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Mother’s Day is upon us, and as with many holidays, in progressive Ithaca it is celebrated readily, but with a commitment to deeper meaning. Ithaca has groups like “Moms Against Bombs” (which you will see parading in the Ithaca Festival) reminding us that the American version of the holiday was first proposed 150 years ago as part of an encompassing national anti-war campaign led by women, who couldn’t even vote yet.

Clearly, the saying that “mothers’ work is never done” applies to social justice issues. Currently, over 16 million children in the U.S. live in poverty. Hired child care, a necessity for families with two parents working outside the home, generally exceeds any other expense, including housing and food. Parental leave policies at U.S. workplaces are among the least advanced in the world. Affordable health care is largely an unattainable dream. There might be progress coming from the Biden administration. Its economic plan proposes $1.8 trillion in tax cuts and spending for workers, families and children, with increased taxes on corporations and the rich. 

Announcing the plan, Biden specifically repudiated “trickle-down economics,” a hallmark of the Reagan administration 40 years ago and conservative Republicans since. “Trickle-down economics has never worked,” Biden said. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and middle out.” Younger Americans, born since the Reagan years, perhaps have never experienced, and might regard with incredulity, a time when families could maintain healthy economic status with only one working parent, and no need for hired child care. As an older American, I had that experience. Of course, one wishes to avoid the pitfall of considering past times better times: The present is always best, as the time that can be most fully experienced, shaped and shared. 

But personally, in a stable working-class childhood, with one parent at a good (union) job and another at home, I had (I recall) a sense of safety and ease; or no sense of their lack. Beyond that there was independence and freedom fostered by security and closeness.

Mothers make a gift of the world to their children, and of their children to the world. The details are different for everyone, and those of the following story are probably strictly historic, as in gone, as social situations have changed, but it is essentially a simple story of a mother’s love, one I’d like to share for Mother’s Day.

Years ago, children commonly ran errands to grocery stores for their mothers. Probably not so much today, with fewer (if any) neighborhood stores to walk to (are there any here now in Ithaca, with John’s Convenience on West State Street closed?), and children generally much more supervised, or fettered. (Every once in a while current news will feature a story of a parent being reported to the police by neighbors for letting children walk alone outside.) From my childhood, I remember one day an uncle, who worked for the utilities, visiting our house. His job had brought him to our neighborhood, and he stopped in for some coffee, cake and conversation on the clock. We were without milk for coffee, so my mother sent me to the grocery, a block away. 

Certainly I was delighted to go: with paper money, a respectable figure and noteworthy business patron. It was a somewhat exotic outing, in fact a multi-cultural and even bilingual one, as most stores in our primarily Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn were run by Eastern European immigrants who typically spoke Yiddish. The women wore scarves on their heads, and the men fedoras. They were friendly and affectionate toward children to a point that might have been embarrassing or daunting to some, but not me. I don’t remember exactly what happened this particular trip, but when I got home I recounted to my mother and uncle whatever excitement or incongruity I had found. I remember my mother’s smile and wide-open eyes, gifts she always gave when you spoke. My uncle, kind of a tough guy, was a little less enthralled, with the gift he personally generally gave, kind of a smirk with arched eyebrows, but I didn’t take it personally nor let it slow me down. I told the amazing tale and took my leave, like a good kid respectful of adults. From the next room, after some quiet, I heard them talking. “What is it with that kid?” my uncle said. “You send him out to the store and he’s gone five minutes. When he comes back, he’s got a ten-minute story.” “Yes,” my mother said. She let it sink in. “Isn’t it great?” 

What can’t, or don’t, mothers do? Big things and little? May our obligations to our mothers, both in our lives and society, be forever more realized and met.

 

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