As a single parent, my mom was stretched pretty thin taking care of my three brothers and me. We lived by humble means. But when each of us graduated from middle school, my mom cobbled together enough funds to take us on a trip. I picked New York. Imagine going from a small town like Claremont, California, to Manhattan. It was like visiting the future, especially at night when it's dark, and the city transforms itself into this glowing, mysterious planet all its own. The sounds, the scents, the taxicabs, the smoke rising from the street—it was all overwhelming in the best way. As my mom and I headed back to Claremont, I remember thinking, "What am I going home for? I've got to get to the rest of my life!" —As told to Crystal G. Martin
Joyce Carol Oates
My mother loved to read but was not at all "intellectual" or contentious about her thoughts. She was rarely opinionated, unlike my father, who was outspoken, often very funny in a sardonic way, and extremely opinionated on subjects ranging from the abstract (politics) to the domestic (my mother's family). Mommy was the mediator of the family—trying to soften my father's rapier wit and trying to protect him from difficult in-laws. Near the end of her life, after my father had died, my mother was in a nursing home, and she consoled herself by imagining that he was still there. I remember Mommy telling me, with an air of confiding an important secret, that Daddy was living "over there"—pointing to another wing. "He's in charge."
When I went on my first expedition to study chimpanzees, in what is today Gombe Stream National Park, I wasn't permitted to travel by myself. Local administrators didn't want to be responsible for a young woman alone in the bush. They insisted I bring a companion. So my mom, Vanne, volunteered to come to Tanzania.
The first few weeks, I was very worried because the chimps would flee as soon as they saw me. I knew if I didn't discover something important before my grant ran out, that would be the end of the project. It was wonderful to have Vanne there; she kept my spirits up, pointing out all the things I was learning about the chimps from a distance, and entertaining me with stories about the local people she was meeting while I was in the field. Three months after we arrived, we both got malaria. But Vanne never complained once. —As told to Michael Shapiro
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