My mother, may she rest in peace, was born in 1920. Her early life was difficult and she was afforded few opportunities to broaden her horizons through travel or interacting with people of different cultures from far off lands. As a child, her world was centered around Saginaw, Michigan and the boundaries that constrained her meant that most of the people with whom she interacted were more similar to her than they were different.
When she was in her early thirties she traveled to New York City with some friends. They visited a nightclub that featured a floor show with beautiful women, except, unbeknownst to Mom, they weren’t women; it was a drag queen show. Mom had never heard nor dreamt of anything so exotic and foreign. Though she she was unaware of an underground world where men performed as women the dancers’ beauty impressed her.
It took me 56 years to realize it but despite her rather limited early horizons Mom was a great role model for cordiality. Mom had a very conservative, early Twentieth Century, Midwestern perspective on life but the rigid expectations concerning proper behavior that went part and parcel with her Catholic upbringing did not diminish her capacity to treat others with kindness and respect. Mom may have disagreed with a lot of things people did but she tried never to be disagreeable about it.
Mom and I did not see eye to eye on many things. She came of age during an era when behaviors were rigidly delineated, a time of right or wrong, acceptable or not, and variations in lifestyle were expected to remain hidden or kept in the closet. Today’s world is very different; we have far greater latitude in how we live our lives and things once considered socially unacceptable have literally become mainstream. The changes, as fantastic as many of them are, require adjustment on the part of we old folks who came up in a time when the rules were different.
One thing that doesn’t change is the value in looking at people as individuals who, though unlike us in some ways, are entitled to courtesy, respect and equality. Mom understood that. Mom lived that, and that basic, underlying expectation of civility, grace and acceptance may well have been the greatest thing my mom gave to me. Mom understood that having personal standards doesn’t entitle us to treat folks that don’t share or agree with those standards as less entitled to basic human decency; a simple concept I fear many people forget far too often.
I’ll try to remember your example all year, Mom. I miss you every day. Happy Mother’s Day, Betty Jean.