My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
May 10,2007


Want to do something really special for your mom this Mother's Day? Find out who she really is.

We may think we know her, but we can't, really, because every time we look at her we see ourselves: what she did FOR us, what she did TO us. We know our mothers through their soothing words and band-aids and read-alouds at bedtime, through their worrying when they handed over the car keys, through their poorly concealed alarm at our friends with tattoos and nose rings. We suspect that her most annoying quirks are for the sole purpose of driving us crazy.

It's hard to say what blinds us more: love or resentment.

But what do we know about her real life? What did she think her life was going to be when she was ten? My mom wanted to be a fireman -- out of the question for a girl back then. When I started college, I was going to be a diplomat (nobody having pointed out to me that a basic career requirement was being, er, diplomatic); the professor who turned me into an English major may have made an unsung contribution to world peace.

Did she sing along at hootenannies, or scream at a Beatles concert? Who was her first love, and what became of him? Where was she when she learned that Kennedy had been assassinated? Was she terrified during the Cuban Missile Crisis, certain some fool would push the button? Did she march in Washington for civil rights? Love and lose someone in VietNam? Nurse a friend through a bad acid trip?

Odds are she was raised to marry a doctor, not be one. Did she become June Cleaver, like women of that era were expected to, or did she go to work? Was she dissatisfied with the cloistered women-and-children-only-world of suburbia? Did she get dumped, traded in for a newer shinier model, because the old marriage contract -- "you make the living, and I'll make your life worth living" - somehow got repealed without anybody telling us?

Was she liberated by the pill, or disconcerted to find a "good girl" no longer had a good excuse for saying no? (When I began college, a girl was considered loose if she kissed a boy on the first date; when I returned to the dating market in the 70's, I found that a man who took you out to dinner thought you OWED him sex. Talk about culture shock.)

She almost certainly grew up trusting government -- and why not, since it created work and paychecks for fathers during the depression, paid for their tuition on the GI Bill, helped them buy their homes in the suburbs? When did she start viewing government with suspicion? When Mayor Daley's police beat up the protesting kids in Chicago in 1968? When she realized that whatever a president said he'd do in VietNam, he'd do the opposite? Did she, like my mother, follow every moment of the Watergate hearings with fascinated horror? Did she find herself equally unable to stomach the stupid immorality of our President and the unrelenting malice of his political enemies?

What odd accidents diverted her from her original path? How did she meet the man she married? If she walked away from her marriage, what made her do it?

Is her life now what she wanted, or simply what she settled for? What ambitions and talents did she put on hold while raising you and your brothers and sisters? If she had the money and freedom now to do anything she wanted, would she raise sheep? Live on a houseboat? Write a column? Change the world?

What are her most cherished memories? What lessons and family stories did she learn from her father and mother that she'd like you to know, and pass on to your own children? A David Garland song says, "The tales of my family are fewer now that fewer are left to tell them." Don't let her leave the world without passing those stories on.

The best possible Mother's Day gift is to see her, at last, as a real person. As one whose mother died way too you, I urge you to do it while you still have a chance.

"Every Other Inch a Lady," my tribute to my own wonderful, salty-tongued mother, is available at

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