Bittersweet Mother’s Day memories

Detail from O. Louis Guglielmi, the River, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago

My mom isn’t the hippest person in America. Last week, for example, she asked me who Aretha Franklin is. But just to clarify, we could have had the same conversation in 1985, and we probably did: Mom is 85, and she still regularly calls me about the latest goings-on between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.

Though she may not be the hippest person, she is among the most righteous. On my ride home from the train I remembered one of many episodes in which she was ahead of her time. For reasons I will explain, that memory is bittersweet.

My mom worked as a teacher when my parents got married. Like many women of her generation and before, she left the workforce when my sister and I arrived. But the cohort of moms just after her made different choices. One consequence was that women such as my mom often had greater trouble returning. By the late 1970s, she found herself a single mom, working to make ends meet as a part-time teacher for our local schools. She taught children living with serious health needs, many of whom were bedridden or hospitalized.

She tutored one young man with cancer for several years. At some point the district decided, in the cruelly-stupid ways of that era, that it no longer made sense to pay for his tutoring because his condition was deemed terminal. They told my mom to inform the family of this fact.

She never said a word to them. She just kept going to the hospital, doing his lessons unpaid. She tutored him for months until he passed away. She needed the money, too. But she wasn’t about to abandon that child or add to his family’s pain. The family never knew she had done that.

Mom and I squabbled during my teen years. She was lonely and sad, mourning the loss of her marriage, upended by the loss of her livelihood in a way the 15-year-old me couldn’t fathom. I moved for the last two years of high school with my dad. She never said a cross word to me about that, though I knew how much it hurt. We’ve had only one or two short specific conversations about it in the decades since.

That move was good for me, and it produced a sweet period of my life. But I will always regret it. It still pains me to ponder on Mother’s Day, all these years on. I suspect it always will.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.