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A timely tribute to good mothers everywhere

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

"There are great societies that did not have the wheel, but there are no societies that did not tell stories.”

— Ursula K. LeGuin

It was a sweltering Saturday in LaPlace, Louisiana, located just north of New Orleans, where we lived for four years. Jeff, our son, was seven years old and our daughter, Risa, was six. On that humid afternoon, I parked the car in the Cub Scout leader’s driveway. While waiting for Jeff, Risa and I watched Spanish moss swaying from nearby trees.

Soon, the scouts stampeded toward cars on the driveway. What kind of strange craft had they learned? The boys wore dangling earrings. Whoa! I discovered they were lizards with mouths clamped onto earlobes. You can’t believe how fast I can lock a car door and raise a car window. Jeff wanted to take the lizards home. I refused, so he set them free. The next year, we returned to West Virginia, where I continued to learn lessons about motherhood.

I learned how to put drops into the diseased eyes of a tiny turtle. Despite my efforts, Tobias gave up the ghost while Jeff and Risa were in school. I tossed it in the garbage can. When they arrived home, they wanted to know the whereabouts of Tobias. Confessing he had been trashed, I retrieved Tobias and wiped away coffee grounds. We gave Tobias a proper burial.

A few months later, I decided it was time to enrich their lives with culture. I began with Jeff, and here’s the story.

“But, Mom, she spits pistachio nuts in my face when she talks,” said our 8-year-old Jeff, prancing around the living room wearing a face of agony.

“That’s all right, son. Turn your head. You’re learning how to use pastels and paint with oils. There’s not a better art teacher-artist in the entire state.”

Grudgingly, he slumped toward the car. A short time later, we stood on the front porch of the artist’s home. Several authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, have delineated characters as pure art, almost to the exclusion of being human. Our son’s teacher was like that, and so were her daughters.

Stepping into the entry hall, we saw in the cavernous living room several sheet-covered sculptures. Some were works in progress; they had no sheets. The whole place looked as if the residents were preparing to go abroad for a year or two. Opera music played in the background, and I could hear one of the daughters in the kitchen humming along. Paintings leaned against furniture or hung on white walls. Paintings in progress rested on easels. Somewhere among all this pure art was our son’s half-finished pastel.

I asked about his painting, and he said nothing, just glared straight ahead. In time, the teacher presented me with Jeff’s pastel, which depicted a couple of tree limbs with dangling autumn leaves. A mellow moon glowed against a background of cocoa tan. It was beautiful. Later, we found an old frame at a garage sale. The painting still hangs on a wall in our home.

Since my Grandfather Wood was an artist, among other things, I could see Jeff had inherited the gift. He could draw a car in exact proportions before he learned to read, so I wasn’t about to give up on art lessons. In the next year, I enrolled Jeff and Risa in art classes at Sunrise. Risa told me later Jeff had spent each session running along the tabletops with a doctor’s son. His sister declares he continued that kind behavior during his college years, but they’re both certainly successful today. Risa learned a great deal at Sunrise. Anyone who’s had both boys and girls knows the differences go deeper than anatomy. I let the sun set on art lessons after Sunrise.

Perhaps it was my unvoiced wish years earlier to take piano lessons that led me astray. We bought a piano and enrolled Risa in piano lessons. Now in the evening of my life, I think she must have felt the way I did about Hawaiian guitar lessons I was forced to take. Her second teacher was a man who had little patience. Risa gave up piano lessons, and as she says today, “I took up running and never looked back.” Jeff and Risa have stories to tell, but as a writing mother, I get the pleasure of embarrassing them and telling their stories.

Here’s what I’ve learned about motherhood. A woman can give birth and never be a mother. A woman can be a mother and never give birth or officially adopt a child. Motherhood is defined by what a good mother does. She is like the Energizer bunny. She sits up all night with her sick child until pale gray dawn arrives. She then goes to work inside or outside the home.

A good mother fills the roles of prayer warrior, psychiatrist, doctor, nurse, teacher, disciplinarian, cook, accountant, maid, veterinarian, gardener, housekeeper, cleaner-upper, cheerleader and countless other roles.

Here, then, is my tribute to all good mothers. Remember this. The day finally arrives when your children become adults, saying thank you and please and it’s nice to meet you. The day comes when they find good mates and have children of their own. A good mother knows her children have been her greatest accomplishments in life. Jeff and Risa are my greatest accomplishments, along with help from their loving father.

A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including “The Confident Writer,” a grammar-based college textbook.

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