by Nat Frothingham
When I joined the Montpelier Rotary Club about 10 years ago I was asked — like other new members — to give a short introductory talk about myself at a regular meeting.
I did that. Then, last year, to my surprise, I was asked once again to talk about myself perhaps for the benefit of newer members.
Well, I was happy to do that but no specific date was mentioned. I knew I would be called upon. But I didn’t know when and that was OK.
Then out of blue one Monday at a regular club meeting and lunch I was called up to the microphone to talk about myself again.
I remember thinking — then saying — “I feel that everyone in the club knows me. So what I’d like to do is talk about my mother.”
In the abstract we imagine that how we feel about our parents is fixed and never changes. And for a number of years that was pretty much true. I knew how I felt about my mother. I knew also how I felt about my father who clearly was a force in my life. But over the past few years I was discovering that my feelings about my mother were intensifying in much the same way that a friendship, perhaps a friendship taken for granted for a long time, can intensify.
I have a fairly large pastel painting in my office, given to me by my sister, of my mother as a young child sitting in the lap of her mother. Her mother is looking intently at her child while holding her in her lap. And the child is looking straight out of the picture and fingering the long chain of a necklace that’s around her mother’s neck.
It’s a touching “mother-and-daughter” picture that hung over the mantelpiece in our living room in all the years that I was growing up in Chicago. What the picture doesn’t tell us is that my mother’s mother — the woman in picture holding the child — died of consumption one or two years after the painting was made.
But that was a long time ago. My mother was born in 1914 and I’m estimating the painting to be about 100 years old.
I don’t know what it was like for my mother not to have a mother while she was growing up. But she had a father who was a Chicago architect. He hired a nanny and she went to the Girls Latin School in Chicago and went on from there to Wellesley College outside of Boston at a time when not as many young women were going to college as go to college today.
My mother and father met when both of them were on a pleasure trip by boat to Bermuda. They began seeing each other. One night when they were together my mother didn’t get back in time to her dorm room at Wellesley. Her roommates said to her after that event, “We left the window open for you. Why didn’t you come through the window?”
But she chose not to do that but deal instead with the college authorities. In due course she left Wellesley and she and my father eloped.
I can’t say too much about their marriage because it came apart when I was about two years old. But my mother and father eventually divorced. My mother went back to live in Chicago where she had grown up and my father stayed on Cape Cod where he ran a boatyard called Ship Shops. In all the years of my youth and growing up I may have seen him two or three times for a day or two each time.
In the 1940s, a woman who was divorced was called a divorcee with a stigma attached to being a divorced woman. I don’t know what that was like. I do know that times were hard. My mother, sister and I lived in a six-room apartment and my mother rented out two of those rooms as long as I could remember.
She left Wellesley without a degree. Her employment started when she became a playground instructor at a private school on Chicago’s Southside. During that time she went to night school at the Chicago campus of Northwestern University. She continued her studies by taking summer courses at Northwestern University in Evanston. When she graduated she began to teach at one private school and then another.
After several years of private school teaching she was hired as a grade school teacher by the Chicago Public School System.
Years later, as an adult, my mother invited me to visit the public school where she was teaching west of Clark Street. Chicago starts off at Lake Michigan but just goes west and west. It’s a city of ethnic neighborhoods — whites of course from all over Europe — Poles, Germans, Russians, Italians but also people of color — black Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans and that melting pot spread was well represented in her classroom.
I can’t remember what grade she was then teaching. But she took me to the doorway of a class she had taught last year. I think they were third graders. My mother was a spirited teacher who began each day by having her students sing. And then dance. She wanted them to get a strong feeling for who they were. They were individuals with promise and future. They needed not only to be told that. But to feel that.
When she came to the door of that classroom, all the students got up from their desks and moved toward her as if by a magnetic force. I will never forget that. That was my mother.
Nothing does stay the same, does it? Our parents. We know them as children. We know them again when we become parents. And know them still again as time reveals who they were and what they made of their lives and achieved.