My Mother, My Teacher

Long after my mother passed away at the age of 96, I still think about calling her on the phone to tell her about something that happened to me that day. The urge, the habit, the fulfillment of reporting a success, a regret, a stumble, a gift, has not left me, nor do I think it ever will. It is the habit of a lifetime. “Mother” is the place one goes for comfort, encouragement, understanding, relief, guidance.  Of all people in the world, who can be trusted with innermost thoughts… or worse, with admissions of guilt… more than a mother? So for this reason, and despite the fact that Mother’s Day is a commercial event, honoring our mothers is “right on.”

My mother was a teacher long before women fought for, and won the right to, balance both work and family. No one in our circle considered my mom a feminist, although in retrospect I suppose she was. She taught her students (mainly youngsters in an under-resourced school in a marginal neighborhood in Queens) 5th grade math, science and language arts. She also taught them right from  wrong. Her ethical compass was so strong that she refused to help me with homework on the grounds that I would have an unfair advantage over my classmates. The words “look it up” will forever ring in my ears as a symbol of the expectation that I was to be self-reliant and not a teacher’s pet. While this was a contentious aspect of our relationship early on, it’s value to me in later life was enormous. I only understood it fully long after I became a mother myself. Sometimes mothers get a bad rap for what we now call “tough love.”

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