Are You My Mother?

As children, we all read the book by PD Eastman: Are You My Mother? Many of us have read this book to our children and grandchildren – or as in the case of my own grandmother our Great-grandchildren. In the book, a small newly hatched chick wonders about the world asking a cat, a hen, a dog, a cow, and so on if they are his mother – only to return to the nest and his mother.

In the days leading up to “Mother’s Day” I thought about my mothers. You read that right there is an “s” on the end of my statement. In thinking about my mother, I realized I had many mothers over the years. The presence of these “Mothers” – or mother figures if that is easier – in no way diminished my Mother’s place in my life. If anything these “Mothers” accentuated my Mother’s contributions.

My first Mother will always be the woman her friends call Carol. She was my mother 9 months before I was born. As any expectant mother can confirm, care for your baby begins long before the baby is born. As a young girl I saw my mother stand up against people who didn’t think she should “be there.”

She often told me the story of how she worked for a Mathematics degree in college. The dean of the department didn’t think she should “be there” as Mathematics is a Man’s World. The “Mathematics Program” closed. This forced her to move to another major. Education was the major that she moved to, as it happened that was also the one the head of the Mathematics Department insisted that she transfer to. The orals for her diploma she always said were not normal.

When I was a kid, she worked as a teacher. She taught Mathematics and Physics – two subjects that some believe to be male only fields. Of course when a woman tries to or enters a “male only” domain, the boy’s club will always say she shouldn’t “be there”. Time and again, my mother proved she deserved to “be there”. I learned that tenacity, though there is times I know I don’t seem very tenacious.

In Elementary school I had my first “School Mom.” She tanned better than me, but I knew I could always go see Ms. Battiste if I needed someone to talk to. Lillian Battiste was my 3rd Grade Teacher at Largo Tibet Elementary in Savannah, Georgia. She taught me that we all have stumbling blocks. Those same stumbling blocks can either be a wall, or a stepping stone to bigger and better. I don’t like reading aloud, when I was in her class and she had us read aloud I stumbled. When I stumbled through the words, the other kids laughed and that hurt. Ms. Battiste told me that practice would help. I don’t like to read aloud, but she was right, practice makes reading aloud easier.

It would be another five years before I would meet my next “School Mom.” She was my 8th Grade English Teacher, Ms Haley. English was the same subject my father taught. It was in Priscilla Haley’s class that I found my love for words, poetry more specifically. In a way, I can credit Pris for several of the high points in my life.

It was my love of poetry that lead me to write poetry. Writing poetry lead to me writing the poems that my darling husband studied in college. That was a very big part of the start of our relationship – my poetry. I am not sure that I would have even written poetry if I had not been in her class. As I am writing this, I wonder how Ms. Haley would react to knowing I named my youngest daughter – Hayley?

In high school, I had both my mom and a school mom. My mom taught Mathematics and Physics in my high school, but both of my parents became ill in my Junior year – which coincidentally was my Senior year as well. When my Dad got sick in the fall, my mother was who I leaned on. When my mother got sick, I turned once again to my English Teacher. Mrs. Smith was my European Literature Teacher. I trusted Elizabeth Smith. At the time, I felt like I could confide anything in her. Just feeling that is sometimes all we need.

In Denmark, My Host-Mother was my only Mom. Tove Ellegaard Nissen will always have a place in my heart. Even after I changed families, Tove was the one woman I saw as my Host-Mother. The mother in my second host family was not like Tove. That is why I gave the afghan that I knitted before I went to Denmark to Tove. I still think of Tove, I wonder if she still thinks of me.

When I went to college the first time, I never found a School Mom. Then again the University was much bigger than anything I had faced. So when I dropped out of school, I went to work. I had a Work Mom – at least on the first job I held after dropping out of school. Geri was my work mom. She collected carousel horses. I knew I could go with her about anything. I wish I had not lost contact with her when left that job, but this is life.

Some years later, I was working in a camera store in Sarasota, Florida. I met my next Work Mom there. Her name was Nancy Hall. Nancy was the bookkeeper. We could talk about numbers, something no one else in the store seemed to grasp quite the same. When Nancy would go on vacation or be off from work for any reason, I filled in for her. She was my last “Work Mom.”

Years later when I went to college, again, I found two “School Moms” Sheila Merchant and Susan Demers were two very influential in the rebuilding of me after a very toxic marriage and bad divorce.

Sheila Merchant was the Dean of Legal Studies at Hillsborough Community College. She taught me that words, even simple un-assuming ones, have impact. She liked my version of CYA (Cover Your Assets). She had not heard it before, but when I said it in class, she asked if she could use that. In subsequent classes, she would nod to me every time she used that phrase.

Susan Demers was also a Dean of Legal Studies, but at St. Petersburg College. Susan taught me that I was not alone. Bibliophiles are often closeted as some see us as book worms. I love to read, though I don’t always make the time. I had Dean Demers for Logic and the Law. I have always had an extensive vocabulary and I will never forget the day I went to Dean Demers with a problem.

I had kept quiet about an incident. I didn’t want to appear like a thin skinned baby. I also didn’t want to get the instructor in trouble, it was not his fault that the other student acted disrespectful. When I was called to her office about the incident she said very simply: “Do they not know what collegial is? The word college is based on it.” This heartened me as I have always had people give me grief for my vocabulary. Dean Demers taught me – without realizing it- that it is ok to use “big words” and “complex ideas.” I always hated being told to “simplify” my writing.

I have worn the shoes of “Mom” as well. I have four beautiful children – though they all loathe me calling them my babies as they aren’t babies anymore. I have been a “School Mom” as when I went back to school, I was one of the oldest in my class. Some turned to me some didn’t, but you don’t get to pick your “Son or Daughter from another mother” they pick you.

Being a Mother is a very special Job. It is hard work. It is emotional. It is often under appreciated. So, on the one day a year that everyone puts their Mom on the pedestal, I would like to say to all of my Moms, where ever you are on this day, thank you for all you have done to help shape who I am – and reshape who I am.

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