Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Saturday, May 30, 2009

In Memoriam: Lucy 1916 - 2009

We'll Meet Again: Vera Lynn (1939)

Let’s be clear: Lucy wasn’t Donna Reed. But to be fair, Donna Reed wasn’t really Donna Reed either. As anyone who’s ever been or had a mother knows, real mothers don’t look like they just walked out of central wardrobe with freshly coifed hair and perfectly applied makeup. Nor do they handle all crises as imagined by a comedic screenwriter.

So I guess Mom wasn’t perfect, which in itself is surprising given that - in her opinion - all 6 of her and Dad’s offspring were. But unlike the Donna Reed world where no crisis was so big that it couldn’t be satisfactorily resolved in a half hour, real life could sometimes be a lot rougher and meaner. It nearly always required a lot more time, effort and grit to gut through. And that’s where Mom excelled.

Raising kids in the 50’s, while easily romanticized, required far more physical effort than we can easily relate to. It’s hard to imagine raising 6 babies without the benefit of Pampers. Or providing 3 square meals a day – including bagged lunches – 7 days a week without the benefit of a microwave, Hamburger Helper or even take-out pizza.

Yet she still had to find time to shop, clean and do laundry between skinned knees and homework consultations. And keep in mind that in those early years doing laundry meant washing with a wringer washer, line-drying (which I assure you had nothing to do with reducing our carbon footprint) and ironing - as permanent press was but a dream. With this schedule it wasn’t surprising then, that “play dates” for kids in that era consisted of Mom saying “Why don’t you kids go outside and play.”

So if Mom didn’t always look and sound like Donna Reed, we’ll forgive her. It didn’t stop her from trying to solve all of our problems, often with what she considered tried and true advice. She condensed a lot of basics into what can only be called clichés. In fact, Mom never met a platitude she didn’t like. And she never saw a problem that couldn’t be resolved with a prayer and the properly selected platitude.

As kids we would roll our eyes at these bromides that seemed so lame in light of what we considered huge problems and issues. And as young adults we would just shrug our shoulders, smile and say, “well, that’s just Mom.” We were not yet old enough, or wise enough, to know that the platitude itself was never intended to be taken at face value. It didn’t provide the answer, just an arrow pointing in the direction that would help us figure things out and work it through.

When our feelings were hurt as a kid by a mean remark, Mom didn’t demand that the school provide anti-bullying classes. She would just tell us “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” Beyond the obvious she was trying to convey important subtexts: that - while we have no control over others behavior - we can control how we respond to their behavior. And that a broken spirit is far worse than a broken arm.

When life delivered a big disappointment, she would counsel us not to “ cry over spilt milk”, usually accompanied by it’s corollary “just get up and try again.” She was doing her best to toughen us up for the inevitable chain of disappointments that assail everyone’s life.

Then there’s this, in response to having been slighted in some way large or small: “Life’s not fair.” It’s my personal favorite: a truism applicable and useful in so many situations that we should be born with the reminder tattooed on our forearm. If everyone would internalize this brief phrase, the world would rest a lot easier. And half the therapists on the planet would be out of work.

Mom’s platitudes were meant to make us strong and independent; two qualities she must have learned from her own parents. The platitudes were her short hand for the wisdom extracted from simple observations on existence and the human condition. She relied on them through the tough times of Dad’s struggle with cancer and his death when she was just 49. And she used them to tough it through the subsequent years as she struggled through the loneliness of his loss, and the financial struggles of raising our still young family.

Not raised in either an age or a family that was given to profuse emoting, she demonstrated her care and love by offering us the wisdom she felt her platitudes contained. They had served her well, and she hoped they would help us cope with the world too.

Even though Mom had always thought her kids to be perfect, I noticed that as she grew older her recollections of our childhood elevated us to near-saints. Hence in her mind, we never fought, never disobeyed, and always adhered to our curfews. Somehow in her alternate universe, we turned into the children of Lake Wobegon. As I reflect on it, I can’t see how that’s all bad. Given the choice of being remembered with all the warts and hard edges of reality, or as the perfect creatures we really aspire to be, who wouldn’t choose perfection?

So in exchange Mom, we promise to always remember you as Donna Reed: never a hair out of place, never a spot of dust in the house, and able to resolve all of our problems in a half hour with a platitude and a prayer.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that he’d spent his entire life learning that platitudes were true. Mom spent hers teaching us just that.