Today the topic is Mother’s Day

Mom, shortly before she retired at 67.

Sometimes I struggle for a blog topic…

And sometimes I have too many.

That’s where I am today. Then I realized Mother’s Day really is “just around the corner,” so here I am. And here’s the truth: I have a love/hate thing going with Mother’s Day.

On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful that we stop, take a breath, and think about the impact of all the mothers in our lives. Not just my mom (whom I described at her memorial service as a “great dame”), but also my grandmother, who taught me so much about making room at the table (literally and figuratively) and my mother-in-law, who taught in a rural elementary school to pay her way through the University of Georgia during the Depression.

On the other hand, I think the Hallmark-card, gift-giving, Sunday-brunch side of Mother’s Day can be exhausting, expensive and — yes, I’ll say it — stressful. It’s about expectations, of course, and I’m as guilty as anyone. There were so many years when I was working and hosting a family dinner, buying presents, sending cards, and admittedly also being “feted” by my own kids (the free breakfasts at MacDonald’s really were the best!).

Later, when my kids were away at school and then off launching their adult lives in other cities, a friend expressed regret that they “would not be home for Mother’s Day.” That gave me pause; was she serious? Was it a “coming home” kind of holiday or a “don’t-forget-to-call-Mom-Sunday.” I vote for the latter. Let’s not get crazy about this. (As a mother, I was pretty proud of the fact that my son and daughter were out there succeeding on their own in the world.)

One of the really great things about my mom was that she was more than happy to dial back expectations. I took this lesson to heart. She understood how tough and “unnecessary” (one of her favorite words) some of this “fussing” could be.

Mom had a demanding career running a major department in a hospital. She was very, very good at what she did. She took her responsibilities seriously and often worked weekends and holidays. And she did it starting in the early sixties, when most women did not work outside the home. My dad always backed her up, but I think it was often a somewhat lonely stance. It took years for her friends and family to really understand and appreciate her professionalism. Mom, Dad and I learned years ago how to “bend” a celebration around other circumstances.

Celebrating the mother, not the day

I offered a glimpse into my mom, here, where I talked about her example of a lifelong friendship, and now you know a little about her career. Mom’s experience as a working woman was a huge support to me throughout my working life. She understood the ying and yang between family and work. She understood the pride in a job well done and the flip side, when you were having a truly horrible day.

One of my favorite memories of my mother’s work advice came on just such a day for me. I cannot even remember all that was going wrong, just that my day was totally off the rails and she happened to call me. I was pretty abrupt about what a bad day I was having and she sympathized.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, then added, “Maybe you could just crawl under your desk and hide for awhile.”

Looong pause.

We both burst out laughing, and suddenly I had my perspective back. A little Mom wisdom, a little Mom humor, then get back up, put one foot in front of the other, and move on.

I’ve remembered that afternoon call so many times since, especially the laugh that followed. It still makes me smile. Thanks, Mom.

Wishing you a wonderful Mother’s Day and a few quiet moments to remember the mothers in your life.

See you next time.

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Nancy Drew, Louisa Adams & other smart women

Do you ever have one of those times when disparate things start strangely fitting together in the larger scheme? I’m having a week like that, with amazing women stepping out of the shadows to challenge my thinking.

On the first Wednesday in May the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn, Illinois, branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) holds its annual used book sale. This is a fund-raising tradition more than 50 years old that supports national fellowships and local scholarships for women. It’s also a true labor of love for the women (and men) who have now spent decades collecting, sorting and storing used books every year in anticipation of the sale, then unpacking and arranging the books at the Glen Ellyn Civic Center for the sale itself.

So, this is the week.

Despite endless box-schlepping, aching backs, associated and inevitable dust, long hours, and often tedious sorting into various broad categories, many if not most of us are happy to dig in. It’s for a cause we deeply believe in, we get to catch up with friends we may not often see, and perhaps even make a few new ones. And, we haven’t found a better fundraiser! We know how to do this, and after 50 years we’re pretty good at it. Book lovers and bargain-hunters know to look for this sale.

Most important, we have met and talked with the women these proceeds help. This is real empowerment.

And then there is Nancy Drew.

Volume One of the beloved girl detective series, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” was published 87 years ago on April 28, 1930, using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The books, ghostwritten by Mildred Wirt Benson and later revised by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, were “the Depression-era Pokemon cards” says Theodore Johnson in a celebratory essay on the The Mary Sue. “They were collected, traded, bought and sold on both secondary and tertiary markets to the point where any kid, even those who couldn’t afford new books, would very likely get to read every adventure starring their favorite character within a reasonable interval.”

But more important was what the books showed readers that girls could do. As Johnson points out, “Nancy gets into fights, drives a car, packs a gun and relies on herself to get out of tough situations. She is mechanically inclined and at the same time doesn’t act like most people in the 1930s would have expected a teenage girl to act.” Nancy Drew’s heroics were just as important to my friends and I reading in the 50’s and 60’s as they were to the first readers in the 30’s. I’m sure I never realized what a great character/role model she was; I just liked the books.

I encourage you to read Johnson’s essay, here to appreciate his complete examination of the series — including its relationship to subsequent fiction. If you haven’t read Nancy Drew, what are you waiting for? And if you have, you can go back and reread one for fun. That’s what I’m doing.

But wait, there’s more.

I was connected with yet one more really interesting woman this week.

I love to cruise the Recommended, New Releases and New in Paperback shelves and tables in bookstores. I always find something interesting, sometimes a title I have been looking for or an author I especially enjoy. Louisa by Louisa Thomas looked interesting, but I had not heard about it before. Well, it was a great find!

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was the the daughter of an American businessman living in London and his English-born wife; Louisa became the wife of John Quincy Adams and daughter-in-law of John and Abigail Adams. After spending the Revolutionary years in France (her father was not especially welcome in British circles during that time), the family returned to London where she met John Quincy, who by then was on a diplomatic mission for the U.S. President.

Though their life, which initially took them to Berlin, Prussia and the court of St. Petersburg, sounds glamorous, it was also outright dangerous and remarkably lonely. She spent years separated from her young sons and her family. The newly established United States was trying to establish its foreign credentials. Louisa and John Quincy were not necessarily welcomed with open arms. If anything, Louisa’s British background and her years in France gave her easier entree into palaces than did John Quincy’s pedigree.

But that’s just the start of the story.

Louisa led a remarkable and challenging life, including a heart-stopping journey from St. Petersburg to Paris to meet her husband and, later, guiding his election as the 6th President of the United States in a “campaign” so remotely different from current politics you will be wondering if it was really in America.

So yes, I am a history geek. And yes, I love biography. But Louisa has the added perk of being a biography of a strong woman who witnessed and played a leading role in the formative years of our country. Win! Win! Win!

And this has been my week. Smart, resourceful women paving the way for more smart, resourceful women.

How’s your week going?

See you next time!