- Historic Sites
Mother And Son
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
As eldest daughter, Josephine must have had a dreadful girlhood after her mother enlisted her as the household slavey. She learned to sew, bake pies, launder white shirtwaists, and change diapers, but otherwise she wasn’t granted much education: five or six grades of a parochial school and a year at St. Mary’s Academy in Nauvoo, built with red bricks from the destroyed Mormon temple. The nuns taught her to write a fine, legible hand but not how to punctuate. At home Mamma didn’t allow her to have beaus, though later she hinted at a broken romance with a man who became a Quincy saloonkeeper. She had grown to be a handsome young woman with dark brown hair curled at the sides, gray eyes set wide apart, and classical features except for a Hutmacher nose that flared at the tip. She would never acquire social confidence, and I surmise that Mamma, by dint of scolding, had given her a sense of unworthiness.
After the younger daughters were married (except for Alma, or “Babe”) and the three older boys had started out in business, Josephine took the bold step of leaving home. In those days there weren’t many jobs for respectable women with not enough education to become schoolteachers. Mother came to Pittsburgh, I don’t know why, and found work as the only seamstress for a moderately busy dressmaker, “Young, Modiste.” She never told me how she met my father, though I conjecture that Miss Young was one of his patients. Mother was then thirty-three and desperately wanted to be married. Dr. William Cowley, of the same age, had found that he couldn’t get along without a wife. This common need overcame their vast difference in backgrounds, not to mention their physical disparity; Mother was four inches taller than Popsie. During forty years of marriage she was never to let herself be photographed standing beside him. (Come to think of it, she seldom appeared in the street beside him unless there was a fire in the Wallace Building; instead they went for buggy rides. Sitting down, Popsie was almost her height.)
Mother let herself be baptized into the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, though she never tried to understand its doctrines about the spiritual world. She was not accepted into the little Cowley clan. The Cowleys nourished memories of a time when the family had two housemaids and a coachman. After the mother was bedridden, she had the household silver brought to her each night and counted it from her pillow. Those of my father’s generation were intellectuals of a sort, though impoverished; they read books and talked about them. They discussed the mystical writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, some of which were then available only in Latin. They were awkward with their hands, and impractical, so that their friends, mostly other Swedenborgians, spoke of them as being a little queer. Looking down a little on Mother, as they did secretly, they still took advantage of her kindheartedness and her skill in practical matters.
(How did she keep the vow? I wondered in later years. Neither of my parents knew anything about birth control, and in fact my father regarded it as a sin against Divine Providence. For thirty-nine years of their married life they must have abstained from sex while sleeping in the same bed. That might help to explain why Mother embarked on so many crazy ventures as outlets for her energy. )
She was radiantly proud of her only child. She nursed me for sixteen months and weaned me with reluctance. I was paraded through East Liberty to the admiration of passersby—not so much for me, I suspect, as for my snow-white embroidered baby dresses. Mother was also proud of the skill in needlework that she had painfully acquired over the years. The index finger of her big right hand was covered with tiny pockmarks due to pushing needles through reluctant cloth. But the baby clothed in those embroidered dresses didn’t lack for attention as the months and years went on. Long before the time of paid baby-sitters, Mother enlisted a squad of volunteers, each of them proud to have charge of the little miracle that she persuaded them I was. Fifty years later some of the volunteers remembered examples of my early doings and sayings. “You were a mighty bright baby,” one of them said with a skeptical glance at what I had become. “Malcolm just missed being a genius,” my father said, “and I’m glad of that. Having a genius in the family is too much trouble.” But I was trouble enough and was made to feel that I was different from ordinary children, a center of the whole mysterious world.