My mother was known for writing about the philosophy of mothering. So, of course, I never read her work on that subject. In fact, raised by two philosophers, my sister Lizza and I avoided reading any philosophy at all.
Those of you who are expecting a careful exposition of the relationship of her philosophical theories to her actual practice of mothering will be disappointed. But if you have read her work, I am sure this will all fit. Here is what she taught us. She taught us what matters.
Be thoughtful about what you do, and the actions you take or don’t take.
Be prepared to explain and defend your position on any issue
We lived in a messy apartment but there was no room for sloppy thinking. One example:
I was in High School when draft registration was reinstituted. Instinctively, I wanted to resist the new law by simply ignoring it. While any decision I made would have been acceptable, a simple and unreflective disregard was not. She wanted – indeed insisted – that I think carefully about my decision. This included learning about the choices people made during the Vietnam war. Although this was maddening to an impatient high school student, it was the way she taught us to make every important decision of our lives.
She taught us that work matters.
That work and life are intertwined.
That everyone deserves meaningful work and all work deserves respect.
For her, important work included:
Cooking dinner from scratch every night and then returning to her writing and editing.
Mediating sibling fights and organizing against wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan
Paying careful attention to our school work and engaging with a wide network of students and academic colleagues
But academic work could not be disconnected from real world injustices
In one of her essays, she wrote that she was troubled by “academic professionals who would let war continue, certainly let racism and poverty flourish, if to resist would require that they relinquish their cleverness, training, or pet preoccupations.”
She told us about running through the halls of the New School, up and down the stairs from floor to floor, yelling for students to walk out of class in protest against the invasion of Cambodia. To some children, the story of a parent – a teacher – disrupting the school where she taught might have seemed unusual or confusing, but in our family it made perfect sense.
She also taught us that people matter
Attend carefully to those you love, your family and friends.
Be rigorous and demanding of yourself
Be generous and empathetic with others.
She had an incredible generosity of spirit – whenever we uttered quick judgments or criticism of others, she was quick to challenge us.
Ideas matter, work matters, and people matter. Other stuff, not so much.
She was oblivious to fashion, pop culture, the latest fad, the most recent trend, the conventional trappings of status and success.
She had a taste for luxury, though: the luxury of time spent in long conversation or deep reflection, a full life in lower Manhattan, extensive travel, and generosity to a wide range of people and causes. Those were her luxuries.
She was also full of quirks. She would wander in and out of the room, still talking quietly, in the middle of a conversation. During the 1986 World Series, she ran out of the room whenever the Red Sox came to bat, because she was nervous for the Mets.
She had a great appreciation for friends with a sense of humor, but never got jokes. On watching Monty Python she would turn to us and ask “what was the joke?”
We grew up with – as you would expect – the songs of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Spanish Civil War – but also learned the fight songs of Ohio State and the rest of the Big 10.
She loved reading mysteries, but skipped first to the end to find out what happened.
Finally, I can’t talk about my mother without also talking about my father, and their relationship of more than 50 years. Theirs was the most impressive and devoted partnership I have ever seen. My parents’ ongoing and evolving negotiations as two people deeply in love with each other, deeply in love with their work, and deeply committed to caring for two children, their family, their friends and the world – serve as an example for all of us.
When I couldn’t figure out how to end these remarks, I went back to my mother’s essay in Between Women about Virginia Woolf. My mother finished with these words about Woolf. She wrote “I will not end in a somber tone; for one, Woolf herself would have abominated such a heavy note. Twenty days before her death, Woolf wrote: I insist upon spending this time to best advantage. I will go down with my colors flying.”
It is the flying colors I will look for in my changing encounters with this remarkable woman.