spoiled. My parents lavished attention on me and made a really big deal about my birthday. They took me on trips, which I mostly resented since they came during the school year and I wanted to be in school. Because I was the center of my parents' world, I never suffered from low self-esteem. They praised my achievements and made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to.
On the other hand, I was a rebellious 13-year-old — and 14 and 15, a real brat. My mother was the disciplinarian, and I was grounded numerous times. She was also the one who spanked and slapped, never my father. My teenage diaries were sprinkled with "I hate Mom!" writ large with laments on how misunderstood I was.
My mom was overprotective of her single offspring. For example, I had to wear leggings to school on cool spring mornings when my classmates had long since shed theirs. More than once I stopped in a store doorway on the way to school and stripped them off. Such a feeling of independence!
When I was a young mother, I began to understand and appreciate my mom, although my child-rearing methods were much different from hers. She was strict; I was permissive. She was far too serious; I lightened up. But she read to me and spun stories when I was very young; I did the same with my son, as I now do with my grandchildren. There came a time, finally, when she was in her seventies when we could talk and talk, laugh and act like a loving mother and daughter.
A decade later I learned the true burden of being an only child when Alzheimer's gradually erased the woman she was. I became the parent and she the child. With no siblings to share decision-making about her care, I was the "decider," right or wrong.
As another Mother's Day approaches without her, I remember a card I made for my Mom in school. I wrote a poem and signed it from "the only one who's lucky enough to call you Mom."
Mother's Day: Growing up only
I am the only child of an only child. My mother and I shared the usual sorrows of only childhood: the invented siblings (mine was a twin), the inability ever to win an argument because the only people you have to argue with are your parents, and the ignominy of being spoiled rotten. Mum was a dab hand with a sewing machine, and I had more clothes than any six kids put together. I can remember hiding half my Christmas gifts when my friends would come over on Christmas afternoon to play, so that they wouldn't know how much I had received. It's difficult to be different all the time, when what you really want to do is just to fit in.
I am sure my mother would agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to being the single, concentrated focus of your parents' efforts at parenting as well. You learn to communicate well with adults at an early age, and to be able to debate, to make a case in the endeavor to win a point; verbal maturity, the ability to strategize, and to analyze and think logically develop early. The disadvantage of all this, of course, is that it is often difficult to appear other than overly sober to your sibling-blessed friends and relatives. Goofiness and silly risk-taking, and the fun and experiential learning that they provide, are almost unknown. Lack of practice inhibits your ability to share possessions. Learning to get along with peers is actually a little scary because, unlike adults, they are not interested in nurturing you. Childhood is, in many ways, truncated.
Under my parents' tutelage, however, I loved school and did well in it. They were both teachers, and they knew how to enrich a public school education: my father taught me to tell time before I could read; my mother took me to see my first Shakespeare, Henry V, when I was ten. There were trips and cultural experiences. My mother was my Girl Scout leader; my father was my baseball and football coach. I was a slow runner, so he taught me to hit baseballs out of the park and throw passes like a quarterback so I would get picked for teams. My parents chaperoned my prom, and miraculously, they managed to keep an eye on things without inhibiting my enjoyment of that occasion.
Although I wasn't a particularly popular kid, I had the only-child drive to be involved in a lot of activities, so I knew a lot of people. My parents, however, were popular with all my friends, because they could feed a crowd and put on great parties, and they were comfortable around kids. They knew both how to amuse kids and how to keep them well-behaved. They were geniuses at it: our house was the go-to place, and I can remember one occasion when its walls were strained by the presence of 104 noisy teenagers, not one of whom was drinking or otherwise breaking rules.
Growing up "only" isn't easy, but it makes for a vivid childhood. My mother and I both still feel the lack of siblings, but we have both compensated for that in our different ways. Both of us were well-launched into life by fine parents who worked as a team. It took a while for me to understand what my parents did. This Mother's Day, my mother and I will share laughs while we have lunch and tea, and I'll appreciate her part in the team that gave an only child a strong start.
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito