My Mother's Day Lessons

T.A. Barnhart

My mom died on July 4, six years ago. We were not close; nothing bad, no row or anger . We just were not close. Nonetheless, she was my mom and her death is a void in my life that will never be filled. Regret is the most painful part of this loss: that I know better now and it's too late.

My mom was a natural-born feminist. By that I mean she didn't require a man to complete or define her; she didn't need the rules or strictures of society to tell her who she was. Part of that was her personality, which, truth be told, was somewhat selfish. But even more, I think (or perhaps I'm being generous, and I might as well be), she was certain of herself in a way that let her set her own course and stick to it. Happily.

There was nothing grand about her path. She was a substitute teacher when I was little, spending most of her time as a typical 60s mom. But then, in the early 70s, she got her Masters degree and, divorcing my dad soon thereafter, took a job as a secretary at a medical clinic. When she and Bob, her second husband, moved to Florida (she was sick of northern winters), she found a similar position that she held until right before she died. She loved the responsibility and the ability to play a positive role in people's lives. She was, to be blunt, a big fish in the small pond of her life, but she cared about the others in her pond. She was invaluable.

She volunteered in the community theatre in Winter Haven just as she had in Billings, and she had a knack for acquiring props dirt cheap. The people at the theatre marveled at this, but I was not surprised. My mom had always been cheap — or thrifty, the child of parents who no doubt struggled through the Depression. (This brings stories from my childhood to mind, which I will leave be for now.)

My mom was a Democrat. In 1972, she took me to the airport where we waited inside the terminal for two, long, hot hours to greet George McGovern. She might have been a volunteer at times; I have no recollection of that. I have no recollection of her giving me any instruction in politics of any kind. Here is what she did teach me:

No feminist or other political lessons in there. Yet somehow, I grew up with a respect for women that runs deep through me. I am more comfortable working with women - working for women - than men. (Don't ask me why, but I especially enjoy working for women who cuss.) I hear wisdom from women where I hear bluster from men.

And since I became politically active, I find myself drawn to supporting women. It's not just an equity issue; it just seens right. We have plenty of white men in office, and I'll support the right white man as easily as I would a woman or person of color. But in Oregon, there are so many women of quality to support, and I'm going to support them. It began with Sara Gelser and continues to this day with Eileen Brady.

I cannot point to a specific as to why this is so, but I think it's a response to the feminist lessons I learned from my mother. They were indirect, but I know I am a different kind of man because of my mother. And I continue to thank her for that, even though it's too late to take her out to brunch.

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    This is a particularly good election cycle to support women in leadership. When states like Arizona are now legalizing an employer's questioning of female employees on their use of contraception, reason for using it, etc., when women can be required to have their vaginas probed by male GOP legislators and governors, then women have lost all rights and respect from the GOP. After 2012 the conversation will start very soon about the next Dem nominee for President. I see excellent potential candidates in at least three women, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Hillary Clinton (If she runs).

    I was raised by my mother and grandmother, both self supporting women who worked hard against great odds just to survive. My Italian immigrant grandmother took care of not only her own children, but also three orphaned nephews (Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918), but also my mother's three children. She ran a business (Italian restaurant) on a second grade education for 50 years (retired at age 74 after working 12-15 hour days all those years.) She started working in a lumber mill at age 14 to support her family when her father died. She remains my model of what love and responsibility is, of what strength and courage are. Whatever goodness I have or have done in my life is due in large part to her. My new granddaughter, Matilda at one year old, is named after her.

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    Well, T.A., it looks like you need to work for me one of these days.

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