My mother and mother-in-law were born in 1914, the year Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first nationally observed Mother’s Day in the United States. Both still live in their own homes. One is in Indiana, the other Massachusetts. One is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Between them, they have 11 children, 18 grandchildren, and eight great-grandsons.
One snowy weekend in January, lots of us met in the Midwest for a 100th birthday party for my mother-in-law with Costco lasagna and sheet cake. We’re planning a backyard 100th birthday lunch for my mother in July with lobster rolls and Cape Cod reduced-fat potato chips.
Growing up, I knew my mother wasn’t like everybody else’s. None of my friends had mothers who’d served as an officer in the Army. My sister and I never heard that girls weren’t supposed to like math and science. Our mother majored in chemistry and helped our father prepare clients’ tax returns, before calculators. She drove stick, loved to shovel snow, and composted before it was the green thing to do.
An avid newspaper reader, she was well informed about current events but not much interested in popular culture, although I remember her sitting on the couch with us when we watched the Beatles introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show. No TV on school nights, and no tonic (that’s what we called soda). We rarely went out to eat or to the movies. “What we make at home tastes much better and costs less,” Ma used to say.
My mother made everything from scratch. Her sour cream coffeecake comforted friends and neighbors through illness and despair. Our grandfather raised chickens, so Ma knew how to clean a bird, giving us anatomy lessons as she extracted organs from the cavity. Soup stocks were made with fowl, and noodles were homemade and hand-cut.
Our mother had become a nurse after college. During World War II, she served with the Sixth General Hospital, affiliated with Mass. General. Her father was so upset when she enlisted, he refused to go to the train station to say goodbye. Now, when I miss my own daughters who live in California, I think of my grandmother and how she must have felt missing her daughter who worked 16-hour shifts under difficult conditions treating injured soldiers in North Africa and Europe. No e-mail, no texting, no Facebook.
The good news is that our parents met and fell in love while in the service. Watching M*A*S*H on TV, I imagined our mother a more sedate, wholesome version of Hot Lips Houlihan and our father a taller, more important company clerk than Radar.
It was tough, but I managed to persuade her to go with me to see Saving Private Ryan in the 1990s. Characteristically quiet, she sat still after the credits rolled. Finally, she admitted: “It has taken me many years to try to forget some of the things I saw in the Army, and that brought back a lot. At least it was realistic.” Her eyes were very sad. If I could do that day over, I wouldn’t have pushed her to go.
Like my mother, I was no spring chicken when I had my first child. Clueless about diapers, breast pumps, and baby baths, I needed a lot of guidance. My mother, a devout Catholic, stayed with us in Western Massachusetts for a month after I gave birth. If becoming a grandmother wasn’t enough of a miracle that June, life got even better for her when Mother Teresa appeared for a public prayer service for thousands at the UMass Amherst football stadium. I nursed my newborn daughter sitting in the bleachers next to my mother on a hot summer day. She was in her glory.
Happy 100th Mother’s Day, Ma. I love you.