Closed restaurants and postponed family gatherings are making this Mother’s Day unlike any we have experienced before.
But it got me thinking about my late mother. In fact, I’ve been reminded of many of her lessons as we have been dealing with the unprecedented events affecting our state, nation, and world over the past several months.
A witness to the Great Depression and World War II, Catherine “Kitty” Logan had learned to live with uncertainty during her early years in Philadelphia.
That’s where her immigrant Irish Catholic parents found each other, settled, and tried various enterprises in order to survive. And despite their own numerous uncertainties of how things would turn out, they somehow endured.
Like numerous other young women at the end of World War II, my mother married a service man from the neighborhood, settled down, had me and my brother, and then moved to the suburbs where she had my sister.
There was also a baby brother who died soon after birth.
That death pained my mother, but she accepted it — perhaps as another casualty in the uncertainty of life — and she continued to smile and embrace the world.
I did not realize it at the time, but she was giving me lessons in actions.
And while some were subtle, others were more direct — such as handing a 12-year-old me an ash tray when my brother and I were trying cigarettes in secret. Although she said she didn’t approve of us smoking, she told us to just do it in the open and not to hide — and don’t burn the house down.
That “be up front” attitude suddenly gave me the freedom to choose what I could do and negated the need to sneakily do things normally associated with adolescents. And with nothing to prove, I was free enough to take something or leave it.
The attitude also became part of my personal and professional behavior, where I generally have no hidden agendas and try to work in clear partnerships.
Since my mother grew up in the city and navigated it without fear, she encouraged me to do the same when we visited our city relatives. That license to explore gave me the confidence to go anywhere. In turn that led to being self-reliant, open to opportunities, understanding that uncertainties existed, and taking an occasional risk.
But my mother’s most important lessons came later — and was accompanied by a good deal of pain.
One was when my father walked out and left my mother and my high school-aged sister to fend for themselves. I curtailed my plans to move and attend graduate school and got work to help pay the family bills.
Although hurt and uncertain about what would happen, my mother made up her mind that she would not allow her fear and anger to overcome her and encouraged all of us to get a good rest and to stay healthy as a means to get through the situation.
A faithful housewife with no high school diploma, my mother now spent months searching for work and was eventually hired as a public school cafeteria worker.
When we got the household finances under control, the three of us were then able to move forward. My mother sold the house and remarried. My sister finished school, studied to be a medical secretary, married, and started her own family. And I moved to Trenton and began a new phase of my life.
The bond that exists between a mother and daughter had been strengthened by their experience and was an obvious source of joy for my mother. But it was shattered when my sister unexpectedly died as a result of a botched medical procedure.
The death was a staggering blow to my mother, yet she again resolved not to succumb to the pain and anger and be strong for her grandchildren.
Joy slowly returned again when my sister’s oldest daughter married and was about to present my mother with her first great-grandchild. But it was not to be. My niece had an embolism that killed both her and the child.
Again my mother was struck with an emotional trial worthy of the Book of Job. And again she reached inward and managed somehow to find something to console her to continue — perhaps again accepting the uncertainty she knew as a young girl.
But she was wounded with a pain that lasted for the rest of her life.
A few months before she died at the age of 87 in 2013, my mother and I were remembering the past and laughing. She then thought of some of those painful moments she experienced, shook her head, and said, “I refuse to become bitter.”
Now in another era of dark uncertainty — which for me includes the March loss of my step father, who died during the current lockdown without me saying goodbye or attending a memorial, and a sudden work furlough without guarantee of continuing work — I’ve been thinking of my mother’s lessons about dealing with pain and uncertainty.
I wish she were here so I could tell her, Thank you, but I’ll just smile.