Mother’s Day: A Tribute in Classic Illustrations

An old Jewish proverb says that God couldn’t be everywhere, so He created mothers. And mothers do have certain godlike qualities. Not only do they give us life, but they are our counselors, confidantes, protectors, disciplinarians, and teachers. But for all their love and sacrifice, moms seldom get the recognition they deserve. In this gallery, the Post commemorates the fun — and just as frequently the frustration — that motherhood entails.

Never a Dull Moment

Telling Mom about Her Date
George Hughes
January 24, 1953

First date. An awkward and exhilarating rite of passage in a teen’s — and mother’s — life. Time stands still for the starry-eyed daughter (above) who can’t wait till dawn to riff about her big night out. Time also seems to come to a halt in the run-up to the big Gold and Green Dance (below). Can a boy survive his mom’s ministrations?

Readying for First Date
George Hughes
October 16, 1948


Separation Anxiety
Stevan Dohanos
September 3, 1955



The doctor will see you now. A waiting room full of distractions keeps anxiety in check for some young patients and their moms, but clearly not for all.

Behind the Scenes

Mother’s Little Helpers
John Falter
April 18, 1953

Cooking up something sweet. A special surprise lurks behind the kitchen door courtesy of a culinary crew only a mom could love.


Morning Coffee Break
Amos Sewell
September 12, 1959

Morning glory. With the brood now safely off to school, this mom finally gets to kick back for some well-deserved “me time.”

It’s the Thought That Counts

Shopping for Mother’s Day
Constantin Alajálov
May 10, 1947

What to buy? 1940s-era stereotypes about the limits of a mother’s desires seem to have narrowed a daughter’s options.


Happy Mother’s Day
Richard Sargent
May 11, 1957

Good news, bad news. Wet, muddy, and full of enthusiasm, a boy and his dog announce a “special delivery”.

Class of ’41: A Mother’s Secrets Revealed

Jean Slon portrait
(Courtesy of Steve Slon)

In 2001, on a beautiful spring weekend, I accompanied my mother to her 60th college reunion and got a picture of the young woman she once was.

Thursday, 11:45 p.m. Leftovers

I am visiting my mother at her New York City apartment. Tomorrow, we’ll begin a full weekend of activities for her Vassar College reunion in Poughkeepsie, just an hour and a half north of the city in a chartered bus. We’re sipping beer, and she’s telling stories about old friends and cherished college moments. Finally it’s bedtime.

But first, we must boil the strawberries.

“They could go bad,” she explains, dumping the clinging dregs from the green plastic pint container into a saucepan.

My mother, Jean, is a lot of things — fiercely intelligent, archly funny, and sometimes a bit nutty — but she is never wasteful. She seals up her strawberry mush in a recycled mayonnaise jar, puts it in the fridge. Then she climbs up on a step stool and roots around in an overhead cabinet until she finds another container. Into this one goes a cup of coffee left over from dinner.


Friday, 11 a.m. Some Kinda Wise Guy

The cab driver who’s taking us to Midtown to catch the Poughkeepsie bus is one of those garrulous New York City cabbies out of central casting. I happen to mention we’re going to my mother’s college reunion, and he replies, “But she can’t be your mother. I thought she was your sister.” I roll my eyes, but my mother gets right into it with him: “Well, if your eyesight is so bad, maybe you shouldn’t be driving.”

He clams up for the rest of the ride.


Friday, 3 p.m. The “Ma-Ma” Degree

The reception for the class of ’41 is in a large central dormitory and administration building simply called “Main.”

The room for our reception is grand, with high ceilings and walls decorated in an ornate jade Chinese wallpaper of geese and lily pads. Lest we forget where we are, foot-high golden Vs are tucked into the molding in the four corners of the room.

I meet one of my mother’s classmates, Marta, who is extremely pale and so thin you want to reach for her arm when she stands or takes a step. Her blue eyes are sharp. She tells me about coming to the U.S. from Austria right before the war. How frightened she was the time she heard a fellow shopper in a New York department store loudly criticizing Roosevelt. “Back home, you could get shot for saying such things,” she says.

Marta also tells me another story that I will hear echoed over the next two days. Graduating as a science major, she wanted to study aeronautical engineering. She was told she qualified for acceptance to Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, but administrators warned her it would be “difficult” for her there, since there were no toilet facilities in the labs for women. “So instead of an M.A.,” she tells me, “I became a Ma-Ma.”

This was not, it hardly needs to be said, an era when women easily became professionals, even those who were college graduates. Consider the statistics for the class of ’41: Only one-fourth worked outside the home for a full 20 years. Of 252 graduates, 166 described their roles as “chiefly housewife.” More than half reported doing regular volunteer work. And of the 74 who’d held full-time jobs, more than half were, like my mother, teachers.

Another occupation has become more common in recent years: caregiver. My mother was nurse to her mother and, later, to my father, who had Alzheimer’s. It was no easy task, but I never heard her utter a single word of complaint.

One woman tells me she visits her husband in a nursing home all day, every day, even though he no longer recognizes her. “My friends told me I shouldn’t go so much,” she says. “So for a few days I stayed away. When I came back, the nurse said he’d stopped eating. So now I go.”

We are interrupted by Judith, a vigorous woman in a bright red dress who is breathless with excitement. “Do you want to see my diamond pin?” she asks.

“Okay, sure,” I say politely.

The joke is on me. She opens a jewelry box and shows me a dime and a safety pin. Should have seen this coming: Judith is wearing huge red earrings, one says IN and the other says OUT.


Friday, 8:30 p.m. Continuity

My mother has something to tell me. We’ve just finished a buffet dinner under a white tent, sitting with her very dearest old friends, many of whom she’s kept up with through the years. They’ve updated each other on travels, aches, medicines, children, grandchildren, husbands. We pass around the script for a skit, written mostly by Ruth, a professor’s wife, that they’ll perform at tomorrow night’s banquet. The topic is language, words that have disappeared (rumble seat, nylons) and words that have gained common currency but still feel alien and amusing to them (user-friendly, glass ceiling, significant other).

The subtext, of course, is change, something that’s on my mother’s mind a lot lately. But as we’re sipping coffee, she leans over and tells me something that is about not-change — her theory of continuity.

Memories can be handed down from generation to generation, my mother believes. When she was very young, her grandmother lived with her in their New York City apartment. My mother would regularly brush out her grandmother’s long hair. And while she was doing it, her grandmother would describe brushing her own grandmother’s hair. This earlier brushing took place in New Milford, Connecticut, where the family had lived for generations. It was a town my mother knew well. And so, she says, her grandmother’s memory eventually became her own. She describes for me the sun coming in the south-facing window of the sitting room in her grandmother’s childhood home, the feel of the wooden bristle brush in her grandmother’s five-year-old hands. As she describes it, she closes her eyes, and I can see she’s really there, brushing her great-great-grandmother’s hair. I do a little calculation: The scene she’s depicting would have taken place in the 1850s.


Friday, 11:30 p.m. “It’s Ther-a-peu-tic”

My mother and four friends have passed up the obvious option of going to bed. Instead, we’re squeezed around a table at the Mug, a basement campus pub. It’s packed with young men and women, recent graduates sharing their own reunions. (Vassar went coed in 1969.) Donna Summer is pulsating from large speakers. Margaret, one of our crowd, is dancing exuberantly by herself. (As a girl, she was considered clumsy, she tells me. So she was sent to study dance with a disciple of Isadora Duncan, and she’s been dancing ever since.) She insists that we all join her on the crowded dance floor. The six of us gather in a circle. We dance. Ruth, who’s tall and slim but not what you’d call athletic, makes determined up-and-down moves with her fists. My mother, whom I’ve never seen dance to rock, much less disco, gamely shuffles her feet a bit in time to the music. “Come on,” Ruth shouts to her, pumping her hands up and down. “It’s ther-a-peu-tic!” My mother smiles a wry smile and pumps her hands, just a little.

Later, as I’m fighting my way through the dense crowd, ferrying clusters of full beer mugs from the bar to our table, a woman with a “Class of ’96” badge blocks my path and demands, “What year are they?”

“Class of ’41.”

“Awesome!” she squeals.


Saturday, 7 p.m. An Old Memory Made New

The banquet dinner for the class of ’41 begins with a remembrance of classmates who have died. The names, more than 100, are listed on a program. I am struck by how unemotionally this tribute is received. Of course, by a certain age, death might be a familiar presence, I think to myself.

But then the speaker says, “… And, I’m sorry to report that since the printing of this list, two more of us have passed away.” A gasp punctuates the silence as she names the newly dead.

After dinner, my mother and her friends stand and perform their skit. It begins as a series of comments about life in 1941 (“I’ve never seen TV, but I’ve heard of it.”), then flashes forward to 2001, when, according to Ruth’s script, most young people are pretty clueless:

“Do we know where the trade winds are? Or how to find Oslo and Shanghai, Kinsale and Petra?”


“But our grandchildren don’t.”

“They know Planet Krypton, but they can’t find Crete.”

There’s more in this vein. Then comes the closing line, which draws a good laugh: “You just can’t trust anyone under 80!”

Suddenly, I see them as they were in their early 20s, beautiful, privileged, exquisitely well-educated. I can imagine them putting on a skit like this one — witty and satirical and just a little bit smart-alecky. Each of them is intimately acquainted with the lessons of the Depression. Most of them expect to go forth, marry, and raise children. The European war has already begun; in a matter of months, it will become America’s war too. And so my understanding of my mother’s precious years at college now includes a living picture. She has given me the gift of a memory. She has given me a piece of her life.

Steven Slon is the editorial director for The Saturday Evening Post. Jean Slon passed away in 2008.


This article appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more inspiring stories, as well as art, travel, trends, fiction, and features from our archives.

North Country Girl: Chapter 28 — The Age of Aquarius Comes to Duluth

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.


I didn’t tell Doug Figge about Wendi Carlson’s advice, that the key to enjoying sex is more sex. I didn’t have to. His mind was on the same track, the only track 17-year old boys’ run on, the track with the thundering locomotive of sex hurtling along, blowing all other thoughts away.

The day after the first man landed on the moon and I gave up my virginity, Doug called with the woeful news that Joe Sloan had emerged from his basement with powder burns and a singed shirt, accompanied by a powerful stink of cordite. His parents decreed that their house, including those forgotten bedrooms, was off limits.

Doug knew it was one of my mother’s class days. “Please, please,” he begged. “Let me come over. It will be okay, we’ll be quick,” he said as if that were a selling point. “Fine,” I sighed.

One of the things I learned from my first experience was that sex was messy, and should not take place on my mother’s ivory brocade French Provincial couch. Doug pulled into my driveway, I let him in the backdoor, and hurriedly escorted up him to my bedroom.

It was the middle of the afternoon and the sun streamed through my windows. I was shy about taking off my clothes in the summer glare, and not especially looking forward to seeing my fairly unattractive boyfriend naked either. I turned my back, stripped and slipped between the sheets, and there was Doug, nude and on top of me and ready.

I thought we were safe. My mother usually wasn’t home till three. But some vagary of the University of Minnesota’s college calendar or maybe the excitement of the moon landing had caused my mother’s class to be canceled that day. I heard a familiar car pull up to the house and thought “This is bad this is bad this is bad,” and tried to shove Doug off me. His eyes were squeezed shut, beads of sweat popping out on his wispy moustache; he was oblivious. “Doug Doug Doug,” I whispered hoarsely, as I heard the house door open and not only my mother’s voice, but my sisters’ as well. I pushed him harder and finally got him off me and he realized that my mother was home.

As Doug’s Corvair was in the driveway, my mother knew we were in the house alone, which she had strictly forbidden fearing exactly what had come to pass. Before Doug and I had a chance to find even our underwear, my mother flung open my bedroom door and lost her mind. She didn’t know whom to hit first. She whacked Doug about the head a few times, as he tried to find his jeans, the hell with his briefs, then she turned on me, as wordless as a banshee, unable to articulate what she had seen with her own eyes: her fifteen-year-old daughter having sex. I burst into tears and Doug made his escape.

That event is burned into my memory with almost a physical pain. I can feel the warm air coming in through the windows, pushing the sheer white curtains into the room. I can hear the torrent of my mother’s shrieks, and my entire body burning and blushing and trying to vanish into thin air. Out of the corner of my eye, while trying to duck my mother’s roundhouses, I see a blur that is Doug, holding his shirt and shoes, rushing down the stairs and out of my life.

A sadder but wiser fairy had come to undo one of my wishes, a wish that had gone horribly wrong. I no longer had a boyfriend. My mother forbade me to see Doug Figge ever again.

When I told Wendi Carlson about that shameful, sordid experience, she burst into peals of laughter, which shocked me into learning an important lesson: if your good friend cracks up at your sad story, it’s not the tragedy you think it is.

Egged on by Wendi, I held my gang of girlfriends spellbound for the remaining weeks of summer with the gripping tale of my mother catching me in bed with Doug Figge. “Tell it again!” they’d squeal, as we sat by a bonfire or dangled our legs in the water off a lakeside dock. I’d get to the point where Doug tore bare butt down the staircase, and they’d roar, squirting beer through their noses. Every time I re-told that tale of horror, it became less real, more like something that happened to another person.

“You need a new boyfriend!” cried Nancy, Wendi, and all the other girls. I wasn’t sure that I did. My romantic history consisted of a single date with Wesley Baggot, being publicly dumped by Steve LaFlamme, a forced make out session with a candidate for a skin graft, and having a boyfriend for six months that I didn’t really like and who never took me out once on a real date.

If I was going to have another boyfriend, I was going to pick him out myself. No more waiting passively for some boy to choose me; I had enough of that during those nightmarish ballroom dance classes. From now on, every day was going to be Sadie Hawkins Day.

I rejected all the efforts my pals made to fix me up. I studied the eligible guys in the packs that hovered around us, looking in vain for potential boyfriend material, someone who was good-looking and smart and funny. My imaginary future boyfriend had to go to East High, so he could hold my hand in the halls and take me to a school dance. I was through with boys who went to weird other schools, unless Joe Sloan reappeared.

Maybe it was this gritty new determination, maybe it was getting rid of my virginity at fifteen-and-a-half: I grew a backbone. I found I could talk, and laugh, and flirt with boys, ignoring the voice in my head that told me I sounded like an idiot.

Now I needed to shed my gawky nerd look, my face hidden behind those oversized tortoise-shell spectacles with the Coke bottle lenses. My mother was still not talking to me, just shooting me looks that alternated between disappointment and disgust. I turned on my father at every occasion, begging for contact lenses. Dad preferred that I remained unattractive; he didn’t know that the worst had already happened. My eye doctor won the argument for me, pointing out to my father that contacts would slow down my eyes’ deterioration to Mr. Magoo-level near-sightedness, and eliminate the need to buy new and thicker glasses every year. I got my contacts and I promptly lost one in our gold shag carpet. So much for my dad saving money on my eye care; it was back to the doctor to order another $30 contact. Now both my parents were mad at me.

Who cared about parents when there was a potential boyfriend somewhere out there, a boyfriend who could now gaze directly into my green eyes, while stroking my hair. I hadn’t allowed a scissor to come near my head for months and my hair now flowed halfway down my back, an unremarkable brown, but thick and shiny with youth and health, perfect hippie girl hair. I also decided to stop letting my mother pick out my clothes. During our annual shopping trip to Minneapolis I ditched my mom and sisters in Dayton’s Back to School section and found an incense-smoky store where I bought a purple leather fringed jacket, a collection of gauzy Indian shirts, and embroidered bell bottom jeans. Suddenly instead of a four-eyed geek with a bad haircut, there was a cute girl in the mirror. My third wish, a wish so improbable and so desperate that I had never consciously acknowledged it, had been granted.

Gay Haubner
Glasses-free Gay. (Photo courtesy of the author)


Late in August Walter Cronkite reported that thousands upon thousands of hippies had descended on a farm in upstate New York for a three-day music festival. The six o’clock news never showed any of the music, only the miles of traffic and abandoned cars and then finally half-naked people rolling about in the mud, Walter tut-tutting away like a maiden aunt. It looked amazing, the most fun a teenager could have. I watched desolate, knowing my tribe was out there, listening to the music I loved, taking the drugs I wanted. As always, life was happening somewhere else.

Lief Erikson Park postcard
Leif Erikson Park.

But Woodstock unlocked something in the teenagers of Duluth. As if summoned by the Pied Piper, throngs of kids coalesced in scraggy bands on the rolling green lawns of Leif Erickson Park, boys strumming guitars and girls twirling their long gypsy skirts around and around. At the downtown Woolworth’s next to the turtle tank I found a rack of buttons with peace symbols and “Make Love Not War” that I pinned on the lapel of my fringed jacket. The Age of Aquarius had reached Duluth.

Hair production. Actors on stage with protest signs
A production of the musical Hair. (Eget bilde / Wikimedia Commons)

On the first day of school, I walked down the East High hall into a different world. A whole subset of druggies and hippies had sprung up like dandelions. There were dozens of kids in tie-dye, patchouli oil was used way too liberally, and almost every boy, including the jocks, had hair that brushed the collars of their shirts.

Attendees at the Woodstock concert
A scene from Woodstock. (Mark Goff / Wikimedia Commons)
Tie dye pattern
Tie dye. (Shutterstock)

I made my way up to the third floor, to Mr. Burrows’ two-hour, buttock-killing, smart-kids-only, enthralling American History and Literature Class, an educational jewel that was more fascinating and more informative than any college course, even if it did hew to the Famous White Men model, with nods to Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickenson. As I slipped into my usual seat next to Nancy Erman, she nudged me, nodded her head sideways, and daringly whispered “New boy. Your type.” Mr. Burrows’ thundering brow turned toward Nancy at this violation of his rule of absolute silence. She gave him a twinkling Nancy smile, and, mollified, Mr. Burrows went back to the chalkboard to write: “A true relation of such occurrences and accidents as hath hapned in Virginia.  John Smith, 1608,” and we were off to the races, three hundred years of history and literature to cover in nine months.

Engraving of John Smith and his company landing at Jamestown
John Smith landing at Jamestown.  From The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library / Wikimedia Commons)

I snuck a glance in the direction Nancy had nodded in. Sitting all alone against the back wall, lit like a Renaissance angel under the slanting autumn light that poured in through the diamond-paned windows, was a boy with long dark hair that reached his shoulders and John Lennon wire-rimmed glasses. Beneath the glasses and the hair was a cherubic face, as round and sweet as an apple, a face that wore a serious, studious expression that reminded me to turn, reluctant and hopeful, back to my own interrupted note-taking on the founding of Jamestown.

This boy was Michael Vlasdic, my first love.

He was heart-meltingly handsome, and I knew that he had to be smart to be in Mr. Burrows’ advanced class. Two hours later, when Mr. Burrows allowed questions and comments, Michael sat silent, although I did see him occasionally smile, revealing adorable dimples that would be so much fun to kiss.

Michael Vlasdic was also in my lunch period, where I clocked him sitting at the back of the raucous East cafeteria with Roger Dennison, another rare new kid, who was good-looking in a blond, high-cheeked, Slavic way despite a nose like a jagged ski run, and with my old friend Eric Olson from elementary school. Eric was now known as Needle, not for his use of intravenous drugs but for his extreme skinniness. Roger and Needle both sported nicely shaggy hair, though not as long as Michael’s.

A year ago, I would not have been able to walk within ten feet of a boy I liked without my stomach flipping over and my tongue gluing itself to the roof of my mouth. But good luck and bad experiences had given me confidence. I had shed my virginity and my goofy glasses and I had Michael Vlasdic in my sights.

The new, sophisticated me plopped down uninvited among the three boys, making sure that I was next to Michael, and finally put my mother’s advice—“Just walk up to a boy, say hi and start talking”—to the test. I smiled, asked Roger where he was from (Colorado, his father worked for the Air Force and had been transferred to Duluth’s tiny base), talked to Needle, another smarty pants, about our classes, and finally turned to Michael and said “I like your glasses.”

I watched his face and my heart gave a small thump. I thought, I know this person, I have been this person, struck dumb at the prospect of talking to the opposite sex. It was as if I could read what was going through Michael’s mind: “What does that mean? Is she making fun of me? Or should I say thank you and then say I like your shirt?” I could tell he was weighing all his options as if one wrong word could open up the cafeteria floor and send him down to Hades, while the other kids laughed and pointed at him.

It was too painful. I jumped back in and carried the conversation single-handedly (look mom!) until the bell rang to send us off to class. That was also my signal to make my move. “So Michael,” I said, “What are you doing Saturday night?” All three boys exchanged shocked, mystified looks, but there was none of the horror that I used to see on the faces of the boy I asked to dance at Cotillion.

Michael quietly admitted that he had no plans for Saturday night and then looked as if he were waiting for a stinging, “Oh I’m going to a fun party” from me.

I took a breath and said, “Do you want to go out, go do something?” A beatific smile crossed Michael’s face, revealing those adorable dimples that I could have kissed right there and then. I took this as a yes. We scribbled phone numbers in each others’ notebooks and I left feeling that little squeeze of my heart and tingling between my legs that I got listening to Robert Plant moan “The Lemon Song” or re-reading the dog-eared pages in my copies of Lolita and Candy that I hid between the mattresses.

North Country Girl: Chapter 12 — Country Club Days

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week. 

My sister Lani and I arrived home to the big news that my dad had switched country clubs. For years he had played golf at Ridgeway Country Club, a mysterious place with a ramshackle clubhouse that I had only glimpsed from the outside when my mom dropped off my dad and his club. Ridgeway members golfed, drank, smoked, and played cards; there were no Ladies’ Days or children’s programs. 

Now my dad was a member at Northland Country Club, about as waspy a place as could be in Duluth. No Jews of course, and the inclination would probably have been to exclude Catholics as well, except that Duluth had a deep base of Norwegians who were local business and government bigwigs, as well as supporters of the Church. 

Northland’s clubhouse was a gleaming white pseudo-mansion that would not have looked out of place on an antebellum plantation, complete with porte-cochere in the front and a two-story columned patio on the side. There was even a guardhouse at the turn off of Superior Street where you had to stop to have your name checked against the membership roll before proceeding up the long driveway. At the top, nestled beside the clubhouse, was a (semi-) heated pool. After being frog marched into the frigid water of Hanging Horn Lake for swimming lessons at camp, Lani and I took the Northland pool as if it were the Caribbean. The only other pool I had been to in Duluth was the indoor one at Woodland Junior High, where I was forced to take swimming lessons year after year, never passing into a higher category than Minnow. It was impossible to learn to swim in that over-chlorinated, dimly lit Woodland pool. It had a ledge all around it made of concrete mixed with pumice and bits of sandpaper that would take the skin off your legs and arms, and was surrounded by tiles so slippery that anything faster than a trudge resulted in immediate expulsion from the swimming class. And since the pool was inside the school, it was thought not necessary to heat it. 

Thrilled with the chance to swim in water that was over 70 degrees, Lani and I spent the rest of the summer begging, “Can we go to the pool? Can we go to the pool?” from the time we woke up. When we got to Northland, Lani and I (always having to wait the mandatory thirty minutes if we were there after lunch) gleefully plunged into the pool, tossing beach balls, playing water tag, having breath holding contests, going off the diving board (only allowed after you proved you could swim the length of the pool) and staying in the water all afternoon, emerging at five when the pool closed, blue-lipped and prune-fingered.   

Oddly enough, none of my classmates’ families belonged to Northland and most of the kids who were regulars at the pool were younger than I. Lani’s best friend Julie Luster often joined us while her mother golfed or drank at the club bar on Ladies’ Day. Children were not allowed to be at the pool by themselves. Your mother or another member had to sign you in and stay there, so there was always a circle of trapped moms trying to get a hint of a tan from the weak Minnesota sun while regularly being drenched by kids cannon-balling or getting in a forbidden game of chicken while the lifeguard’s back was turned. 

Vintage Stock Photos 

Northland’s pool, snack bar, hamburgers and fries served on the patio — along with  family Fourth of July parties with sack races, hot dogs, and fireworks — was heaven enough for me. But my parents wanted me to enjoy all the benefits of Northland membership, which included golf and tennis lessons for kids. I had learned to hate tennis at camp, but golf brought me to new levels of wishing I never had to do anything besides sit on the sofa and read. Mini-golf was fun; colored balls, little windmills, a chance to hit your sister with the putter. Golf lessons were ten weeks spent just on my stance, swinging the club at an imaginary ball, then having my body manipulated by a creepy assistant golf pro so I could swing at nothing again. When I was finally given a real golf ball, I managed to sideswipe it, knocking the ball off the tee onto the grass. I was ordered back to stance school, at which point I put my club and feet down and refused to go to golf lessons ever again.  


In fifth grade I was one of the white mice in another of Duluth’s experiments in education. As a result of all that testing the year before, it was determined that five Congdon fifth graders — me and four boys — deserved “enrichment education.” We would spend our mornings in a special class at Endion Elementary and afternoons at Congdon. I have no idea how my Congdon teacher, the huge Miss Johnson, felt about this. During all my previous elementary school years, there was never any schedule for the day. After we said the Pledge of Allegiance, we might have math or social studies or reading, whatever the teacher felt like teaching. We would go weeks without taking out our music books and then sing for an hour every day for three weeks. But because the five of us would receive “enriched” instruction in English and social studies, Miss Johnson was forced to structure her day to cover those subjects in the morning. In the afternoons, when we were back at Congdon, Miss Johnson would teach math, a smidgen of science (none of those spinster teachers cared about science at all), art, music, and whatever else needed to be taught. 

Since there were five of us, the five mothers each took a day of the week to pick all of us up (two kids in the front, three in the back, and please please please don’t let me be squeezed between two boys) in the morning, then shuttle us back to Congdon in time for lunch. It was kind of a requirement for our enriched education, as no other form of transport was offered. My mother bitched — as probably the other four mothers did — every time her day to drive came around. 

I loved the Endion Elementary enrichment classes, and I adored our teacher. Miss Steinbeck, a classicist, took us through ancient history, from Egypt to Rome. We wrote stories set in those eras, acted out Greek myths, built a tiny Acropolis, studied sculpture and urns and pyramids. It was a geek’s paradise. 

The Parthenon. (Tim Bekaert, Wikimedia Commons) 

It was also the perfect way to make a socially awkward girl like me even more so. Just being out of my regular Congdon class half the day made me an oddball. When I had nothing more exciting to report to my classmates about the mysterious doings of our morning enrichment class than “We looked at hieroglyphics,” I went back to being ignored and then even further alienated from fifth grade girls’ society. 

The educational powers that be weren’t done yet. Several students were also pulled out of Miss Johnson’s room one afternoon a week for a special creative writing class, including Nancy Erman, the one friend I had left. I was consumed with jealousy, as it was universally accepted that I was the best writer in fifth grade. Being told that the only reason I didn’t get to go to creative writing was because I was already pulled out of class half the day did not make me feel any better, and I am afraid I was a snotty little bitch to Nancy for quite a while. 

Because I was not enough of a weirdo, there came the afternoon when Miss Johnson escorted the girls out of the classroom and down to the gym. Everyone, she announced, “except Gay. Your mother didn’t sign the permission slip.” Every eye, boy and girl, turned towards me as I tried to will myself invisible. Two hours later, the girls returned, giggling and pinching each other. I was too humiliated to ask what I had missed. 

I finally got Nancy to tell me. It was a movie about menstruation, sponsored by Modess sanitary pads, starring a caterpillar who turns into a butterfly. Obviously all the other girls would now metamorphose into butterflies while I would remain a lowly caterpillar.  I held back my tears till I got home, where my hysterics were poo-pooed by my mother, the cause of my shame. She had received the letter from the school about the movie, decided I was too young to learn about these things (I had kept the info shared by the Applebaum cousins to myself), and tossed the permission slip into the garbage. “I didn’t know you’d be the only one,” she shrugged. 

My sex education was complete enough to be equally thrilled and embarrassed when my mother announced that she was pregnant. To me, my mother always seemed much younger than other moms; Nancy Erman had a brother and sister who were in college and her grey-haired mother seemed as old as my grandmothers. The year before my parents had been photographed for the Duluth Tribune learning to do that new dance craze, the Twist. The world had not yet been turned over to teen-agers; thirty-year-olds could still be cool. 

Gay Huabner's parents dancing
My parents doing the Twist. 

Around the time my mother’s pregnancy began to show, other women started asking with suspicious frequency how old she was. Mom, who had always been paranoid about revealing her age, thought they were hinting about getting pregnant at her advanced age, and refused to answer. I heard her constantly griping, “Old biddies, why do they want to know how old I am?” Someone clued her in to the fact she was being vetted for the Junior League, a club that believed itself to be the pinnacle of high society among Duluth women. My mom had been nominated for Junior League but there was a hitch: you had to be under 35 to join the Junior League. But no one came out and said that why she was asking about my mom’s age, I guess in case my mom got blackballed, so she wouldn’t have hurt feelings.  

Duluthians of that time loved joining things: churches (everyone belong to some church, Catholic, Lutheran, Congregationalist, even the mysterious Jewish temple), country clubs, Elks, Moose, Rotary, Lion’s Club, the weird Knights of Columbus and the even odder Masons. My mother was a member of the Women’s Dental Auxiliary and drove around the county distributing toothbrushes and toothpaste to rural schools. My Carlton grandmother was a member of the hoity-toity Kitchi Gammi club, where I was once invited to lunch with her in its cavernous, echoing dining room.  

The Kitchi Gammi Club.

I must have done something wrong — pushed my soup spoon the wrong way or stained the snowy table cloth — as the invitation was not repeated. Grandma Marie was also a member of the Women’s Club, the mother organization to the Junior League, a bunch of do-gooders who were best known for the Duluth Women’s Club Parade of Homes, a chance to poke around in other people’s over-decorated houses for charity. 

Why my grandmother Marie couldn’t have just shepherded my mom into Junior League is a mystery. Maybe she was too much of a snob and thought a house painter’s daughter from Aberdeen, South Dakota, even if she was her daughter-in-law, wasn’t good enough to raise money for the Duluth Symphony or the Leif Erickson Park rose gardens.  

Alas, my mother never became a Junior Leaguer. Even in an organization composed entirely of women, the husbands had to be considered. My father missed the mandatory Saturday breakfast meeting where my mother was to be interviewed for inclusion in the club; he was too hung over. The Junior League gave him a second chance, he missed that one too. 

North Country Girl: Chapter 7 — We Have Ice Cream in the Fridge

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week. 

TV, board games and toys, and school were indoor activities. But year-round, with the exception of raging blizzards, my mother ordered me to put down my book and go “play outside.” We had enough kids on Lakeview and Vermillion for a good game of Spud (very few cars went down our single-block-long street) or freeze tag. I had a particular fondness for “Mother May I;” little prig that I was, I delighted in sending kids back who forgot to ask permission. “Red Light, Green Light” was too prone to cheating, and always ended up as “I saw you move!” (a lie) countered by “I didn’t move!” (another lie).  Once a summer, the ice cream truck magically found its way to our block to interrupt our street games, and I would lose my mind with desire for a Nutty Buddy only to by informed by my mother that if I wanted ice cream we had some in the fridge.

Ice Cream truck
Ice Cream Truck (Chip Griffin, licensed under CC BY 2.0) 

My mom was stingy with treats, doling them out occasionally and always one at a time. Each year we went to the Norshor theater to see the annual Disney feature, missing only “Bon Voyage” as it was condemned by the Catholic church for having a scene where the harried American dad is accosted by a Parisian hooker. Going to the movies was treat enough. Getting popcorn or Junior Mints from the snack bar would be gilding the lily.

It was the same at the Northland Country Club pool. Once in a great while I would be allowed to buy a frozen Snickers or Milky Way at the snack bar, at the exorbitant price of fifteen cents, five cents more than the going rate. Mostly we arrived at the pool after lunch and were forced to exist on grapes from home. But once or twice a summer my mom, my sister Lani, and I would sit up on Northland’s gracious veranda, looking out over the pool and first tee, and order divine hamburgers and golden French fries with brown crispy ends. I would slather everything on my plate with ketchup; Lani would leave most of her food for my mom and I to finish up. I later found out that my mom was afraid my dad would be mad about her minor country club charges; he was too busy losing hundreds of dollars in the never-ending Northland poker game to even notice our once a month lunches on the bill.

We were allowed hot chocolate when skiing at tiny Mount du Lac, but that bordered on a life saving measure when we came out of the zero degree cold with soggy wool mittens and frozen-over ski boot laces. The Mount du Lac “chalet” was a squat square concrete building, with window seats overlooking the three ski slopes (beginner, with the jerky tow rope that yanked me forward, landing face in the snow; intermediate, with the impossible to balance T-bar that dumped me on my back; and advanced, where I never managed to set ski on). The chalet had a jukebox and a pinball table, both of which I was dying to play (probably to postpone my return outside). Putting a dime in either of these machines was regarded by my mom as the height of wastefulness. When I finally got to play pinball, with my own dime, I was astonished at how quickly and surely the silver balls tumbled to the bottom and down the hole, failing to set off even a single bell of pinball success.

Why anyone would put money in a jukebox baffled my mother. “You can hear the same songs for free on the radio!”  Pinball was even worse in her eyes: not only did you throw away a dime that could have bought an ice cream cone, candy bar, or bottle of pop, your brain cells curled up and died when you played such a stupid game.

Since all my mother’s efforts to transform me into the outgoing, cute, popular girl that she had been had failed, my mother turned her attention to protecting and improving my one asset, my smarts. She regarded comic books (except for the tedious Classics Illustrated) and Mad magazine as insidious destroyers of children’s intelligence: “If you read comics it will make you so stupid you won’t be able to read anything else.” I couldn’t get enough of that forbidden fruit. A neighbor girl stopped asking me over to play because I could not be budged from her older brother’s breathtaking collection of Mad magazines.

Comic book cover
Wikimedia Commons 

My preferred reading was definitely lowbrow, but I would read anything. When I ran out of library books, I resorted to our World Book Encyclopedia, or the lavishly and gorily illustrated children’s bible (heavy on the Old Testament) that somehow washed up on our living room bookshelf. There were also a few ancient children’s books that I read over and over: The Story of Live DollsThe King of the Golden RiverThe Five Little Peppers, and Alice’s adventures both in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass.  Eventually my mother realized that I was not to be bullied off of the couch and into the clique of popular Congdon Elementary girls. If I was going to have my nose in a book every waking hour, it should be a book that would improve my mind.

One glorious day I came home from school and found a brown box from the Classics Book Club addressed to me. Getting anything in the mail with your name on it was thrilling. I had long pleaded for my own subscription to Highlights for Children just for that reason, but that was not going to happen while my father could bring home the torn, scribbled-on old Highlights from his office. Inside this book-shaped box was a book, Shakespeare’s Comedies, the plays printed in mouse type on tissue thin paper nicely bound in gilded imitation leather. I started right in on The Tempest, reading the Miranda part out loud and understanding maybe a tenth of what was going on.

The next month brought the Tragedies. I had figured out how to skip the boring parts of the plays, which were everything except the lead female role: I dragged my finger down the page until I found lines for Juliet and Cleopatra and Ophelia, which I declaimed aloud from my sofa stage. The following month the Histories arrived which I barely cracked. Henry, Henry, Henry. Where were the good female roles?

Then came the dunning letters. Which were also addressed to me. My mother had thoughtfully put the subscription to the Classic Book Club in my name, but she had never bothered to pay for it. According to them, I owed $36.00 and my membership would be revoked and I would never receive the next book in the series — Plato’s Republic—  unless they received payment in ten days. Where was I going to get the astounding sum of $36? I went to my mother in tears. She looked at the letter, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the garbage. Even more than she hated wasting money, my mother loved getting something for nothing; we had the books already, so why pay for them? But the letters kept coming, informing Miss Gay Haubner that the Classics Book Club was about to take legal action to recoup their money. For months, I expected someone to show up at the door and arrest me.

Cover Gallery: Mid-Century Mothers and Sons

People talk about the special bond between mothers and sons, but some of these ‘40s and ‘50s moms don’t look so sure.


Growing Boy
Frances Tipton Hunter
September 16, 1939


Any mother can relate to the problem of the growth spurt, as painted by Frances Tipton Hunter, who created 18 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Hunter was particularly interested in drawing children and animals. She also illustrated a series of paper dolls in the 1920s for the Ladies’ Home Journal, which proved to be extremely popular.


More Clothes to Clean
George Hughes
April 17, 1948


[From the editors of the April 17, 1948, issue of the Post] The old, old losing fight to keep a boy in clean clothes, when in five minutes he can get dirtier than a grease monkey, is noted here by an artist taking his first crack at a cover. He is George Hughes, one of the country’s best-known illustrators, whose work in that field is highly familiar to Post readers.


Returning Home from College
Stevan Dohanos
June 5, 1948


[From the editors of the June 5, 1948, issue of the Post] Stevan Dohanos’ two sons, Peter and Paul, were in an Eastern boys’ school and about this time last year, getting-out time, he took the family car up to help them move home. A passenger car, he learned, is no proper vehicle for such a job. It calls for a light truck or van. Brooding about this, and what it meant for the future, Dohanos mentioned his trip to a friend with a son or sons in college. They told him his real moving jobs are still ahead, when he tries to load the contents of one college room. The artist made his sketches on the Yale campus, but rearranged things to suit his purposes. The boy is George Ritter, of Westport, Connecticut, no Yale man. The artist didn’t use a Yale man, on the remarkable theory that none would like to cut class.


Readying for First Date
George Hughes
October 16, 1948


[From the editors of the October 16, 1948, issue of the Post] It’s that suspenseful occasion when a young man puts on his first tuxedo to go out to a formal party—or more commonly, first puts on his father’s tuxedo or one borrowed from an older brother. Looking around for models, it occurred to artist George Hughes that some of his neighbors would serve excellently. The boy getting ready to dazzle them at the dinner dance, if he doesn’t forget and wear moccasins, is Tommy Rockwell, son of artist Norman Rockwell. The woman essaying the puzzling job of tying somebody else’s tie is Tommy’s mother. That is Tommy’s room, in Arlington, Vermont, and Hughes was much impressed—he thought it remarkably tidy, as boys’ rooms go. Temporarily tidy, at least, and you can’t ask more than that.


New Blue Suit
George Hughes
February 25, 1950


[From the editors of the February 25, 1950, issue of the Post] “Outfitters to Young Gentlemen,” proclaims the suit box, in a blundering effort to make the victim of its contents feel as swell as he looks. The young character does not wish to look like a young gentleman. What, he wonders in horror, will the gang down the street think when he bursts upon their gaze and is recognized as the guy they had always thought of as a normal, gun-toting cowboy? Will they clasp their hands as mother is doing, only with a less complimentary ecstasy? One ray of hope plays on the dark scene. In the next few weeks other misguided mothers will get this same new-suit fever, and on Easter Sunday many young cowpokes, in similar outrageous disguises, will be comforted by their companionship in misery.


Missing Shoe
Jack Welch
September 8, 1951


[From the editors of the September 8, 1951, issue of the Post] This mother’s face is charming upside-down, but if you will also stand on your head, you will find that she wears a choleric expression. She is mad at her son, which is unreasonable, for she herself has lost his shoe. He took it off last June, and is it not a woman’s duty to take care of her men’s clothing? We know where the shoe is: it is either in the Apache hide-out under the forsythia bush, in the cowpoke’s corral in the vacant lot down the street, or Fido is preserving it in his kennel as an objet d’art. Junior will go to school in sneakers, and nobody will care except his mother, who doesn’t go to school. Next week she very likely will think all this is funny, and what the moral of Jack Welch’s theme is, we don’t know.


Suiting Her Sons
Richard Sargent
September 20, 1952


[From the editors of the September 20, 1952, issue of the Post] Inventors are so smart at dreaming up new types of cloth, why doesn’t some bright fellow concoct a rubber-base fabric, so that the suit of an expanding boy can occasionally be put on a stretcher and thus increase in pace with its master? When this idea goes into production, we get a 10 per cent cut or somebody gets sued. Meanwhile, Dick Sargent’s distraught homemaker can take a few gussets in that stationary suit and hang it on Son #2, but then the boy will promptly outgrow it. Oh, for the deflated old days when it wasn’t necessary to stop eating for a while to finance a new suit or stop buying suits to eat. Well, better times ahead, mother! Soon the lads will be big enough to hand down their clothes to their father.


Space Traveller
Amos Sewell
November 8, 1952


[From the editors of the November 8, 1952, issue of the Post] Little Johnny Tomorrow has just walked past young Mr. Today, making the latter look aged and out of date. It reminds us of a sad occasion when an airliner captain asked a little passenger if this was his first time up. “Fourteenth,” said the lad. ‘Can’t ever get up higher ‘n five, ten thousand feet in these old planes, though. How’s the United States ever going to build a space platform if you fellas can’t make altitude?” The captain, epitome of modernism, turned green and crept away to rev up his creaky old engines; and the boy should have been spanked for insolence, except that actually he had his feet on the ground. When artist Sewell’s youngster gets tired of wearing that helmet, the hostess could put it on somebody who is snoring.


Crashing Mom’s Card Party
Richard Sargent
December 20, 1952


[From the editors of the December 20, 1952, issue of the Post] What is lovelier than the glow of care-free joy in the faces of happy children? Will the lady on the cover have the time to defend her food and change those expressions to the pinched melancholy of starvation? She will if she can make it across the room in time.  It will be fairly cruel if she imprisons the lads in the kitchen with nice, healthy, disillusioning peanut-butter sandwiches, but not as cruel as the time Dick Sargent set up that enchanting pastry in his dining room to paint. He has sons. The mouths of the sons began to water. They watered for a week. Two weeks. Three. Then the sons were released at the pastry. They ate it so fast they apparently did not notice it was petrified, claims the fiendish father.


Messy Room, Neat Boys
George Hughes
October 22, 1955


[From the editors of the October 22, 1955, issue of the Post] Mother is making rapid progress at teaching the boys to maintain a tidy room; if George Hughes had painted this the day school opened, the detail would have given him a lame arm. Now, here is portrayed an intelligent female who in her delicate way molds the character of men; so, when her boys are seniors in college, they will be 27 per cent tidier than now. Then they will get married and never leave so much as a pipe cleaner lying about—for six weeks. After that they will revert to human beings, and what they don’t chuck around will be what they haven’t got. A woman’s picking-up-stuff is never done. Why doesn’t this mother shock the boys into tidy conduct by simply leaving their shambles untouched? Because they like it this way. She’d better go buy herself a new hat.


Happy Mother’s Day
Richard Sargent
May 11, 1957


[From the editors of the May 11, 1957, issue of the Post] Johnny’s happy shout of “Mother, I’ve brought something for you!” is an understatement. Dick Sargent certainly can paint the most delicious-looking mud; did he use maple fudge for a model? Now then, when mother regards her ex-clean carpet and the adoration in the eyes of her seldom-so-soiled son, what type of emotion will possess her? Although a mother’s ups and downs often come simultaneously, and situations like this are all in the day’s work and love, the temperature of her reaction will depend partly on whether she’s a phlegmatic soul or pop-offy soul. Yet it’s a good bet that before she undertakes to make things come clean, she will administer to her son, fudge and all, a good, sound—kissing. Afterthought: if Fido decides to shake himself, all bets are off.


Formal Hug
Amos Sewell
February 15, 1958


[From the editors of the February 15, 1958, issue of the Post] It’s typical of the male sex that Johnny is realizing how much his favorite lady means to him only when she is about to go away—and that’s enough psychology for this week. So John wants to cling to her, which will overlay a stunning new chocolate pattern on her dress, a chic addition to what seems to be a golden-fingerprint motif already put there by designer Amos Sewell. Without meaning to be unreasonable about this, is Miss Sitter going to come to the rescue or wait until the television program ends? Johnny’s situation is a bit pathetic as mamma delivers what football fans will recognize as a beautiful straight-arm; yet he does have loving parents, a swell home, luscious food, brisk entertainment and a pretty girl to dine with—what more can a young fellow ask?


Scuba in the Tub
Amos Sewell
November 29, 1958


[From the editors of the November 29, 1958, issue of the Post] It looks as if artist Amos Sewell’s cover urchin is entering a bathtub of his own free will, and is therefore outwitting himself. Johnny’s decision to try out his diving gear has made him forget to remember that using water for the purpose of getting clean is bitterly repugnant to him. Mother could remind him of this, but why burden his little mind with confusing thoughts? So down Johnny will dive into the mysterious depths, seeking treasure on the floor of the sea, and down there he may well find a bar of soap. Then if mother and son excitedly agree that Johnny has found a rare specimen of submarine life worth maybe a trillion dollars or more, they will be sharing just a little white lie from which, as mother makes with the soap, great good will come.

A Woman’s Work …

From a modern perspective, the following sentiment may seem a trifle patronizing. But in an era marked by the one-career family — and clearly defined gender roles — this appreciation of moms everywhere was heartfelt and, we have to say, charming. Read the backstory on Mother’s Day here.

For Most Mothers It’s “Mother’s Day” All the Year Round

By Richard Attridge
Originally published on May 11, 1957.

A 1950s mother handing her son a glass of lemonade on a summer day
George Hughes, © SEPS

For days leading up to Mother’s Day, there will be a run on flowers, candy, and other gifts, and millions of telephone calls, telegrams, and greeting cards will crisscross the entire nation. Kids at home will make special efforts to be thoughtful and considerate, and sons and daughters who are away on their own will make long journeys, if necessary, to get back to the old home and pay their loving respects to the actual “first lady” in their lives.

The real heart of the matter, however, is that “every day is mother’s day,” and she usually observes it in her own less glamorous way: by washing and ironing, cooking and sewing, dusting and cleaning, waxing and polishing, shopping, planning, economizing, tending the furnace and the babies, worrying about her teenagers, teaching the kids their manners, and generally encouraging, exhorting, and living for all her family. A great many mothers whose children are in school have also managed to take on part-time jobs, so that time won’t hang heavy on their hands.

Apart from these routine aspects of the average mother’s day, she has her own “memorable occasions” which aren’t celebrated nationally, but always remain in the calendar of her memory: the first time she looks at her first little one in the hospital; the day any of the kids take those first wavering steps on their own two legs; the day they actually begin to talk; the day they start off bravely, spick and span, for the first grade, and then have their first date, and graduate, and get engaged and marry and have kids of their own.

All sons and daughters — and husbands, of course — gladly and happily celebrate official Mother’s Day, maybe serve her breakfast in bed, buy her presents, and go to a lot of trouble to get home if they can, or send messages. Just the same, it wouldn’t hurt any of us to keep in mind that in a different sense “every day is mother’s day” — and one of the wonderful things about her is that she wouldn’t have it different.

The Woman Behind Mother’s Day

Anna Jarvis
Flower power: In 1922, Mother’s Day founder Jarvis endorsed an open boycott against florists who raised the price of white carnations every May.
Photo courtesy Mother’s Day Shrine and Museum

On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the first congressional resolution and presidential proclamation calling upon all citizens to display the national flag in honor of American mothers on the second Sunday in May. But the credit for Mother’s Day’s popularity belongs to Anna Jarvis, who organized the first official Mother’s Day services on the morning of May 10, 1908, in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia, and later in the afternoon in her adopted hometown of Philadelphia. Thanks to Jarvis — who wrote annually to every state governor as well as to any local or national figure she believed could advance her holiday movement, from former President Theodore Roosevelt to the humorist Mark Twain — most states already hosted a Mother’s Day observance well before Wilson gave the holiday federal recognition.

The holiday may have had an easy birth, but not an easy transition to maturity.

Anna Jarvis designed the Mother’s Day celebration in honor of her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. As a young girl, Anna was inspired by a prayer she once overhead her mother give. “I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life,” Jarvis remembered her mother saying. “She is entitled to it.”

Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death and selected Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower, the white carnation, as the holiday’s official emblem. Jarvis’ request for children to visit or write letters home on Mother’s Day reflected the significance she placed on her own correspondence with her mother.

As a single woman in her 40s, Anna Jarvis viewed motherhood simply through the eyes of a daughter. Thus she constructed a child-centered celebration of motherhood for Mother’s Day: a “thank-offering” from sons and daughters and the nation “for the blessing of good homes.”

“This is not a celebration of maudlin sentiment. It is one of practical benefit and patriotism, emphasizing the home as the highest inspiration of our individual and national lives.”

Commercial industries quickly recognized the marketability in Jarvis’ sentimental celebration of motherhood. Her themes became central to Mother’s Day advertising campaigns. The call to write tribute letters fueled the greeting card industry. The designation of the white carnation emblem energized the floral industry. Moreover, Jarvis’ own story as a daughter dedicated to fulfilling her departed mother’s greatest wish was better than anything a copywriter could invent.

But despite her calls to the nation to adopt her holiday, Jarvis considered it her intellectual and legal property and not part of the public domain. She wished for Mother’s Day to remain a “holy day,” to remind us of our neglect of “the mother of quiet grace” who put the needs of her children before her own. She never intended for the observance to become the “burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift-day” that other holidays had become by the early 20th century.

Jarvis’ attacks on the commercialization of Mother’s Day became legendary. Media sources chronicled her frequent public condemnations of those she denounced as copyright infringers, trade vandals, and blatant profiteers. In 1922, Jarvis endorsed an open boycott against the florists who raised the price of white carnations every May. The following year, she crashed a retail confectioner convention to protest the industry’s economic gouging of the day. In 1925, she interrupted a national convention of the American War Mothers in Philadelphia because she believed the majority of the money raised by the organization’s white carnation sales went into the pockets of professional organizers rather than going to aid World War I veterans.

Jarvis identified several diverse threats to her holiday movement throughout her career. But the biggest was another holiday: a more inclusive Parents’ Day. In 1923, New York City philanthropist Robert Spero attempted to organize a large Mother’s Day celebration, complete with a parade of marching bands and singing troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Jarvis, however, would not permit it.

Jarvis had battled with Spero before, over his role in the profitable marketing of artificial white carnations. Now she accused him of falsely claiming affiliation with her incorporated Mother’s Day International Association for sheer self-promotion. She threatened a lawsuit, and New York Governor Alfred Smith, who had originally supported the idea, successfully pressured Spero to cancel his entire holiday plan.

In 1924, Spero sponsored his first Parents’ Day celebration on the second Sunday in May. His rallies earned more holiday converts and media attention as the decade progressed. “We want fathers to feel they are more than breadwinners, that when they go off to work they have some responsibility for what goes on in the home,” Spero told The New York Times in 1926. That same year, a crowd of 4,000 attended the Parents’ Day rally in the Bronx. The holiday movement gained momentum with the 1929 official endorsement of Parents magazine publisher George Hecht. And in 1930, New York Assemblyman Julius Berg introduced a bill in Albany to legally replace Mother’s Day with Parents’ Day on the state calendar. He was confident that New York State mothers would have no complaints about sharing their day with fathers.
But Jarvis complained, vehemently. Not only did she consider the bill a personal attack on her legal copyright protection; she saw it as a patent insult to the state’s mothers. “Of all the freak and amazing attacks on the home and respected womanhood of New York State, surely this anti-mother bill sponsored by a little clique of anti-mother sons is a humiliating one,” she protested. For Jarvis, a threat to Mother’s Day was an affront to motherhood and, in turn, to family harmony. Although often criticized by her more feminist contemporaries, as well as modern scholars, for her failure to acknowledge mothers who were active in the era’s social and political reform movements, Jarvis never faltered from her defense of a mother’s preeminent role within the family.

Jarvis was not alone in her criticism of the Parents’ Day movement and its perceived attack on the veneration of motherhood. The state and national success that Spero predicted for his holiday never materialized. His annual rallies were never as well attended as predicted. Berg’s bill failed repeatedly in Albany. And even Hecht abandoned the holiday movement in 1941 to chair the newly incorporated National Committee on the Observance of Mother’s Day.

The holiday rivalry, at its heart, was a societal dispute over the shifting roles of fathers and mothers within the early 20th-century American family. Childcare advice and popular culture encouraged fathers to play an active role in the daily lives of their children by the 1930s, calling fatherhood the most important occupation a man could hold. Yet despite the new views on fatherhood, Spero still failed to kick the mother out of Mother’s Day. Perhaps the holiday’s lack of broad appeal mirrored the larger cultural recognition of the unequal division of childcare — that when contemporary childcare experts or social pundits addressed “parents,” they were still really addressing mothers.

Although many Americans certainly believed that fathers deserved regard beyond that of breadwinner, most hesitated to equate the maternal and paternal roles. Like Jarvis, they may have viewed a mother’s influence as irreplaceable and thus incomparable to a father’s role in design or status. Ultimately, Americans opted to honor fathers in a way that did not threaten the status of mothers or marginalize their role as children’s primary caretakers. As the Parents’ Day movement faded in the 1940s, the celebration of Father’s Day grew in popularity.

On a national calendar already crowded with tributes to American fathers — from Presidents’ Day to our “pilgrim fathers” on Thanksgiving — Mother’s Day is the only culturally, commercially popular holiday that explicitly celebrates women. And that explains Jarvis’ protectiveness: “When a son or daughter cannot endure the name ‘mother’ for a single day of the year, it would seem there is something wrong,” she implored. “One day out of all the ages, and one day out of all the year to bear the name ‘mother’ is surely not too much for her.” Based on the cultural longevity of Mother’s Day, Americans agree.

Read an ode to the 1950s housewife — “For Most Mothers It’s ‘Mother’s Day’ All the Year Round” — from our archive.

White Child, Black Nanny

True devotion: “I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”
(Photo courtesy Sally Mann)

Down here, in the South, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them. This reflects one side of the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private. Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untainted by guilt or resentment?

I think so. Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I know that my mother tried to raise me properly, but I made her cross as two sticks, so she turned the day-to-day care of her stroppy, unruly child over to Virginia, known to everyone as Gee-Gee, a name given her by my eldest brother, Bob.

I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back. Gee-Gee’s love was unconditional, a concept I might never have believed in had I not experienced it. When the dogs and I came in panting and filthy from our adventures, Gee-Gee sent the cringing hounds away and made sure I had what I needed: food, a story, or a bath. And when I was teased to tears by my brothers and father, or scared, or hurt, I never wondered if I would be protected or comforted. I always was — by Gee-Gee.

No one ever doubted who really ran the household, and my mother used to joke about her own dispensability. Gee-Gee had long ago mastered what William Carlos Williams called “the customs of necessity,” and to her devolved almost all the intimate aspects of our family life, the cooking, laundry, and sheet changing. After my brothers went away to school, I think she was mostly tasked with raising a lonely child in a household that cared very little for children. In 1958, three days before my seventh birthday, my parents went to France for six weeks to visit friends. It was my first year at school and since Gee-Gee didn’t drive, Clayton Campbell, the local taxi operator, would arrive every morning at 7:30. I would climb into the backseat, where my feet didn’t touch the floorboards, and Mr. Campbell would drive me to the whites-only public school, a tall-windowed, white-columned dump of a place.

Gee-Gee worked for my family until her early 90s. At age 100, with her hands curled into gentle claws, she died on Christmas Day, 1994. She was with us for almost 50 years, but to calculate by any form of numeric reckoning the moment-by-moment care and fidelity she tendered our family would be impossible. Yes, I know that she was paid to care for us, and that the notion of equality and reciprocity in an employer-servant relationship is inherently compromised. And I may get my ass kicked by those who think I am perpetuating the trope of the loyal housekeeper Uncle-Tomming her way to the unmarked grave. But Gee-Gee was not a caricature or a type; she was a very real and emotionally complicated person, who devoted a large amount of her time to raising an ungrateful and impertinent scalawag, the same one who now pauses to examine this relationship. I am reasonably sure Gee-Gee was as enriched, and occasionally appalled, by the experience of participating in our family as the rest of us were. And while our home may have been in some ways a replacement for her own, which was rent by racism and death, we did not take her for granted and we knew, even then, that her love was the real stuff that held our family together.

Gee-Gee and Sally Mann as a baby
Nanny and me: “Gee-Gee was not a caricature or a type; she was a very real and emotionally complicated person who devoted a large amount of her time to raising an ungrateful and impertinent scalawag.”
(Photo courtesy Sally Mann)

Gee-Gee had a problem with her feet, with finding shoes that didn’t hurt. I remember standing in the women’s shoe section of Leggett’s department store in Lexington, Virginia, and watching the tiny, hunchbacked saleswoman gaping up at my mother’s gestured descriptions of Gee-Gee’s feet. I’m guessing that my mother was doing this because she thought Gee-Gee might not feel comfortable shopping at Leggett’s, where Colored and White signs on the stairway pointed to bathrooms in opposite directions. I have imprinted in my knavish memory an image of the hunchback kneeling over the barbaric-looking foot measurer clamped to Gee-Gee’s metatarsal expanse, but this wasn’t likely to have actually happened for the reason just mentioned, and also because there was no point in Gee-Gee’s shopping, with her size 13 feet, in a ladies’ shoe department.

So, where did she get her shoes, ill-fitting though they were? Only now am I wondering about these things. What about those uniforms? Who bought them? My mother? Gee-Gee? And from where? Was washing and ironing the uniforms part of her noble washerwomanly chores? When? At night, or on Sunday? And how did she get something as simple as her groceries? She had no car; she worked for us six days a week from 8 in the morning until 8 at night and her house was on top of grocery-less Diamond Hill.

I remember an ancient wooden building on the way down Diamond Hill that had a few shelves of extortionately priced canned goods, but no real grocery store until the upper part of Main Street, almost a mile away. This small store, unironically named the White Front, had excellent meat, gave out S&H Green Stamps, and it also allowed its customers, even black people, to charge food and be billed at the end of the month. I know that Gee-Gee had an account and must have shopped there, but then what? Did she haul all her week’s groceries to the top of that hill in one of those woven metal carts the way I saw so many black women doing? But, wait; were stores even open on Sundays back then?

All these questions. The simplest, most elemental things.

During the day, she wore my father’s discarded shoes, razor-sliced to accommodate the corns on her toes. But she arrived at work with her feet painfully crammed into whatever golden lily shoes she had found, wherever on earth she found them. She yanked them off as soon as things quieted down in the mornings and it was just the two of us. After wiggling her toes to restore the feeling, she would sit down on the stepstool and gratefully sink her feet into my father’s laceless shoes, her stockinged toes protruding from the side slits.

Women wore stockings all the time then, even in the middle of the summer, and Gee-Gee would try to beat the heat by wearing hers rolled down to just above her knees instead of hooked to the dangling ends of a garter belt like my mother’s. She often wore my mother’s old silk stockings, whose gossamer runs enlarged into ladder-rungs as the day went on, the seams wobbling crazily. Stocking seams were a particular misery back then, but more for my mother than for Gee-Gee.

It was important for my mother’s seams to run straight up her legs, two apparently converging lines that had the unintended effect of guiding the eye to their dark vanishing point. When my mother was going to town, she would close the bedroom door and twist her head around to examine her seams in the mirror. Then, a ritual familiar to almost any well-off southern white child of the 1950s would play out: powdered, lavender-scented, as cool and white as Lot’s wife, my mother would emerge from her bedroom, grab up her purse and white gloves, and try to make her getaway.

Apparently both parties knew their roles in this drama, but to my observing eyes it seemed new each time it played out on the asphalt bib next to the black sedan beetled under the pine boughs.

“Mrs. Munger! Mrs. Munger!!” urgently issued from the slid-open kitchen windows.

My mother would stop, her expectant face belying the startled look she would try to put on it.

A beat.

“Mrs. Munger, you cannot go to town with your slip showing like that! And those seams! What would they think of me?”pullquote

For Gee-Gee, this was not a rhetorical question. She had reason for concern. Working for a Yankee, albeit one with a Dallas-born husband, was a problem for Gee-Gee, and my parents’ oddball, liberal, atheist, country-club-shunning ways further complicated the picture. Curiously, that my mother insisted on exceeding the normal pay scale for her help, five dollars a week in the ’40s when they first arrived in Lexington, was no comfort for Gee-Gee. The anonymous, threatening letters my mother received as a consequence of this profligacy and the talk around town brought Gee-Gee to the attention of the community, which was not a good thing. Any black person could tell you: the less noticeable you were, the better.

Gee-Gee learned the rules of living in white society early on, though she revealed little to us about her childhood. What we knew was this: She was born to the very young daughter of a former slave in a part of the county where freed slaves had settled, known to this day as Buck Hill. Although Gee-Gee’s mother was black, the man who raped her (or so it is logically presumed by her family) was white. It is likely that her mother died in childbirth because as an infant, Gee-Gee, born Virginia Cornelia Franklin, was brought to Lexington and raised by her mother’s sister, Mary Franklin.

In her late teens, Gee-Gee married Wesley Carter and bore him six children, the youngest of whom was 12 when my mother, new in town and eight months pregnant with her first child, saw her coming down the post office steps. Struck by the image of this powerful, proud, and composed woman, my mother described her to my father in detail at dinner that night. By a twist of fate that to the end of her life still delighted and amazed my mother, the next day she answered a knock at the door to find the unforgettable stranger again. Virginia Carter stood tall and confident on the threshold, wearing a tweed Peck and Peck suit with a velvet collar so worn it appeared to be suede. Her broad cheekbones bespoke some Indian blood, her light eyes and almost straight hair something unspeakable. She asked if my mother needed help and was hired on the spot.

Gee-Gee’s husband, Wesley McDowell Carter, worked as a presser in the laundry room of the nearby Virginia Military Institute. He had problems with alcohol, and more than once Gee-Gee came to work troubled, her face blotchy. One night in the back room of the store on Diamond Street he rose from the card table, headed down the basement stairs, and fell, breaking his neck. Apparently, no one noticed right away, and it was more than a day before Gee-Gee was taken to his body.

Left with six children and a public education system for which she paid taxes but which forbade classes for black children beyond the seventh grade, Gee-Gee managed somehow to send each of them to out-of-state boarding schools and, ultimately, to college.

How did a widowed black woman pay for the housing, the food, the travel, and the tuition to educate six children?

By working 12 hours a day and by taking in linens to iron at night, linens stuffed into white sacks crowding her front door when my father took her home after all day on her feet at our house. What did he think when he saw those bags? What were any of us thinking? Why did we never ask the questions? That’s the mystery of it — our blindness and our silence.

Saturday lunches were important to Gee-Gee, and she went all-out on the menu. With unlikely balletic grace, she lowered the silver serving dishes to our left, two passes at each meal, a third if biscuits were involved, which she always made when we had fried apples and bacon. The apples came from an old orchard above the house and were small, green ones, Pippin or Northern Spy, and difficult to peel. Difficult for me, that is, but not for Gee-Gee. She would sit on the stepstool, the large bowl of apples beside her on the chest freezer, and, with a paring knife, unfurl a spiral of continuous peel, the whitening apple rotating in her pink palm.

When she was done, catching up the loopy tangle of peels in her apron, she would dump them in the compost bucket and carry the apples to the counter by the stove. Sinking a wooden spoon into the bacon grease stored in a sawed-off tin can, she would put the skillet on the burner and start the biscuits. Assuming the warm top step of the stool she had vacated, I would watch her from behind as she rolled out the dough and twisted the rim of a jelly glass into it, trapping the circle of dough in it long enough for her to shake it out onto the cookie sheet.

As far as I could tell, Gee-Gee herself never ate anything, save occasionally when she checked the seasoning from a pot on the stove. Otherwise, the only thing I ever saw pass her lips was ice water from a tin measuring cup that sweated on the counter. Maybe it was a good thing that she never needed to eat, because when we traveled together, as we did for vacations on the Eastern Shore, she could not enter the restaurants. When we stopped to eat at the Howard Johnson’s, gratefully throwing open the doors of the hot car, Gee-Gee stayed behind.

Looking out from the big windows of the air-conditioned dining room, we could see her cooling herself with a First Baptist Church fan, Jesus’ white face serenely waving in the backseat. Emerging from the restaurant with a tin-foil-wrapped cheese sandwich for Gee-Gee, which she would demurely place in her lap, and a Dixie Cup of water, which she would drink, we would resume our trip as if this were perfectly normal.

It’s that obliviousness, the unexamined assumption, that so pains me now: Nothing about it seemed strange, nothing seemed wrong. I never wondered where she peed on the trips to visit my brothers and me at our boarding school in Vermont. Could she hold it until we crossed the Pennsylvania border and the restrooms were integrated? Did any of us, besides her, wonder about that, about what would happen if she just had to go? How could I not have thought it strange that Gee-Gee not only never ate anything but also never had to go, never even got out of the car? How could I not have wondered, not have asked?

My graduation in 1969 was held on a weekend in early June. My parents and Gee-Gee arrived Friday, and I could tell that Gee-Gee was not pleased with what she was seeing. The children of the wealthy were dressed like field hands, with dreadlocked hair and dirt between their toes. Gee-Gee glared at a black kid from my algebra class, and when he flashed the peace sign at her, his arm around a bell-bottom-wearing blond girl, she turned from him with a snort of disgust.

Oh, Gee-Gee, I thought despairingly: This is the future. Up here, we’re all one.

Gee-Gee was having none of it.

On graduation morning I was late getting to the dining hall for breakfast, and all the tables were gone. Benches for the graduates and chairs for the visitors had been arranged at the eastern end of the room, with a processional aisle in the middle. The hall appeared to be empty, but squinting against the sun I saw a lone figure substantially anchoring the first row of the audience seating. Staring straight ahead, white-gloved hands folded in her lap and her back not even touching the back of the chair, sat Gee-Gee, wearing a perfectly pressed linen dress. It was a pale yellow, and centered above her bun was a pillbox hat made of the same fabric. A necklace of white plastic orbs, resembling the South Sea pearls that you now see oppressing the thin collarbones of ladies who lunch, complemented Gee-Gee’s powerfully muscled neck. The skin swelled out above her too-small white pumps and her stockings had compression puckers where the toes were mashed in. No one had stocking seams anymore, but in every other respect she was as elegant and imposing as a dowager queen.

When my parents arrived, my father stood to the side while my mother, in a prim little hat, slipped into the seat next to Gee-Gee. Directly behind them sat Ethel Kennedy, wearing white patent-leather boots, her brood sprawling around her, their shirts unpressed and hanging out of their khakis.

My mother and father leaned toward each other occasionally to exchange some whispered observation, but Gee-Gee remained straight-backed, staring ahead. I knew the warning signs. Her distress, even her occasional anger, was always accompanied by an ineffable and profound sadness: always the pursed lips, the closing of the eyes, perhaps onto visions of injustice and outrage, and the slow, tired shaking of her head, usually accompanied by an “umnh, umnh,” which conveyed wordlessly the extremity of her disgust and sorrow.

Then it started, the eyes closing, the head slowly, almost imperceptibly moving from side to side. As if she could bear it no more, she reached out her immaculate white-gloved hand and with her forefinger tapped my mother on the arm.

The pillboxes came together and Gee-Gee put her lips to my mother’s ear, whispering indignantly: “Mrs. Kennedy is chewing GUM!

From the book Hold Sill by Sally Mann. Copyright © 2015 by Sally Mann, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved. Hold Still is a 2015 National Book Award finalist.

Hospice Girl Friday | ‘Discussing Your Advanced Medical Directive’

Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.

I knew the in-patient unit would be busy on Christmas so I signed on to take an extra shift. There were already five patients when I got there and a sixth was expected. Around noon, Holly Gold was rolled into the hospice accompanied by two of her daughters. One of them was fighting back tears and unable to respond when I said hello. The other introduced herself as Joanne, who told me she held power of attorney for her mother’s healthcare and that their mother needed pain relief immediately.

“She is suffering from heart failure and has been comfortable at home,” Joanne said. Her words came out quickly, probably powered by pent up anxiety. “Last night she took a bad turn and hasn’t stopped moaning and crying. She needs to be admitted. Is the doctor here?” Her eyes darted around as she looked for a medical professional. I don’t think my volunteer badge offered the kind of comfort she needed.

Many family members panic when they first arrive at the hospice because patients usually come here in some sort of physical distress. About half are already receiving hospice care at home so their family members are familiar with how it works, but Mrs. Gold and her daughters were new to hospice. The doctor had warned me that they were very concerned about their beloved mother. “The family is very close,” she had said, and she asked me to convey a calming confidence when they arrived.

“The doctor called right before you walked in,” I said to Joanne. “She wanted me to tell you she will be here within 30 minutes. In the meanwhile, we are going to get your mother settled. The nurses are in with her right now. I promise you, she’s in good hands.”

Joanne and her sister both thanked me, but I could tell Joanne was still nervous by the way she fired out questions. “Don’t we need two doctors to verify that my mother has less than six months to live? Do we have to wait until that happens to start treatment? Do you need a copy of my mother’s Advance Medical Directive? I have it here.” When she stopped to take a deep breath, I jumped in. I pointed toward the sofas with an arm outstretched to indicate we were going to walk in that direction.

“The doctor has already admitted your mother. I will take a copy of whatever paperwork you have, and someone from the hospice team will be here shortly to go through the rest of the admission process,” I said as I sat down on one of the sofas. Joanne and her sister followed my lead.

As we talked, several people walked into the hospice and came over to where we were sitting. Joanne introduced them as two more sisters and the patient’s nine grandchildren. She explained they were a very close family and had traveled from all over the States to be together over the winter holiday break. I went back to my desk to photocopy Joanna’s papers while she led a family meeting in the living room area. She explained that her mother left very specific instructions about the kind of medical treatments she did and did not want. Everyone nodded along as though they already knew about Mrs. Gold’s directive. Some of the grandchildren asked questions. Others offered comfort to their emotional family members. In spite of their grief, they were kind to each other the way I wish all of our patients’ families could be, the way I hope my brothers and I will be when our turn comes to deal with our parents.

Because most patients come to our hospice in crisis–that is the purpose our in-patient unit serves–they and their family members are often unprepared for the reality of end-of-life care. Whatever family dynamic exists continues to play out in the hospice. My friend Daisy says ‘As we are in one thing, we are in all things.’ I would agree and also add that crisis brings out who we really are, not who we hope we are or who we pretend to be. Which brings me back to me and my family.

After my friend Leslie died–in hospice, in crisis–I sat down with my parents and asked them if they had any plans for end-of-life care. We had never discussed the topic as a family, and I wanted to make sure they received the kind of treatment they wanted. More importantly, I wanted to make sure that my three brothers and I were not left to fight about the kind of healthcare our parents would or should receive if they were not able to speak for themselves. I assured my parents, who raised four strong-willed, very different children, that we would be together but we needed them to do us and themselves a big favor by taking the burden of such enormous decisions out of our hands. They understood because they have witnessed our many disagreements over the years.

I now have the same paperwork for my parents that Joanne Gold had for her mother. The forms articulate my parents wishes and put me in charge of carrying out those wishes if my parents can not. My brothers and I might not be as close as the Gold children and grandchildren, but we will be united on our parents’ side when the time comes for us to say goodbye to them.

Previous post: The Loner Next post: When a Child is Terminally Ill

Bonus: For more on end of life care from a physician’s perspective, see How Doctors Die from our March/April 2013 issue.

Hospice Girl Friday | Coming Home to Say Goodbye

Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.

Our volunteer supervisor sent out an urgent request on a Tuesday: ‘We have a rather unusual situation in the IPU tomorrow, and I’m looking for someone who can cover the 12-3 shift…we will receive a patient via air transport from Atlanta. He is from this area and his parents would like to have mechanical ventilation stopped closer to home.’

I could not recall a patient on a ventilator in the six years that I have been a volunteer so I did not know what to expect. I only knew that help was needed. I responded immediately:‘Yes, I am available.’

My supervisor sent more information: The patient was a 27-year-old man being treated for cancer. Chemotherapy paralyzed him and he was put on life-support. The family could not find a local hospital willing to admit him and eventually they were referred to our hospice.

On Friday mornings the inpatient unit is quiet with only a few staff taking care of patients and paperwork. When I arrived for my special Wednesday shift, there were additional nurses and higher-level administrators preparing for the arrival of the patient and his family. I saw small teams of people discussing and rehearsing the plan for the day, carefully reviewing checklists like pilots before a flight. The atmosphere was tense.

My supervisor was standing with the regularly scheduled volunteer at the front desk. I walked over, said hello and asked for an update.

“The plane is delayed,” she said. “We’re expecting the patient around 2 p.m. His father is traveling with him. His mother and siblings should be here any minute.”

“What is our role?” I asked, nodding my head toward the other volunteer.

“One of you will need to man the desk and help out with the rest of the patients,” she said. “The other might be called on to assist the family when they arrive. We’re not exactly sure what to expect.”

I was about to say ‘I’ll help with the family’ when I heard the other volunteer say it first. I was disappointed, as though I were now less important. I wanted to be a part of the experience, not a spectator, and then I remembered that the other patients needed support too.

Just as we finished our conversation, the front door opened and a woman and two teenage girls walked in. The woman was tall, slim, and looked like she was in her mid-40s. She walked up to the desk, smiled and said she was the patient’s mother. She then introduced her daughters and explained that two older sons were on their way from the college they attended together. She was calm and composed, as if she were checking in for a doctor’s appointment. I said hello as the other volunteer walked around the desk to greet them and offer a tour of the facility, which the mother accepted. Her daughters shuffled behind her.

A little after 2 p.m., the patient arrived. As he was wheeled in on a stretcher I was surprised to see that he was conscious and alert. I had to catch my breath as I registered that the decision to remove the ventilator might have been his.

I know the patients I see are terminal and have opted out of curative medicine and heroic measures. For them the dying process takes a natural course as the body shuts down, and hospice care keeps them comfortable during that time. While this young man was just as eligible for hospice care as anyone else, I was moved by his choice to remove his life support, and wondered how his parents—or any parents, for that matter—would cope with that decision.

Once I regained my composure I looked up and saw the patient’s father talking to the mother. He was older, heavier, and used a cane to walk. His sons must have slipped in quietly, because the patient’s four siblings were now sitting on the matching sofas, each pinned to a corner like they were trying to disappear into the cushions. The father broke away and went into the patient’s room. The mother sat down in a chair between the two sofas with her back to me.

“Okay so we’re here to say goodbye to Michael,” she said, scanning the sofas for a connection. No one looked up, but the younger girl started to cry. She hugged herself.

“I need you to be strong and remember we are a family. We will get through this together,” the mother continued as she looked from child to child. Still no eye contact. The crying turned into sobbing. The mother kept talking.

“No one wants Michael to suffer, right? This is his decision and we have to respect it. He is never going to get better, remember, he has cancer.” The sobbing continued as the girl covered her face with her hands. I walked over and placed a box of tissues next to her. The other three children sat as rigid as the furniture.

I hurried back to my desk to try to separate myself from their pain, but the girl’s sobbing was inescapable. I turned toward the nurses and other hospice staff and saw that we were all fighting back tears. None of us spoke while we listened to Michael’s mother try to console her children.

About 20 minutes later another volunteer came in to relieve me. I did not know when Michael’s procedure would begin, but I was grateful to be leaving before it did. (I learned that the ventilator was removed that evening; Michael passed away about 18 hours later.) I was surprised and disappointed that the situation and the family’s grief were too much for me to bear. I thought I was stronger and more able to step outside of my own emotions to help others deal with theirs.

I called my mother on my way home from the hospice. She’s always said that losing a child is every parent’s nightmare, and I wanted to tell her that even though I am not a parent, I finally understand what she means. She told me how precious life is and how lucky we are—my parents, brothers, and I are all alive and well (knock on wood). That day, just hearing my mom’s voice soothed me, as it always has. I hope Michael’s parents, brothers, and sisters find a way to comfort each other, too.

Previous post: Just Being There Next post: The Power of Listening

Bonus: For more on end of life care from a physician’s perspective, see How Doctors Die from our March/April 2013 issue.