(About a 9 minute read)
One night, when I was about eight or ten years old, I woke up towards 11:00 PM and, sensing something was wrong, went looking for mom. She was not asleep in her bed, but there was a light on in our living room. I expected her to be awake reading, which she sometimes did. Yet, when I got to the living room, her favorite chair was empty. Almost the same moment, however, she came in through the front door. Naturally, I demanded to know where she’d been.
“I’ll tell you”, she said, “But only if you first promise me that you will not tell anyone where I’ve been.”
I solemnly promised that I would not, for she was using her serious tone of voice with me, the tone she reserved for when she wanted her words to sink in.
“I leased an apartment to a new tenant today, a mother and her five children, and I discovered that she was out of money and without food for herself or her family. She won’t get paid for a few days yet. So after work, I went to the store and bought some groceries for them. Then I waited up until I thought they would all be asleep before delivering the groceries to their doorstep. I’ve just now returned from doing that, and you must not tell anyone what I’ve told you, not even your friends.”
“But why, mom?”
“Because it could rob them of their pride if it ever got around how poor they are, Paul. Besides I don’t want them thinking they owe me anything.”
I don’t recall that I entirely understood her reasoning, but I did understand the gravity of my promise, and so I kept her deed a secret even from my two brothers. Looking back now, I can see how that event Illustrated three of her character traits: Her compassion, her sensitivity to others, and her modesty.
To many people in our community, she was above all else a strong, stoic person, even a bit on the strict side — and while I think there was a great deal of truth to that — I knew her as also caring, compassionate, and considerate. She was, however, a very private person, very modest about most things, and so somewhat difficult for most people to know.
In fact, I have wondered for some time how much even I and my brothers knew about her. Some years ago, when she retired, the local newspaper ran a full page article on her accomplishments, positions, and honors. My brothers and I were astonished to discover that about half of it was news to us. I would not call mom an “intentionally secretive” person, but there was so much about her that she had simply not thought important enough to mention to us.
For 33 years, she was the CEO of a small housing company at a time and in a community where women were not generally thought to be extraordinarily capable of running a business. She grew the company eight-fold. When she took it over, it was in the red. In relatively short order, she had it in the black, and she kept the company there for 30 consecutive years until her retirement. Yet, when you spoke with her about it, she would modestly ascribe her success “mainly to luck”. Mom seemed to feel no need for praise nor recognition. In fact, she tended to shun it.
Like many people in our hometown, both of my brothers think of mom as an especially strong person. My younger brother in particular has told me he believes “she was the strongest person he’s ever known”. A story that’s still told about her in the town concerns a huge, burly contractor who once went ballistic on her, yelling and screaming at her in her own office.
She had employed him to build a six-story apartment building. One day, she noticed a flaw in the brickwork and ordered him to tear down the wall in order to fix it. That’s when he lost his temper, threatening her with, “I’ll have your job”.
It was no idle threat. He was well-established and respected in the community, friends with several of her board members, and she was new to her job. Moreover, she had three small children to fend for, no husband to fall back on for support (our father having died a few years before), and no prospects for landing a similar job in the local economy if she lost the one she had. Yet, as the story goes, she didn’t blink. She stood her ground, calmly presented her case to the board, and in the end, the wall came down and the brickwork was fixed.
I too remember her as a strong person, but even more, I remember her as a stoic person. In all the time I knew her, I witnessed her crying once, and only once. If you’re curious, I blogged about that here. My brothers, on the other hand, never once witnessed her crying.
Only one of us ever witnessed her lose control of her temper, too. My older brother has a memory of her engaging in a shouting match with a neighbor when he was about five or so. That’s the only time anyone of us can recall her raising her voice in anger. Of course, she would get angry at times, but — excepting that once — she kept her anger in check, never lashing out irrationally or unreasonably.
In fact, she could be a bit too stoic, I think. During the earliest parts of my childhood, she found it difficult to express love or affection. A friend — a psychologist — noticed that about her, and convinced her to reform herself. Afterwards, she gradually got much better at it with practice, but I will always remember her very first, very awkward effort to express the love she felt for me. She shocked me one evening with a hesitant but abrupt pat on the head — after which, she was so embarrassed that she fled into the next room. Somehow I cherish that memory of her as much as any — it was, after all, part of her character.
Mom was an eminently reasonable person. There were many times when I thought she was wrong, but there were few, if any, times when I thought she failed to listen to my side of an issue. Even when as small children we challenged her rules, she would (at least at first) patiently explain her rules and seek to reason us into complying with them.
Only as a last resort would she fall back on, “When you’re old enough to make your own rules, you can make the rules you want, but you will obey this rule because I’ve made it, and I’m your mother, and responsible for you.” Sometimes we could even reason her into changing a rule — especially as we grew older — and provided that she thought we’d made a good case for ourselves. Friends of hers often enough remarked that she “spoke to us like adults.”
Mom was in the habit of gently interrupting us whenever we made an error in reasoning. She would then not merely point out the mistake, but also patiently explain to us precisely why it was a mistake. Naturally, as a child, I did not immediately appreciate her guidance in these matters. In fact, I came to think she was a wee bit obsessed. Or, as I once insightfully put it to my best friend, Dennis, “My mom is nuts”.
It wasn’t until I was at university taking an introductory course in logic that my opinion of her sanity began to change. When my class came to the section on informal fallacies, I was astonished to discover I already knew 35 of the 36 most common fallacies of logic – knew them backwards and forwards, and knew them only because mom had drilled them into my head over the years I was growing up. All I had left to do was learn their names.
She was quite reasonable in other ways as well. I’ve blogged about one of those ways in a funny post here. She also implemented a policy after we became teens that several parents in our community were inspired to adopt for their own kids. She told us that if we were out drinking and we even “so much as suspected” that we’d had a bit too much to drive safely, we could call her at anytime, no matter what the hour was, to come get us home — there would be absolutely no repercussions. She would not, she promised, so much as mention or hint about it the next day. My brothers and I took her up on her offer more than once or twice, and she was always true to her word.
Mom took religion seriously, so seriously that she believed children were too immature to make any firm decisions about it. Consequently, she forbade us from deciding whether we believed in God and such until we had, as she put it, “reached the age of reason” — by which she meant at least 18 and, preferably, our early twenties. She went further than that, though. She refused to tell us of her own beliefs while we were young on the grounds that we might go along with her just to ape our mother. Of course, her rules for us about religion scandalized a few people in the county who thought she was hellbent on raising infidels.
She did send us to Sunday school each week, and when we asked “why”, she told us it was “to expose us to our cultural heritage”. Around the age of eight, I got fed up with Sunday school for some reason that I now forget. I pleaded with mom to allow me to stay home.
At first, she was adamant that I should continue to go, but then I had a rare stroke of genius. The thought suddenly occurred to me that mom’s real objection to my staying home was that she cherished having an hour or so by herself without us kids underfoot. I promptly began fervently promising her that I would be quite well behaved during the “church hour”, exceptionally well-behaved, even silent as a mouse well-behaved.
She held her ground until I blurted out my newfound conviction that what she really wanted was quiet time to herself, and that since I was willing to give that to her, she should give me a chance in return. That struck her as reasonable, and so I was allowed to stay home on Sundays — on the strict condition that I kept my word. The very next Sunday, my brothers cut their own deals with her.
In her later years, mom would reminisce with us about the days we were growing up. What she herself seemed to remember best was the laughter. One day the four of us were eating in a restaurant when a man approached us to remark that he’d seldom seen a family laugh together as much as we were doing. And that was pretty typical of us. Whenever we were together, whether in a restaurant, around our kitchen table, at friend’s homes, or in our car, we were often enough laughing.
Unfortunately, most of the jokes were of the sort that would take some explanation, for we seldom recounted jokes we’d heard, no matter how funny they were. Instead, we made things up on the spur of a moment — and our family tended to see humor in nearly anything. My mother, for all of her stoicism, never had a problem with laughing, and she especially appreciated self-deprecating humor and genuine wit.
She drew the line, however, at malicious laughter. She simply did not believe in making fun of others if doing so risked wounding them.
The newspaper article published upon her retirement mentioned, among other things, that she had served on the boards of one university, one college, two poet’s societies, an historical society, a zoning and planning commission, and a welfare advisory council.
Much of that was news to us. At her visitation, my brothers and I were still finding out things about her from the guests. In some ways, I think I knew her well, but in other ways, I believe she will always remain a bit of a mystery to me.
She died peacefully, August 22, at the age of 99. We buried her the 2nd of September.
Something quite unplanned happened after the graveside service. We were each of us holding a red rose, quietly conversing, when one of my young nephews approached the grave, stood silent for a few moments, and then dropped his rose onto her vault, which had already been lowered into the ground.
One by one, the rest of us followed his example, without a word of direction from anyone, until we had all said our silent goodbyes.