As I reflect on International Women's Day and the many women so deserving of recognition, my thoughts go to my mother, Beverly, who died several months ago. She was my rock. Her perseverance taught me the value of sticking with things--no matter what. This is a modified version of the tribute I wrote that week. Whenever I need to be inspired, I reach into the well of memories I have of my mom. -- EW
SAD NEWS. On Tuesday, my mother Beverly lost her final battle with cancer. She was 81. Mom had been a 15+ year breast cancer survivor, but elected not to have treatment last year when she learned of a new growth near her lung. Nine months ago, she entered Hospice. I live several hours from her Arizona home, but my wonderful sister moved in and was hands-on 24-7. My brother who lived nearby picked up the slack when sis had to work. Todd and I made frequent weekend trips over the past few months, and I’m grateful that we had many good times with her before the end.
The last trip we made was Mother’s Day weekend. Mom had been declining but seemed to rally when we got there. She’d requested for Mother’s Day two things: a pedicure, and potato pancakes. I painted her toenails candy apple red and added white polka dots. She grinned from ear to ear when she saw them. Pancakes were her specialty and I was the only child she’d taught to make them. She was so delighted, and after the first bite proclaimed “they taste just like mine.”
This past Thursday I was invited, along with other candidates, to speak to a local Democratic Club. No way could I deliver the “2-minute elevator pitch,” so I talked about my mom. As I began writing her tribute I was struck by how many of the progressive values now guiding my political life were lessons learned from her as a child. My mother was not what you'd call “sweet.” She took no prisoners and always had the last word. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, nor did she tolerate insincerity, meanness, bigotry, or hypocrisy. She had no patience for crybabies, tattletales or lazy people. She bought a set of encyclopedias when I was born, and from then on, refused to answer any reference question. Her pat response was always “look it up.” She made me a research junkie. Some core values--and a few original ideas--I learned from my mother include:
ON ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: Everyone is equal. Period. Repeat. Everyone is equal. If you have more than you need—SHARE it with someone less fortunate. Live by the Golden Rule. Mom considered it a duty to share. At any given time, people we barely knew might be joining us for dinner—or sleeping on our couch.
ON CIVIL RIGHTS--AT THE HEIGHT OF THE MOVEMENT: “Saying someone can’t vote or go somewhere because of their skin color is like saying I can’t vote because I have blue eyes.” I said, “that’s silly, mommy.” She replied: “You’re right.” When Dr. King was shot, along with both Kennedy brothers, my mother seemed, for the first time in my life, to go to a place of despair. Then she snapped out of it and got angry. She spoke up, and encouraged her kids to do the same.
ON THE ENVIRONMENT: Her mantra was “Don’t waste ANYTHING." She'd tell us. "Don’t throw trash on the ground--somebody will have to clean it up.” Mom always said, “leave a place better than you found it.” She loved to garden and often said that if everybody planted a garden, the world would be a better place. She never studied climate science. She just knew.
ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS: My mom was an instinctive feminist. It never occurred to her to ask permission for anything. She didn’t march in the streets; she just marched to her own drummer and shared her activities with dad on a "need to know" basis. When asked if she preferred “Ms. or Mrs.” she said, “call me Beverly.” She once told my dad (upon seeing something addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.”) that she’d agreed to take his last name when they married—not his first. When I was in sixth grade I decided to challenge our school's "dress code." It was winter in the Midwest, with snow everywhere and daily temperatures below freezing. Our Catholic school required girls to wear skirts or dresses. With my mom's permission, I wore a "pants suit" one day. (40 years before "pantsuit nation" became a thing.) When the principal tried to send me home to change, my mom refused to pick me up. That night, she got on the phone, hauled in the entire PTA, and insisted the dress code needed a practical overhaul so that girls didn't have to freeze. Mom also made the convincing argument that pants were more modest than skirts. And she won.
ON GLOBAL ISSUES: Our family was of modest means but my mom made it a point to let her kids know how privileged we were to have warm beds, food, clothing, and school. She reminded us that many children the world over would give anything to have what we took for granted. I lost count of how many foreign exchange students passed through my parents’ home over the years.
ON COMMUNITY: My mom was one of those people who got INVOLVED. When I was growing up she was the Den Mother, the Troop Leader, and the PTA volunteer. She once spent a weekend painting the rectory when her parish got a new priest. She belonged to not one but three bridge clubs. She joined the “Red Hats.” Mom thrived on change and embraced new technology. She had a Facebook account before I did. In later life when her arthritis became so painful she was largely home bound, she developed a new community of friends and many activities online. Dad used to joke that she could run the space shuttle from her easy chair. Her sewing machine was computerized and she took a formal class on how to use it. She made things for everyone. Each time I visited she’d order her Amazon device “Alexa” to perform some new feat of household wizardry that never failed to impress.
ON FAITH, POLITICS, AND MORALITY: Mom said (not unkindly) of right-wing Christians: “they just don’t get it. Jesus was the original liberal.” Mom was a Kennedy Democrat and devout Catholic—but she never pushed dogma. For her, duty was the moral imperative. She was baptized, confirmed and married in the same parish where she attended grammar school. She majored in English at St. Mary’s College on the University of Notre Dame campus. She said the rosary twice a day. She kept a framed photo of Bishop Fulton Sheen, who used to host a TV program when she worked briefly in broadcasting. She also had photos of the last two popes. She collected images of the Madonna and Child (which was the only picture she'd ever send on a Christmas card.) Her favorite gifts from me were a Madonna and Child statue by a Mexican artist, an autographed book from progressive ally Sister Simone Campbell (nuns on the bus), and a rosary from the Vatican blessed by Pope Francis. Mom and Dad were never wealthy, but they left behind a rich cultural legacy. Mom was an artist and scholar. Dad was an engineer and inventor. They were also both musicians, and one of my brothers followed in their footsteps. Weeks before her death Mom made it a point to assign her most treasured possessions to her children, taking great pains to be fair. (She called me one day and and insisted we talk to my siblings and make up a list because she didn’t want any confusion after she was gone.)
ON PARENTING: My mother was larger than life--and formidable. None of us ever got away with anything. Somehow, she could always get us to confess. We used to think she had eyes everywhere. She could cut someone down to size with a single withering glance. But she was also capable of great generosity. She taught us to be strong, be honest, and trust our own instincts.
Our last conversation was two days before her death. The next day, she fell into a coma. Throughout her illness she’d had “good days and bad days.” On her "good days" (which were becoming increasingly rare) we’d talk. When my phone rang that last time, she opened the conversation with “I’m calling to say goodbye." She then added, "I want you to know that you’ve been a wonderful daughter to me, and I am so proud of you.” That was the first time she'd ever said those words to me. My mother came from a generation that believed love should be manifested in actions, not word. She believed bragging about one's children was unseemly, and that effusive praise made people lazy, soft, and entitled. Hearing her express unqualified pride for the first time in my life, I felt a lump rise in my throat. She said how much she loved me and I responded in kind.
All along I kept thinking that somehow, she'd hang on a little longer. She hated to miss anything, and she'd been so excited when I told her I was running for office. She loved politics, and every time we talked she’d ask for an update. I had thought that she'd hang on until the primary, and if I won, at least until November. She was the kind of person who read a book in a single sitting because she couldn't stand not knowing how things turned out. That was her style. Sadly, cancer was in control this time. I realized she was staring down a difficult truth. I felt tears coming on. When she heard me getting choked up, she brought me up short. “Stop that sh*t, or I'm hanging up!” I laughed out loud. That was SO my mother. I told her Todd and I could hop in the car and be there in a matter of hours--faster than if we flew. I said, "tell me what you need and we'll bring it." She said, “There’s nothing for you to do here. Stay home. Go out and win—and make a difference.” The conviction in her voice left no room for argument. So that’s what I plan to do. Because I am my mother’s daughter--and I know she's watching.