Aug 16

Mothers: The Tie That Binds

In Brief—A discussion of motherhood with a focus on the author’s mother and his experience.


Does the Apple Fall Far from the Tree?—

Everybody is born of a mother. Some mothers are loved and lovable. Some are less so. Some are capable. Some are not. Some are even monsters. All humans are unique and mothers are no exception. Being a mother is a tough job.

What follows is my experience with mothers: my own, other mothers I have known, and still others who have been described by friends. They vary for reasons known and unknown. In this case, Mom is as American as apple pie.

Mom and Apple Pie

Mom and Apple Pie

For starters, the mother I am most familiar with is my own. It’s only with the passage of time since her death at 95 in 2005 that I have been able to judge her with more objectivity, the strengths as well as the weaknesses.

For the first five years, only the faults and meanness dominated my thoughts. Since then I have come to realize that although Mother—she refused to let us call her “Mom”—had a limited toolbox, she may have instilled in me some positive characteristics. Life is responsible for the rest.

My earliest memory of Mother was her laughter as she bathed me. Until I was thirty and discovered I was attractive to women, I chose to interpret that laughter as derision. But was it derision or simple pleasure at the sight of her little son in all his glory?

When I returned after a year in boarding school, my dog, Bouncer, was missing. Mother’s questionable explanation was that Bouncer became vicious (impossible), that he barked at the milkman (believable) and that the neighbors complained (possible, but only after their dogs provoked Bouncer). With me away in boarding school, the most plausible answer was that Mother simply got rid of Bouncer because she didn’t want the responsibility.

Mother’s meanness was displayed when she delighted in using the scissors to stealthily clip away half of Dad’s mustache while he was napping. He loved that mustache, but she hated it. Stunned, Dad shaved off the rest of the mustache and never wore one again.

Or what about the time Dad brought home a toboggan for us to play with in the nearby foothills? My sister and I were ecstatic and Dad was pleased. Mother said absolutely not and angrily demanded he take it back. Berated and demeaned in front of his children, the toboggan was returned.

On only a handful of occasions in my youth do I remember Mother permitting my friends at my house. I went to their houses instead. Once in my teens, I was allowed to invite three friends to a boys-only Thanksgiving meal at which turkey was the main course. I love turkey. Always have. With the appetite of a typical teenager, I put a significant dent in the turkey leftovers from that meal. Mother angrily scolded me in terms that I still clearly recall.

By way of contrast, one friend’s mother regularly baked pies and cookies for all of us. Sometimes, it was with cherries from their tree. She was a warm and giving person who always made us feel welcome. Needless to say, we spent a fair amount of time at their house.

After the army and after putting in a day as a laborer before leaving for UCLA, I quietly listened as Mother insisted my sister send her visiting boyfriend back to Kansas during the Labor Day holiday. My sister’s reasoned pleas were bluntly rejected. Mother remained adamant. Having listened without comment, I calmly told Mother that I thought my sister was right: her boyfriend should be allowed to stay until after the holiday. Without a word, Mother spun around and slapped me so hard that I literally saw red. I grabbed her and fortunately stopped myself. Swearing, I packed and was gone within minutes. Mother never apologized or even mentioned it again.

On later visits to her house, Mother turned up the radio when Rush Limbaugh propagandized because she knew I found him to be a hypocritical liar. She hated where I live, my liberal philosophy and even demeaned my Swedish wife though never when she was present. Mother’s meanness was bone deep.

Again, by contrast, wives of friends have told me how much they not only love their mothers but like them. Their mothers visited often while mine never once visited though living not far away and refusing repeated offers to drive her.

These are merely a few of the many instances in which Mother showed her true nature. Her mother—who never allowed us to call her “Grandma”—was a cold, narrow woman who sent Mother to boarding school for twelve years and advised Mother do the same with my sister and me. Thus, Mother had a limited tool box and a good example of selfishness. Where the meanness came from, I’m unable to say.

Females may have the physical makeup to bear a child, but some lack the capability to give the kind of love and guidance necessary for any child. Fortunately, many have that capability. Mother, however, was one of those deprived females. It was up to her children to acquire elsewhere the full tool box that she lacked.

What about your “Mom?”


Skip to comment form

    • Art Ulene on August 16, 2015 at 18:12


      • Don Bay on August 17, 2015 at 10:23

      I’m not sure how to interpret your “Wow!” I choose to interpret it as a positive response to my honest revelations relative to Mother. Since mothers are usually sacrosanct, any criticism of my mother may be considered distasteful. Though that may be the case, look on this revelation as my refusal to be bound by tradition and maybe a bit of therapy…late, but nevertheless therapeutic. I hope your mother was one of the loving kind who is revered by her children. However intended, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • Kitty Courcier on August 16, 2015 at 19:04

    Dear Don, I knew your “Mother” was stern but didn’t know the whole of it. I’m sure your insight into her lack of all the tools needed to be a caring mother has lessened some of the hurt and anger you must of felt toward her. From the description of your grandmother (her mother) I’m sure you see that that apple didn’t fall far from the tree. It sounds to me that your mother was probably hurt from a lack of love and became narrow minded and nasty to protect herself from feeling much of anything. You know me (child of the 60’s), I think love is the true nature of us all unless it has been beaten and or deprived from us. Many of us who experimented with psychedelic drugs learned that our natural mind was open and free of judgement and receiving of pure love. That could be translated as God’s love by many believers or just a greatness of the universe. Many who meditate have explained it to me as a limitlessness. At any rate I know you were able to nurture that type of love for yourself that your mother was incapable of.

    You knew my Mother “Billie”. She embodied unconditional love to all her children. She had not known her own mother who had died in child birth. But my Mother always talked about her and how her side of the family (who pretty much raised her) were “the lov’in kind. I don’t really know what that means, but it was an instinctual behavior on my mothers part. As you know my sister Jane dedicated one of her books to Mother and acknowledged her unconditional love. It’s not that she was alway saying “I love you” but her actions and support of who we were was alway present. She did tell me many times that I could be anything I wanted to be…..

      • Don Bay on August 17, 2015 at 10:33

      It’s clear that Billie demonstrated unconditional love toward her children. That you and Jane developed into strong and independent individuals is evidence that Billie raised you all with unconditional love and positive guidance. Your becoming a nurse when you could have become anything you wanted to be shows that you are sharing the love inside you with others. Billie planted that in you. I appreciate your loving friendship and always will.

  1. I feel sad for you and your mother. You because I have a related tale, and her because I wonder what in her life created who she was. And I wonder how your siblings would tell the tale today. Similar experiences or very different, and if different why? Or was she the same with them and they processed it or remember it differently?

    In my case my mother was unable to love unconditionally. I had to be the person she wanted me to be or it must mean I didn’t love her, and since I very often wasn’t the person she wanted, I felt the estrangement that resulted. Nothing physical, just conditional. And my brother adored her and was therefore the right kind of son, and that was made very clear. And again I wonder what in her life led to who she was.

      • Don Bay on August 17, 2015 at 10:58

      There’s no need to feel sad for me, but my Mother’s the one who who deserves sadness. Being raised in a home—actually, by rigid nuns in a boarding school—devoid of the kind of love and guidance any child should receive, is inexcusable.

      Mothers almost always have a favorite child. In your case, the most tractable child was your brother, so your mother made the mistake of showing her favoritism unequally. Life has educated you and shown you better ways. You have given to others the love denied you by your mother, and for that you have grown in ways that a loving mother should have given you. Life and your own inner integrity have taught you that all of us need to be loved and acknowledged as individuals worthy of love. You became what you missed. Only a strong person does that. You’re a good example of what all of us can aspire to.

  2. Well, somehow you managed to have enough positive influences in your universe to end up, if not unaffected, at least unwilling to exhibit the same traits….no?

    My mother was ill-equipped for her challenges as well. Three long term miscarriages before I managed to take a full breath, a daughter 13 months later, another son 16 months after that, and another son 19 months after that, and yet a fourth son ten years after me…..Oops!

    But, perpetual pregnancy was only part of it. An anxiety ridden, sometimes depressed, chain smoking, agoraphobic, hypochondriac, Coca-Cola addicted, non-driver, ball of ‘issues’. She was not a comfortable individual. She WAS an avid reader, far more comfortable reading a novel about British Royalty while smoking madly with an ice-cold cola at her side than herding children around. She was a terrible cook. Seven dishes in her repertoire, all done badly. We thought that was the extent of the food world. Can you imagine the wonder in our eyes on the rare occasion when we ate-out our went to another’s home for a dinner of…..”what’s that?”

    It really wasn’t until we aged that we began to realize what a disaster she was. But in spite of all her short-comings, she did love us and treat us well. Leaving the discipline to my father for the most part and doing the best with what she had. For instance, she was a terrific seamstress and made clothes for us up into our teen years……and we wore them! And liked them! And, By God, she COULD bake a pie. Terrific pies!

    She died at 56 and it was no doubt the smoke and the sugar that did her in. And we do miss her. Or rather, we are sad at what she missed…..watching her children succeed and her grand-children (she only knew two of the now four) grow into adults and have kids of their own. And while we often laugh at the dry-as-dust Thanksgiving Day turkey, we’d eat it again if we could.

      • Don Bay on August 17, 2015 at 11:16

      Your mother lacked all of the tools necessary to provide the guidance you and your sibs needed, but apparently the love was there. Seems to me that in you, the love stimulated you to become the loving dynamo you have been as long as I have known you. You have often given of yourself to your sibs and others in ways that demonstrate not just creativity but loving consideration. Based on what you have said, that love is returned. As I have told you, I am a better, more complete person for knowing you. Whatever her faults, your moth did the right thing with you…dry turkey notwithstanding.

    • Moorhouse Katharine on August 17, 2015 at 16:18

    Don, you knew my mom very well and we all loved her. We got lucky. I’ve tried my best to emulate her ways in raising my son Ivan, although I haven’t quite measured up to her degree of selflessness.
    In remembering her I’ll share a little anecdote with you, I hope you’ll get a giggle out of this, I do when I think of it, when one of us was the cause of some sort of family upset she used to always tell us (in a very stern voice) don’t make me choose between you or your father, because I’m going to choose your father, if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be here. She and my dad were a unit, and she was devoted to him. Along with being a great mom to us three, she created a wonderful oasis for my dad to come home to every night. We all miss her very much.

    My Mom considered you a dear friend, and I remember how thrilled she was when Kathy was born and you and Nancy would come for a visit. I have many pictures of Kathy on her lap, I should dig them out and send them to you.

      • Don Bay on August 18, 2015 at 12:21

      We were all lucky to have Kay in our lives. While I can’t speak of what it was like to have her as a mother, I can say that she was always a dear friend to me. She was a warm and loving person.

      You related an intimate glimpse into Kay. Here’s mine: One of the last times I saw her, we were going through a family album looking at photos of Kay when she was young. Spontaneously, I said, “I’m in love with Kay!” Your brother knew exactly what I meant, smiled and said, “Me, too.” He knew Kay was a wonderful person and mother. She just smiled a small smile at hearing herself being spoken of with such warmth. Kay made all of our lives better. We are richer for her having been a loving mother and friend.

  3. In spite of her you turned out very fine indeed!

      • Don Bay on August 18, 2015 at 12:25

      You are such a smooth talker…and I love you for it. You are part of the reason that I turned out fine. Thank you, friend.

    • Kathy on August 18, 2015 at 02:04

    I often think society’s insistence in past years that women could do nothing but be wives and mothers messed up a lot of women. I can imagine the rage and resentment that many women must’ve felt being forced into a role they either didn’t fit or didn’t want. Of course that anger and resentment was taken out on their families.

    It took a very, very strong personality to buck the expectations of the day in order to live the kind of life they wanted. And I have no doubt that most of those who had the strength and courage to do so were made to pay a heavy price for their independence.

      • Don Bay on August 18, 2015 at 13:16

      I have no idea what motivated Mother. Certainly, twelve years in a boarding school under the thumbs of strict nuns and having the mother she did can’t have been good for her development. What I do know is that Mother worked briefly in a bridal shop for only as long as it would take to qualify for a higher monthly Social Security check when she reached retirement age. She was a social woman who enjoyed fine things, the country club and traveling while living on others and, later, an inheritance. If there was any resentment, I never saw it. Meanness I did see.

      A lawyer I knew was a single mother of several children, one of them a special-needs child. She was abandoned by her husband and worked her way through law school as a waitress to become a successful corporate lawyer. She was a strong person who was aware of the hurdles imposed by society. I have no idea what kind of a mother she was, but she struggled to raise her children and fought her way up the ladder. If there was anybody who was entitled to feel resentment, she was it. I admired her although she was embittered by her experience and was intense in expressing her view.

      I have no doubt that some females experienced anger at the lot imposed on them by the times, but some managed to turn out to be loving mothers. See what your aunt, essentially a contemporary of Mother, turned out to be. Seems to me that it comes from inside a person. Some have it and others don’t.

    • Donna Boe on November 28, 2015 at 05:11

    I feel guilty waiting this long to reply to your blog about your mother. I know that you had a lot of anger toward her, and now I can understand some of that.
    My own mother and father were married during the depression and really struggled, especially after he lost his job in Texas and moved to Albuquerque to start a business of his own. He was a quiet man who worked long and hard at the business, so it was up to Mother to managed my two sisters and me. She was pretty strict, but not mean. She was very ambitious for her daughters and delighted in any awards, recognitions, etc.we received. One of the main things I remember about her was how much she loved music. She would often sing while she was cooking, doing dishes, etc.and she made sure that the three of us learned to play the piano and sang in our church choirs. In the last year of her life, her dementia was bad enough that she only recognized my father. But if we started to sing, she would sing along with us.
    My mother lived long enough to welcome her grandchildren into the world, but heart trouble, strokes, and other health problems made her last few years so miserable, that she was no longer the mother I knew.
    My mother was often aware of “what will people say”, but she was adventurous and gave us lots of love.

      • Don Bay on November 28, 2015 at 11:16

      It doesn’t make any difference how long someone waits to comment. All comments make me think regardless of when they are made. Thinking is good.

      My mother did the best she could with the limited tool box she had. The passing years have softened my anger and given me a bit of perspective. She also influenced me in positive ways, so it’s a more balanced picture than it once was. Getting older and reflecting on my own mistakes has helped. Thanks for your positive memories. Your mother did well in raising you.

Comments have been disabled.