From Generations Magazine Seventh Issue
By Kathleen Gilmour, Contributing Writer
She goes by several names: Mom, Mother, Mommy, Ma, Mum, Mama, Bubbs, Mimi. She’s our mother and she is perhaps the most important influence in a daughter’s life. Referring to mothers, the poet Robert Browning said, “All love begins and ends there.”
In America, the second Sunday in May is known as Mother’s Day, an official United States holiday declared by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Interestingly, almost every country in the world celebrates mothers in some fashion today. To some extent, the day has become quite commercialized in America, marked by greeting cards, gifts, flowers, and restaurant meals. While that seems appropriate, we should not lose sight of the real purpose of Mother’s Day: to honor the women who gave us life and who, whatever the nature of the relationship, shaped the women we have become.
As Mother’s Day 2019 approached, I thought about the Baby Boomer daughters, of which I am one, who have passed the half-century mark and who are living in a time of unprecedented opportunities for women. We are witness to the MeToo movement in America, the emergence of women in leadership roles, and the growing cracks in the Glass Ceiling. We have lived through decades of significant social, political, and economic change – perhaps unlike that of any other generation in recent memory.
I thought about my own mother and the mothers of the aptly-named Silent Generation and wondered what kind of lives they would have lived as young women today. Did living when they did make them any different from who they would be now? Are today’s Gen Xers and Millennials so much different?
Those questions prompted me to ask a group of women of my generation to share their memories of their mothers and to explore the nature of those relationships in light of who they themselves have become. My original goal was to present a composite portrait of mothers of a generation ago. As it turned out, that was not so simple.
Instead of a gallery of generalities that characterize these mothers, the exercise became a bittersweet and diverse journey back in time for me and for the women who were kind enough—and sometimes brave enough—to share their very personal experiences as daughters. In response to a series of questions from me, they looked deeply at the persons their mothers were, at the nature of their relationships with them, at specific incidents in their lives as daughters, and at the implicit and explicit lessons they learned from their mothers.
The women I interviewed came from diverse backgrounds and nationalities. Some were married, some widowed, and some divorced and remarried. There were mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, and those with no children. I asked them to describe their mothers, to share their significant memories, to talk about their mother’s talents and favorite things, and to remember the advice they were given and the lessons they learned.
It is my hope that the women who read this will look at their own experiences as daughters and the part their mothers played in their lives and, as a result, celebrate the remarkable relationship. As Oprah Winfrey says, “Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother.”
The questions evoked the wide range of memories and emotions one might expect. Some were humorous:
“…making me eat polenta for the first time.”
“…seeing her at age 75 be the flower girl in her niece’s wedding.”
“…wetting herself when she laughed too hard.”
some painful to recall:
“…drinking green beer with her on St. Patrick’s Day two weeks before her death.”
“…losing her to cancer, dementia or old age.”
“…watching her mourn a spouse or sibling or, perhaps worst, a child.”
Many of the incidents they shared with me were pieces of ordinary days, but nevertheless deeply etched in memory:
“…in a dress, cooking at the house.”
“…making paper chains to decorate the Christmas tree.”
“…bringing cookies to a school event.”
Some things were difficult for daughters to put into words. It was often not an easy exercise and it often brought strong emotions to the surface, but I am so grateful for everything they shared and what they taught me about themselves, motherhood, and myself as well.
And so, instead of the composite portrait of Silent Generation mothers that I had originally intended to convey, what follows is a verbal tapestry of extraordinary “ordinary” women who live on in their daughters and whose examples of strength, independence, and kindness will be felt in their families and in society for generations to come.
Who They Were
The mothers were born between 1913 and 1938, and most were from central and western Pennsylvania. They were between 23 and 32 when these daughters were born. They gave birth to between one and five children, the majority of whom are still living. With few exceptions, the daughters lived at home or near their mothers for most of their adult lives. The mothers were married for an average of 50 years and only one was divorced. Several lived for many years as widows. One mother’s husband was a casualty of war after only four years of marriage. One mother is still living.
If this small group of women is representative of their generation, they share a common core of values but pursued very different paths during a time of limited opportunities for women. If they worked outside the home, whether for many years or until their children were born, they were employed in clerical or domestic fields or in healthcare or teaching, for the most part. One was a telephone operator for Bell Telephone and enjoyed it when she was on the line with a movie star or celebrity. She knew lots of secrets! One attended normal school and was certified as a teacher, but her career ended when she married because women teachers were not allowed to marry. At the same time they were working, with limited budgets the mothers also managed the households, raised their children, and often cared for aging or infirm parents, family members, or friends. Household chores were strenuous and time-consuming at that time, and in the days before fast-foods, most meals were made from scratch.
Despite limited free time, they channeled their many creative talents into such diverse pursuits as quilting, drawing, watercolor painting, knitting, sewing, and gardening. One mother enjoyed watching football on television in her later years. One took ballet and disco lessons. One took auto mechanics and upholstering classes at the vo-tech school. One daughter described her mother’s talents this way:
“She knew how to build things, saw pieces of wood, hammer nails, and put in screws and often did a lot of carpentry in our house. I often say she was a woman before her time.”
One mother made hospice quilts for a church group until the year she died at age 98. Their satisfaction came from simple pleasures like card games, crossword puzzles, puzzles, and, amazingly, cleaning. (“She could clean like no one you ever saw!”)
“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.” Maya Angelou
Asked to describe their mothers to people who didn’t know them, the daughters often used words like “caring,” “generous,” “strong,” “frugal,” and “smart.” They also often described their mothers as stubborn and as strict disciplinarians who were not emotionally demonstrative or open about their feelings or about their past. One daughter said, “She wasn’t always warm and fuzzy, but she was always behind our dreams.” Others echoed similar comments:
“Despite our differences, I always knew she loved me unconditionally.”
“The mother/daughter relationship is so complicated! But I knew, every day of my life, that she loved me, and I’ll miss her forever.”
“She wasn’t good at expressing her feelings.”
“We didn’t get a lot of hugs and kisses, but we knew she loved us.”
On the other hand, one mother, Irish to the core, could often be found at the greeting card display in a store with tears streaming down her face. The sentiments in the cards unleashed just-below-the-surface emotions that the Irish understand well. It may have been characteristic of the times in which they lived (two world wars, the Depression) that contributed to their stoicism. They bore a lot of sorrow and disappointment silently.
“…misty, water-colored memories…”
The Way We Were
These are some of the memories that made the daughters smile, laugh, pause to think, and sometimes cry:
“On one occasion, it had snowed heavily. My dad had passed some years before, so my mom was alone. My son and I got up early and drove to her house to shovel her sidewalk and driveway. When we got there around 8:00 am, her house was done—as was the one next door, and she was working on the third house. I asked her, ‘What are you doing?’ She said, ‘You have to take care of the old people.’ I said, ‘Mom, you ARE the old people!’”
“I was probably a toddler when I noticed that my mom would always eat the worst or smallest piece of meat and eat the leftovers that no one else would eat, making sure that everyone else was taken care of before her.”
“I remember her singing to me in a sweet, soft soprano voice that, when I close my eyes, I can still hear.”
“In high school she stayed up late sewing a new dress for me because I was being inducted into the National Honor Society. She sewed the sleeve in backwards. With no time to fix it, I had to wear it that way. We had a good laugh at that.”
“She was extremely strict, but patient in caring for me when I was sick. I often felt that she was happy that I was home from school so she wouldn’t be by herself.”
“When I was in high school, she volunteered in the school cafeteria and I was mortified!”
“I was probably three and I remember how she loved to go shopping and would always hold my hand.”
“I remember walking a block to the bakery in our neighborhood. I was probably about four. I insisted on walking a few paces ahead of my mother and wouldn’t hold her hand or walk beside her because I wanted everyone to think I was a ‘big girl’ and was shopping by myself.”
“She let me drive the car to school for the first time and then I backed it into a pole the same day. She did not yell.”
Sometimes it’s the little memories that rise to the surface first and seem to be the most lasting.
“Life doesn’t come with a manual, it comes with a mother.” Anonymous
The daughters shared the advice they received and the lessons they learned from their mothers. We have all heard many of the same things in our own lives, and we are better women if we listened and acted accordingly. How do mothers get to be so smart? Perhaps we have passed along these kinds of things to our own children. A mother’s words of wisdom are for the ages.
“Age is just a number.”
“Be strong and do what you have to do without whining.”
“Give to others, be kind, be responsible, laugh often.”
“Life is a series of doors that open and close—and when some doors close, they are closed forever.”
“No matter how hard things seem, you can always find your way back to the light.”
“Always treat a janitor like a CEO!”
“Be strong, and always try to find the good in people and circumstances.”
“Be independent, confident, and believe in yourself.”
“Keeping up with the Joneses is not something to strive for.”
“Learn to be comfortable with yourself, anywhere you happen to land.”
“Nothing good or bad lasts forever. Savor the happy times and know the sad ones will eventually fade away.”
“Mind your own business and don’t worry about what others think of you.”
“Follow your dreams, and never let gender stand in your way.”
“Size doesn’t matter. Little women can be strong.”
The Daughters Speak
In Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town,” the character Emily, who has passed away, is allowed to return to earth to observe what was her twelfth birthday. While she is overjoyed at seeing her family one last time, she realizes how little people appreciate the simple joys of life, and how they fail to notice the significance of ordinary events. She returns sadly to the cemetery in Grover’s Corners. We all look back on our lives with mixed emotions. We all have things we wish we had done or said to those whom we have lost. I asked the daughters what they would say to their mothers if they could speak to them today. The daughter of the living mother told me she says the things she wants to say. Here is a sampling of what the others would tell their mothers:
“You were the one who always held the family together through the hardest of times, through the best of times. You showed us that there may be times that we disappointed you, but you always, always loved us.”
“For so many years I was so darn busy, doing my own thing. I wish now that I had talked to you more, spent more time with you—even if it was just playing Scrabble.”
“I wish we had known each other better as people. I hope I always made you proud. I know I will never be loved so unconditionally as I was by you.”
“You were really a good mother. Thank you for teaching us to be good and loving people.”
Maybe this anonymous quote sums it up well:
“Dear Mom, I get it now.”
Speak Up and Out
Though the mothers featured in this article belong to a generation past, their “Motherness” is for all times and the sheer force of who they were gave and gives them a voice in the Not-So-Silent Generation. This Mother’s Day, take time to remember and thank all mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers, living and deceased, past, present, and future, for being amazing women and for setting the stage for today’s American woman. Take a journey about—and even with—your own mother, alone or with siblings. The door to self-discovery is waiting to be opened.