My Mother’s Birthday, October 29: In Thanks for Everything She Taught Me and All She Inspired in Me


What can one say about a birthday that coincides with a day of National Disaster?  There were surely children born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, and I know of children born on September 11, 2001 (and people who got married that day also).  But my mother Alice Eugenie was born in Dallas, Texas, on October 29, which in 1929 was known as “Black Tuesday”.  Oddly enough, through the vicissitudes of the family trust funds, stocks and their value have played a large role in her life ever after, but I’m sure that was only coincidence.  Because parenthood and family are complex issues in the modern world, I just want to thank my mother for the good things I associate with her in my life, to wish her a Happy Birthday, on the 82nd Anniversary of the Stock Market Crash, and her life:

(1)   My mother taught me to pray, and to be proud of doing so. The earliest religious lesson I can recall, other than showing me how to pray at night before bed, was that she taught me to recite the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, Le Chanson de Marie, in both English and French.  She taught me that the Magnificat was the essential story of motherhood and its importance in the world.  “My soul doth Magnify the Lord, and my Spirit hath Rejoiced in the Strength of My Salvation.  And behold from henceforth, all generations shall call me Blessed.”  My mother gave me the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer and made sure I studied it from earliest age onwards.  She told me that ours was “the one true Church.”  (Her mother, my grandmother Helen, accused my mother of being something of a “Pharisee”—“Churchy”, she said, but today is a day to celebrate the fact that, unlike most people in the modern world, my mother made sure that I had only one religious affiliation in my life and that I stuck to it, and I think of her every time I go to Church, and during at least half the hymns and prayers of every Eucharist, Morning, and Evening Prayer, and Compline whenever they have it—although in my recent life that would be only at the Christ Church Cathedral on Burrard Street in Vancouver in the Archdiocese of the New Westminster).  My mother also introduced me to the Prophecies of Isaiah, and taught me the importance of that greatest of all the teachers of the Hebrew Bible, foretelling of the coming of the Messiah.

(2)   My mother taught me cultural heritage, especially music, starting with songs about Robin Hood, and an old book with line drawings in which the Ballads of Robin Hood were collected.  In regard to Robin Hood, she taught me at a very early age to look to distinguish history from mythology.  She also taught me the importance of cultural memory, although she called it “the racial subconscious.”  She taught me about Jungian Archetypes and Musical Leitmotives.  She encouraged me to sing, and started me on the piano and violin, but sadly I did inherited neither her perfect pitch nor her long and nimble fingers (instead I got my father’s stubby and rather crooked fingers).  I am fairly musically talented and aware compared to most, but I was tone-deaf compared to my mother.   She tried to teach me to sight sing from sheet music, but this I was never able to do.

(3)  In connexion with music, she taught me a love of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Henry Purcell, Madrigals, Motets, and Richard Wagner, although not necessarily in that order.  Now everyone in my family loved Wagner, especially my Aunt Mildred whose old house with high ceilings, chandeliers, and plaster moldings always seemed to echo with old mono-recordings of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, but my mother and Mildred were extremely close.  My mother’s devotion to all things musical was much more intense and academic.

(4)  My mother taught me to love books and all things academic, especially maps and poetry (I realize that’s an odd pairing).  After the Book of Common Prayer and the Ballads of Robin Hood, the next most important book or series of books I remember her giving me were the Shepherd’s Historical Atlas, the Oxford World Atlas, and several other map collections.  In the same vein she introduced me to Ptolemy’s Geography, to ancient Maps and Memories both of Atlantis and of Primordial Chaos, and to Aristotle’s and Plato’s view of the world, and how Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas helped merged Pagan Philosophy and Christian Faith.

(5)   And then she made sure I learned our mythic history, King Arthur and Boadicea, and Caractacus, and made sure that I learned the more conventional Kings of England and to “quote the Fights Historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical.”  I loved to study English history and literature with my mother.  It seems our time together on such things was mostly limited to her telling me what to read and giving me books, but she did a lot of that: I had read all of T.S. Eliot from Murder in the Cathedral to J. Alfred Prufrock, the Four Quartets, and the Wasteland by the time I was 11, plus the Cantos of Ezra Pound.  My mother took particular care that I know the story of St. Thomas a Becket and why his Martyrdom at Canterbury was so important to the English people.  And yes, my mother, together with her father my grandfather, who was normally a fairly distant figure, made sure that I knew all the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan by memory, pretty much also by the time I was 11 or 12.

(6)   I wish I could say that my mother and I had had a great many good times together, but I will just say that one of the best times we had in my life was when she was criticizing and editing my doctoral dissertation: I would send her draft chapters and she would read them and severely comment on my semantics and grammar.  She was much harder on me than any member of my actual dissertation committee at Harvard, and for that I will always be eternally grateful.  I also remember fondly the beautiful green dress she wore to my graduation—she looked like Queen Elizabeth II, only better.

(7)   So on her birthday, I celebrate and give thanks to my mother for all she gave me.  I know I am only listing a few of the intellectual things I took from her, my first and greatest teacher.  In this little birthday essay I will dwell on nothing but the positive, except to say that many things have intervened, and not all of family life is harmonious.  My mother has great faith in the large corporate banking institutions which I have come to despise, and this has been a source of some significant tension between us over the years.   Could her love of banks and “corporate trusts” have anything to do with her birthdate?  The relationship between character and astrology is in my view pretty much totally mythical, but it is hard to say that the influence of the historical context of our births is not real.  

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