We asked eight women to tell us about their mothers' greatest hits—lessons learned, love made visible, childhood tears turned to still-glowing triumph. These are their stories. How to Steal a Show
by Elizabeth Gilbert
When I was in the third grade, our class put on a play called The Lemonade Stand. Which told the story of, well, a lemonade stand. Which featured three little girls spending a lot of time waiting for something to happen. Which may sound like an avant-garde Samuel Beckett production but was actually just one of those generic plays written for third-graders, wherein all 25 kids in the class get to say at least one line. Except for the three female leads, who, naturally, get to be onstage, selling lemonade, and speaking the whole time.
Now, I don't want to boast, but I was a formidable performer back in the third grade. My older sister and I had already produced dozens of plays in our living room, and my voice was capable of projecting power-fully across the school auditorium (and everywhere else, I'm afraid), so there was no question in my mind that I was a natural choice for one of the leading roles. Nonetheless, show business is a cruel mistress and I did not get cast as one of the starring lemonade girls. What I got instead was the part of Mrs. Fields—the only adult character in the play. Surely this made sense to Mrs. Domino (the director of this production) because I was about 11 inches taller than everyone else my age. Fine, except that Mrs. Fields was one of the smallest roles. Mrs. Fields had exactly two lines.
Was I angry? No—I was shattered. And in my sorrow, I did something so completely out of character that I still can't really believe it myself: I walked up to Mrs. Domino and basically told her where she could stick her stupid play. And then I quit the stupid play. And then I sobbed for approximately the next seven hours.
This is where my mother comes in. Such moments of high distress are true tests of parenting. My mother is not a saint or a paragon; she's just a woman who, like many mothers, tried to do her best with her kids, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. But this was the moment of my life where she succeeded perhaps most brilliantly, where she really did it right.
First of all—what she didn't do: She didn't charge into the principal's office demanding that her daughter be given a better part, nor did she congratulate me on having quit the play, saying, "Yeah, screw Mrs. Domino." She never indicated that the three-headed monster shouldn't have been given the starring role, nor did she allow my letdown to feed her own insecurities, worrying that her child (therefore, she herself) was a failure. And, of course, she'd never have dreamed of scorning my sorrow with a comment like "Buck up, kiddo—crap happens. Now go get Mommy another beer."
What she did do was to assemble an extraordinary step-by-step program of loving reconstruction. First came solace. I sobbed, she soothed. But—in childhood grief, as with the adult variety—solace is beneficial for only so long. Which is why my mother finally wiped my nose and asked, "Don't you want to be in the play, sweetheart?" I did! But I wanted to be one of the three starring lemonade girls! Or nothing!
Yes, she agreed, naturally. But given the reality that I couldn't be a lemonade girl, wouldn't I feel left out to be the only child who wasn't in the play at all? I hadn't thought of that. I hadn't imagined what it would feel like to watch as everyone else had fun putting on a play.
"Sometimes the smallest parts are the most unforgettable," she went on. "What if you and I made sure Mrs. Fields was really memorable?"
As my mother laid out her cunning plan, I could almost feel the tears crawling back up my cheeks. But first, my mother said, I had to apologize to Mrs. Domino for having called her a stupid stupid-head, and humbly ask for my part back. I agreed, shamefaced. The next morning, though, when I made my nervous apology to Mrs. Domino, she was like, "What? Oh, yeah, no problem." It was as if she had no recollection of my massive personal drama. (Thus handing me yet another important life lesson: Nobody's really paying that much attention to your massive personal dramas.)
Over the next month, my mother threw herself into helping me create a Mrs. Fields who would never be forgotten. Or at least that's how it felt to me. Looking back on it now, mind you, it occurs to me that she probably had other things going on besides her 8-year-old daughter's play. She had, for instance, a small family farm to run, a nursing job to maintain, another daughter to raise, and a marriage to attend to. But I didn't notice any of that. Because somehow, in those four weeks, she made me feel as though she had nothing better to do than run my two boring lines with me constantly, as though we were rehearsing Ophelia for the Royal Shakespeare Company. We experimented with accents, motivations, and fancy walking styles. Best of all, at a local thrift shop, we found an awesome Mrs. Fields costume—a vibrant pink vintage ball gown with matching high heels, purse, and sun hat. (A particularly noticeable getup, given that no other kids were wearing costumes.)
Opening day: The play droned to life. Bored parents fanned themselves in the audience, straining to hear mumbled lines. When I exploded onto the stage, as confident as (and dressed rather like) a drag queen, I could feel the crowd pop awake. Towering over the cast, I sashayed toward the lemonade stand and drawled languidly, "May ah have an oatmeal cookie and a glass of lemonade?" (The honeyed Southern accent had been my mother's brilliant, last-minute suggestion.)
The audience hollered with laughter. Still in character, I drawled my next and final line ("Thank yoooouuu!") to the three dumbfounded stars and began my exit. But—not so fast. The audience was still laughing, still loving this 8-year-old Blanche DuBois. And that's when I had a clarion revelation: They still need me! This is when I made the charitable decision to give the crowd just a little more Mrs. Fields. Instead of heading for the wings, I swished back to center stage, dropped an imaginary quarter on the lemonade stand, and ad-libbed, "Keep the change, sugar. "
Afterward I stood in the school hallway, collecting compliments as though they were bouquets of roses. It had been a mighty victory, and, with Mom standing quietly beside me, I knew it had been her victory, too. My mother had grown up poor and underestimated, always cast into roles smaller than she was worth. Having succeeded in life despite being told she wasn't bright enough to go to nursing school, or sophisticated enough to be a naval officer's wife, she well knew the pleasure of exceeding people's expectations. So it was probably a culminating joy for both of us when the principal shook my mother's hand and said, "You should take this kid to Hollywood."
Final moment of perfect parenting? She didn't.
No, there would be no more stage mothering from Carole Gilbert. Instead Mom let me revel in exactly one hour of triumph, then took me home for an afternoon of household chores. The most significant part of the day was over, anyhow. Not the thunderous applause part, but the part where a mother had conveyed successfully to her young daughter these five critical survival lessons of life:
1. Make the most of whatever you are dealt.
2. If you are given only one opportunity to speak, be certain your voice is heard.
3. Have a ball.
4. Perfect your character relentlessly. And most important—
5. If life gives you lemons, don't settle for simply making lemonade—make a glorious scene at a lemonade stand.
Good mothers are supposed to feed sick children steaming chicken soup, coax medicine down their throats, and swaddle them in quilts. Whenever I had a cold, my mother did all the above, in addition to uncomplainingly scooping up the mounds of moist Kleenexes that had missed the wastebasket. (Basketball was always my worst sport.) But she also believed firmly in the therapeutic properties of nature.
We lived on a largish property in then-rural Connecticut, the sort of place where my brother and I could be permitted, without fear of prying neighborly eyes, to dance naked on the back lawn before a rain, when the sky had turned what we called thunderstorm green. It was also the sort of place that harbored such a ravishing array of wildlife—pheasants, foxes, pileated woodpeckers—that we might as well have lived on the African veld. Once, when I was 5 or 6 or 7, I caught a flu-y cold, or perhaps it was a cold-y flu, in the middle of winter. I was too sick to read, too sick even to watchCaptain Kangaroo. My mother bustled up to my bedroom and announced we were going outside.
She was already dressed in a wool jacket and boots. She wrapped me in several blankets, hoisted me against her shoulder, and stomped out through the snow. We could see our breath condense in the freezing air. After a minute or so, she stopped in front of a blue spruce. There, in a low branch not ten feet from us, was a baby owl, its incompletely fledged feathers fluffed against the cold.
We watched it together, in silence, for a minute or so, and then my mother carried me back to bed. I wish I could say my fever broke instantly, but I doubt that was true. I can say, however, that during the next 40 years, until my mother's death, a single four-word sentence, spoken by either of us, conjured up all that was best about childhood. It was: "Remember the baby owl?"
Anne Fadiman is a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author and essayist for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). She is also the author of two books of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) and At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007).
We'd been close to here before, Mommy and I. The problem was, she said, I had to stand up for myself. I'd have to learn to fight for myself. I had to stop letting people push me around.
The cement sidewalks smelled chalky, dirty, gray like they always did just before rain. How would I find the boy? What would I do if I found him? What would I do if I didn't? I put blinders on myself like they did in Black Beauty when they walked the horses through the burning barn. I kept going, distracting myself with scenarios. I'd walk until dark, until hunger and thirst made me cry. Maybe the boy would find me and beat me. They'd find my body in an alley. Then she'd be very, very sorry.
I did not get all the way to the stop when I saw it, the book bag, my book bag, tossed aside, like salvation. Dear Lord. Mine again, papers intact. I spun around to survey the street from all angles before I picked it up, closed the rifled compartments, and slung it over my shoulder that had missed the familiar weight. Pique surprised me as much as the sight of the thing itself. I told that boy I didn't have any money. I told him.
When I came home, my mother was proud of me, and I basked in that pride. She admired tough people, and for once, I'd shown some moxie. But I also learned what I could do myself. She made me walk away—from her. For a young mother to whom mothering was everything, it was the biggest sacrifice she could make, one that she chose to make again and again, each time with greater understanding of the importance—and loss.
Lorene Cary is the author of Free!: Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad.
My mother had seven children in seven years. No twins. She also had a three-legged beagle who was compelled to bite strangers, a freakishly big double-pawed tomcat who regularly left dead rabbits on the front doorstep, and 70 white mice that one or another of us had smuggled home from my father's research laboratory. Not one day of my mother's adult life passed without some critical demand on her maternal role, without some urgent response from her. On those days when the tomcat arrived at the door with a bloody gash in his side, a son broke his arm, the beagle bit the piano teacher, the 70 mice escaped into the kitchen, one daughter got sent home from school for refusing to remove her floppy hat in class and two others ran through the house slapping each other's faces, my mother did what most mothers do—she responded. She said, Do this, Stop that, I'm sorry, and Have you lost your mind? She tended to the son, the cat, the piano man. She scolded the dog, enlisted someone to round up the mice, broke up the fight. In short, she handled it.
My mother was not what anyone would call sweet, and she wasn't conventional. When my brother couldn't find his shoes one morning, she said, "Oh, for God's sake, it won't kill him not to have shoes for a day," and sent him to school without them. Daily she kept us afloat, but her true talent as a mother lay in her ability to tell the right story at the right moment.
When I was 17, I wanted very much to go to Ireland to study for a year, yet I was afraid to try. Who knew what might happen there? What if I grew lonely? Above all, how would my mother feel with me so far away? I worried that she would worry, and the idea of making my mother unhappy was enough to keep me from going anywhere. After weeks of fretting, I finally told my mother what was on my mind. She looked silently at me a while, then told me a story. Her mother, an Irish immigrant, was determined that her daughters be educated. Though one by one my mother's classmates were dropping out of college to get married, she persisted in her studies because her mother had taught her that education meant independence and that independence was everything: "We knew that marriage was worthy only as a complement to personal freedom—not as a means of financial support."
There was, however, one conditional hitch in the leap from dependence on her parents to independence as an adult. Though my grandmother had picked up modern ideas in America, she still had some conflicting 19th-century Irish notions. She believed that daughters, educated though they may be, should continue to live at home until they were married. At 26, with an M.A. from the Columbia School of Journalism and a job as an editor at a Boston newspaper, my mother was still sleeping in her childhood bed. With distress in her voice even 30 years after the fact, my mother told me, "I didn't want to be living at home, Rose. I wanted to live on my own, to take care of myself, to be free!" Every morning when her mother knocked on her bedroom door and asked what she wanted for breakfast, her heart sank. And every evening on her way home from work, she prepared a little speech all about how if she left home, it wouldn't mean she didn't love her mother but only that she needed to test her own strength. As she approached the house, my mother was full of her speech, determined that she would finally present it to her mother; the click of her own shoes on the redbrick walk seemed to lend her confidence. Yet the moment she stepped through the door and saw her mother's face, the speech suddenly drained out of her. "I couldn't do it," my mother said ruefully. "I could not disappoint my mother." Though she had her education, my mother knew she would go from her parents' house to her husband's house without ever knowing what it was like to live on her own. "I made a mistake," my mother said, "in not going after what I wanted in order to spare my mother. It wasn't my mother who prevented me, Rose. It was I who prevented myself."
This is all my mother needed to do, all she needed to say. The very next day, I began making the phone calls and writing the letters necessary to go to Ireland.
Rosemary Mahoney is the author of Whoredom in Kimmage, The Singular Pilgrim and Down the Nile.
In the late 1950s, my father took a job quite far from our house. My little sister and I would be practically ready for bed by the time he got home, so my mother would feed us first, delaying her own dinner to eat with him.
I remember this as a major disruption. There had been no more consecrated part of family life than the evening meal, and my parents were very old-fashioned about it. We children were to listen to the adults converse and to ponder the meaning of grown-up topics. If we had thoughts to contribute, we were to express them formally and politely. "Dining with the queen" was my mother's expression for it, and my sister and I warmed to the image. We would fluff ourselves up as though for a tea party, stick out our pinkies, and dab at the corners of our lips with our napkins in mock propriety. "Dining with the dean" was my father's way of inspiring us when we forgot we were dining with the queen. My father's "dean" was a glowering martinet who was miserably judgmental of children who sulked at lima beans or slid too far down in their chairs. (After 30 years in academia, I still have quivers of irrational panic at dinners with the real thing. It's hard to act like a grown-up with that voice in my head: Is that how you'd behave at the dean's table?)
When my father went off to his faraway job, however, we missed the grumpy old dean. There was no buzz of adult conversation under whose radar to daydream. It was a hard time for my mother, I think—my grandmother had died recently, there wasn't much money, and my father was worn out from travel. My mother says she realized she had to fill the silence with something that would keep family time from fragmenting under the weight of her melancholy and the squabbling of two very young children. She began to read aloud to us while we ate, starting with the collected works of Charles Dickens before moving on to Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe.
My mother was very expressive when she read, and in retrospect revealed herself in much deeper ways than I appreciated at the time. She is not someone who would ever tell a joke, for example, but she turned out to be wickedly funny when reading, with a musician's ear for accents. I do not know if I would ever have seen the range of her personality but for the degree to which she breathed dazzle and depth into fictional beings. She gave us a way to read her moods as well, for much of the drama emanated not from the page but from her heart. If things were going well, the lighthearted characters were crackling. When she wasn't so happy, we sobbed as star-crossed heroines flung themselves into the Thames.
Those dinners became for me like Proust's madeleine, albeit through the filter of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I ate canned green bean casserole imagining it was suet pudding; wedges of iceberg lettuce with Wish-Bone dressing pretending they were leeks. (Years later when I finally tasted a leek, I found myself longing for lettuce.) And when Nicholas Nickelby was forced to ingest treacle and brimstone, my own struggle to consume fried liver and stewed codfish balls was graced with the virtue of empathy.
My mother is in her late 80s now. She says she is pleased that my sister and I have carried on something of the tradition, even though much of the reading is done by books on tape as we ferry her grandchildren from hither to yon. But I do think that her lovely, languid, leisurely mealtime practice made both my sister and me lifelong readers and writers. This Mother's Day, I am sending her a high-tech thank-you note: a CD of me speaking these words. My sister will join me in frying the liver, stewing the cod.
Patricia J. Williams is the author of Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own.
My mother was hyperprotective—she hovered over me. In 1947 I was 10 years old, and we lived in Yugoslavia, where my father was the Czech ambassador. I had a governess who gave me lessons, and I would play with the children of other diplomats. It was a pretty limited life. We'd moved around a lot, so I couldn't go to the regular school until the next year; I'd gotten ahead of myself. So my mother and father made the decision to send me away from our very close, loving family to a Swiss boarding school, and it was up to my mother to take me there.
I was a very serious child, and obedient. (I always thought when I wrote my memoir I would start with "I was born an adult.") But I did not want to go. How would I manage? I didn't speak a word of French. My way of resisting was to develop a rash. I don't know whether it was psychosomatic or a genuine rash. But my mother, who was unexpectedly resolute, said, "We're going." On the flight to Zurich, I was crying so much that my mother's whole arm was wet. Next morning in Zurich I told her, "I can't move my legs." Oh, she said, "Zurich is a center for polio research—we'll find a doctor." All of a sudden I could get out of bed.
My mother took me to that school and, overprotective though she was, made me go. And it was one of the most important years of my life. My first problem at the school was that in order to eat, you had to speak French. And you needed French to participate in class. So the early weeks were hard. In those days, you didn't call your family every five minutes, and there was no e-mail. I didn't even go home for Christmas. But in the end, I conquered the situation. I learned French, I learned to ski, I learned to be in a place that I wasn't at all comfortable in, and I had to make it comfortable for myself. I learned to be independent. That year has stood me in good stead forever. And I grew to love it there.
I have three daughters now, and I remember nights when I lay in bed paralyzed with unreasonable fear over where they were. I think the hardest thing for a mother is to make it possible for a child to be independent and at the same time let the child know how much you love her, how much you want to take care of her, and yet how truly essential it is for her to fly on her own. It's definitely the "pushing out of the nest syndrome."
I think of my own mother, knowing what I know now. How difficult this must have been for her. She died in 1989. Without her, it sometimes feels as if there's nothing between me and the sky, but then her lesson always shows itself. It is nothing short of a wonder that she sent me away. But she knew to do it.
Madeleine Albright was the first woman to serve as Secretary of State for the United States. She is the author of Madam Secretary (2003), The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (2006) and Read My Pins (2009).
The best thing my mother ever did was to show me the transporting power of stories. She demonstrated this frequently, reflexively, being a natural storyteller, but certain occasions stand out.
Once, when I was about 10, my father began bringing home a business associate, a man unlike anyone in the neighborhood. In our straitening Philadelphia suburb, people were employed by the phone company or places called Amalgamated or, if they'd gone to private schools and came equipped with trust funds, as bouncers in a bar. But this man would come over and get in story matches with my mother: how he'd once escorted a girls' school to Europe on a cruise ship or how he'd broken every bone in his body riding a motorcycle cross-country or what kind of sparkling life he'd had working at a slick literary magazine, a copy of which was on the end table by his arm.
Even before he got to the motorcycle spill, a casual observer would have bet that my mother was outgunned. Her material was severely limited—just family. But she considered the man vanquished from the start, having become convinced after years away from her natal home that her family had been pillars of American culture, history, and warfare. It wasn't the particulars of their contributions that gave her the edge, though—for she rarely supplied any—but the assurance with which she told the family stories that pushed her to victory.
There was the one about my grandmother taking her friend Mrs. Musgrave into Washington, to the seamstress's. "When she picked her up," my mother said, "Mrs. Musgrave's husband ran out. 'That woman will try to tell you she doesn't have my pants,' he said. 'She'll say they're not ready yet. She always does. You tell her you know they are.' Well, they got to Washington, and the woman answered the door, and Mrs. Musgrave said, 'I've come for my husband's pants,' and sure enough, the woman claimed not to have them. 'He said you'd say that and I know it's not true,' Mrs. Musgrave said. 'Now, I want my husband's pants.' The woman got perfectly furious, insisted she most certainly did not have them. Mother looked up at the number on the house and saw she'd parked at the wrong door...."
My mother shifted positions to signal he'd been topped and by doing so, made it true.
They'd all drink and get flushed and funny, and by the time the scotch was more watery than oily, two things were clear. That my father's tight smile was meant to convey to the man that he'd gotten nowhere. That my mother thought she could, if she wanted, talk herself anywhere. It was only years on that I understood what even a casual observer might have guessed and, in this case, been right about: Because she did, my whole life, so have I.
My mother always stood up for me and was fearless about speaking her mind, no matter who the audience or what the context. Anytime she came to a lecture I gave, when the moment came for Q&A, she'd raise her hand. On one occasion, a man in the audience challenged me. In any endeavor, he said, though women might do well, the true experts are always men—and he gave the game of bridge as an example. I replied calmly, trying not to show my annoyance. A few turns later, I recognized my mother. She stood up, faced the man, and said firmly, "I just want to tell that man that my husband and I play bridge every week—the women are just as good as the men!" The audience burst into applause.
When my mother was 90 years old, I accepted an invitation to speak at a women's group in Boca Raton because it was close to the Florida town where my parents then lived. As the date neared, it was uncertain whether my mother would be able to make it. In the end, she did—in a wheelchair, the day after emerging from a month in rehab following a monthlong hospital stay because of a fall. We positioned her wheelchair right up front, and, as usual, when I asked for questions, her hand shot up. I called on her, and she began speaking to me as if it were just the two of us in the room: She told me what a wonderful talk I had given, how proud she was of me—and how good I looked! For a moment I was afraid the audience would react with embarrassed silence. But the roomful of women laughed and clapped, delighted to have witnessed this moment of motherly praise. It was the last time my mother heard me speak, and her public pronouncement of private approval has remained like a parting blessing.