Lessons from Childhood:
A Mother’s Day Remembrance
It’s been said that we remember what we remember because it’s important to us today. As we approach both Mother’s Day and the fifth anniversary of my mom’s death, three memories arise from my early years, each with a critical life lesson for today:
1. Racism is a sin: I am around 10 years old, looking outside the front window of our home on a quiet street in The Bronx. I notice a boy, probably 4 or 5 years older than me, looking a little too suspiciously at my bicycle, which is lying on the sidewalk. He is of a different race, and I yell to my mom that someone is trying to steal my bike. I use a racial epithet to describe that someone. Enter Mom, who takes me aside and explains, gently but firmly, that it is wrong to use those words. In fact, she tells me that it is just as wrong to use those words as it is for someone to steal a bike. I don’t know if that was the first time I used a racial epithet, but I do know it was the last.
2. It’s OK to be an introspective introvert; Carl Jung said so. OK, I’m making up the part about Carl Jung saying so. And that word introspective probably wasn’t spoken. But introvert was, in comparison with its opposite, extravert, both of which Mom carefully explained to me. I’m thinking this probably took place when I was 13 as Jung died that year. I imagine there were articles in the newspapers about his death and references to one of his many gifts to the world, the understanding that there are different personality styles, each with its own perspective on the world. Mom was telling me, in her kindly way, that it is OK to be an introvert and that spending time in my room reading books or sorting and categorizing baseball cards rather than socializing was perfectly OK. And that learning is an exciting and valuable way to spend one’s life.
3. I am maybe 8, lying in bed. Mom is sitting on the bed reading a poem to me. It is “Abou Ben Adhem,” by James Leigh Hunt. You know the story: A man is awakened one night and notices, in the corner of the room, an angel writing in a large golden book. He asks the angel what he is writing, and he replies, “The names of those who love the Lord.” The man then asks, “Is mine one?,” and the angel responds in the negative. Undaunted, the man replies, “Then write me as one who loves his fellow man.” The next night the angel reappears and shows the man the list of “the names God has blessed,” and there at the top was his. I learned that the path to God is through love of our fellow men and women. It is much less about doctrines and laws, and much more about how we treat each other, whoever that ‘other’ is.
Each of these memories occurred before the tumult of the ’60s descended upon America and the Brock home. The cultural upheavals of those years hit many families hard. Some families adjusted to the changes well; others retreated to rigid belief systems, negative stereotypes, and demonization of the supposed enemy. Our family took the latter course, and when Dad died at the close of that decade, leaving Mom with six children still living at home, the retreat intensified. When fear overwhelms us, we are tempted to look for others to blame, and those others are always available.
Yet those three memories remain, and I will always hold Mom close in my heart for the lessons she taught me during those years before everything changed. I can’t say I’ve always lived up to them; I too fell victim to a cultural “hardening of the categories” for more years than I care to admit. But I have those memories, those life lessons, to fall back on whenever life takes a wrong turn. They are part of the lasting legacy of a mom who accepted me for the young person that I was and let me become the person that I am, warts and all.
Happy Mother’s Day.