A Tribute to my Mother
At the women’s rally in Wichita Saturday, a lot of people carried signs that said, “I’m with her” (arrows in all directions); “I March for my Daughter” (granddaughters, sisters); “I March for Her” (picture of the Earth). My mind returned over and over to my mother. I marched for her. Though she’s been gone nearly fifteen years, I’m sure she would have been there in spirit.
Mother was born a hundred years ago today. Speakers at the Wichita rally often made historical references, and I pondered the social changes of the last century.
Helen Peterson, the fourth and last daughter of Frank and Mary Peterson, arrived on this earth January 22, 1918. When she was born the War to End All Wars was raging but would end ten months later on November 11, 1918. At the time of her birth, women had no voting rights, or property rights. The women’s suffrage movement was going strong. The 19th Amendment was ratified two years later, when young Helen was learning to speak her first sentences.
In April 1923, when she was barely five years old, her father Frank died after an emergency surgery to treat a bleeding ulcer. The operation was performed on the kitchen table of their farm house, and that is where he died. Helen’s widowed mother was left with four young daughters, ages 5 to 13. With no rights of inheritance to the farm her husband owned, Mary Peterson was evicted. She moved her girls to town and returned to her pre-nuptial career as a school teacher.
Helen remembered little of her pre-school days when Frank was around. But she had lots to say about growing up with her mother who struggled to keep those girls warm and fed. In the 1920s and 1930s, working mothers were social outcasts. Mothers were supposed to stay home and raise their children. Mary Peterson had no choice, however.
Tutored by her mother, Helen excelled in school. She graduated high school at age 15, went on to college, and had earned a master’s degree in physics before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Helen found employment in the east, as a physicist developing technology that would benefit the war effort. She possibly would have settled in the east.
Her mother, however, developed severe hearing loss and was dismissed from employment. She sank into an inconsolable depression and Helen returned to Kansas to take care of Mary. Working at KSU in the department of Physics, Helen met the man she would marry. She settled into a new role as supporting wife, and a few years later, mother to three daughters of her own. Having missed out in childhood watching her own mother handle the role of wife, she blazed her own trail and devoted herself totally to the care and nurture of her husband and daughters.
However, Mother never forgot her roots.
A lifelong Republican of the Eisenhower camp, she was never shy of voicing her skepticism in regards to Roosevelt, or Kennedy, or Carter. But she proudly proclaimed herself, “a women’s libber,” and was an active member of the League of Women Voters. She had a big heart and wanted to help those who faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in life, but recognized how easily folks fell into a sense of entitlement with the public welfare system of the 70s and 80s.
I have no doubt Mother would be aghast at events of the past year, with hard-won rights being stripped from some of the most vulnerable citizens, including women. The last thing we need is to regress toward the conditions her mother experienced as a young widow in the 1920s. Helen would have been at the women’s rally chanting with the rest, “Hear Our Votes! Hear Our Votes! Hear Our Votes!”
And she’d say, with a twinkle in her eye, “It’s time to get creative!”
Mother’s childhood was undoubtedly filled with the necessity of using what was available in new and unexpected ways. True creativity functions well when faced with limitations. Take what you have (or what you are allowed) and from that create, construct, or devise what you need. It’s a skill that comes in handy in many of life’s endeavors, and one we should nurture in our children.
The nullification of many progressive steps over the last year is like a tornado of denials. Our limitations seem to grow daily. We are falling backwards in the progress toward liberty and justice for all. I can almost hear my mother say, “It is time to get creative,” the little suggestion she repeated often when my sisters and I found ourselves run up against limits, absences or lack of resources.
In today’s world, she might even suggest, “It is far past time to get creative.”
When today’s youth express their heart’s deepest desire to be “Make Lots of Money,” I am concerned. When our whole culture revolves around piling up numbers, when violence erupts after one person’s numbers don’t measure up to another’s, there is cause for grave concern.
Money is, after all, an invention of humans. It is a tool to facilitate transfer or acquisition of things a person needs. What are needs? Food, shelter, clothing, companionship, a sense of purpose. When a tool becomes not just the means to an end, but the end itself, it is being utterly misused. Beyond meeting basic needs, the accumulation of personal wealth seems to have become the only measuring stick we value. We measure our lives with something totally artificial.
What about things money can’t buy?
Chris Hedges wrote in Empire of Illusion (2009), “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power. . .which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death. Morality is the product of a civilization.”
We are regressing to an age that predated civilization.
What would happen if the bulk of us simply quit? Quit craving money for money’s sake. Quit worshipping the power allotted to those with the largest bank accounts. After all, power is proportional to the extent that we covet what others have.
Let’s just quit.
What if, instead, we honor leaders who demonstrate the mature attributes of civilization? Things like compassion, courtesy, kindness, encouragement, respect for others. Things like integrity.
Several of my elders who still breathe, read, and think have expressed grave concerns for the direction we’re heading, unlike anything they’ve ever known. They are truly afraid for our future. When we experience the limitations that nullify programs and institutions which served to provide personal security for generations past, it’s high time to get creative. Let’s think of new ways to care for each other. Let’s re-invent our culture and re-build our government of-the-people, by-the-people, and for-the-people.
I think Mother would heartily agree.
Happy 100th birthday!