When Mom comes up short


Is it a sin to compare your mother to someone else’s, and deem your Mom wanting?

I did that last week, and, because of it, I discovered an unrealized part of myself.

I’ve been working on a speech for a client who is giving a tribute to his mother at her ninetieth birthday soiree. It’s to be a black-tie event at an up-scale Manhattan hotel, attended by many of the most famous Broadway personages of our time.

One of the things he asked me to include in his talk was his mother’s legacy to him . . . that life can be meaningful if you bring meaning to it. When you have this attitude, she taught him, you do everything better than you must because you’re doing it for yourself.

As I drafted his remarks, I envied him his legacy. I got to thinking about my own mother, pictured above. The differences are stark.

While my client’s mother attained celebrity status in her highly competitive field, my mother worked in a cigar factory, raised three sons, and returned to the workforce as a uniformed school crossing guard. Even in her era, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for a woman whose education went as far as only the eighth grade.

Then I realized that her legacy to me wasn’t money or contacts or advanced degrees, but something else—that came at no cost.


Ambition to a heightened pattern of life, based on the example of her own good deeds.

By her actions she instilled in me a sense of empathy for the weak and the picked-on. She guided me toward a non-confrontational docility akin to the Christian endeavor to “turn the other cheek.” And to never, ever play the "big shot” (even while she treated me as her very special boy).

I thought, too, about my grandmother, an illiterate farm girl off the steppes of Ukraine who at nineteen years of age in 1911 wangled her way across 6,000 miles to launch a life in America.


Grandma and I

Where did she learn to practice such a life? I can only guess she learned it from her mother—the great-grandmother I know nothing about.

She must have been some special woman, my great-grandma. A woman who not only allowed, but also encouraged her daughter to leave home and adventure into the unknown, both of them as intrepid as any Robert Peary or Edmund Hillary or Jim Lovell. I don’t know her name, but God does. All I can ask is that he let her know how grateful I am to her and how proud.

My grandmother’s life was distilled to two words that she repeated to me over and over through my youth: push yourself.

Last week’s speech writing led me to recognize that my legacy comes down to me through the women who are my ancestors.

My unknown great-grandmother in nineteenth century Ukraine, who must have been oh-so-progressive . . .

My illiterate grandma, because of whom I still push on with my writing . . .

My humble Mom, who had to go to work rolling cigars instead of gracing the ivy-covered halls of Perth Amboy High School with her slim, long legs and alluring smile. 


Perth Amboy High School

Mine is not a bad legacy at all, is it? And a legacy I’m proud to leave to my daughters and grandsons.

If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my newest book, Saints and Poets, Maybe: One Hundred Wanderings, available at Amazon.


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  • Meta Unterweger
    commented 2018-04-12 22:30:16 -0400
    I loved reading about your grandma and greatmother. Two very incredible woman.
    They both were amazing women.