Mother And Son


Things changed for me in boyhood, and I have often wondered why. Perhaps it was because I required and rewarded less of Mother’s attention. I must have become a difficult boy, and she hated to be rebuffed. “You learned to read,” she told me years later, “and you weren’t my boy any more. You lay on the floor reading a book, and I couldn’t get a word out of you.” Mother had no interest in books, and I had entered a new world in which she played no part.

Our changed relation was borne in on me one Christmas when I was nine years old. Christmas had been the grand day of my year. Of course I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, but still there was a mystery about the day: how was it that the big tree never appeared until after I had fallen asleep on Christmas Eve? Where did the marvelous presents come from that I found at four o’clock in the black morning when I ran out in pajamas to the living room? I used to play happily with the new toys before going back to bed. On my ninth Christmas there were few parcels beneath the tree and none of them contained things I had wanted: lead soldiers from Germany or a steam engine with a brass boiler. I opened the largest parcel and found a blue serge suit. Wearing suits was something I hated, especially if they were of cheap blue serge. I went back to bed rubbing my cold feet and muttering an oath that would have horrified Popsie: “Damn, God damn.”

You learned to read,” Mother told me years later, “and you weren’t my boy anymore. You lay on the floor reading a book, and I couldn’t get a word out of you.”

Years later Popsie explained that his income had been cut in half by the now-forgotten panic of 1907, when most of the Pittsburgh steel mills closed and his patients had stopped paying their bills. The bank had refused to make him a loan. But Mother, poor as she felt that year, might have found something that appealed to me more than a blue serge suit that she found on sale at Boggs & Buhl’s. Somehow she had lost a compelling interest in her only child.

POPSIE HADN’T changed, but I saw little of him except in the evening, when he read me a chapter of the Bible after I went to bed. I saw even less of Mother; she was sound asleep with Popsie when I went off to school. We had an underpaid servant, Ora Newton, and she gave me my meals, which, except for dinner, I ate alone. Mother seldom asked me where I had been or what I had done; in fact my free time was spent either reading or exploring vacant lots by myself. Bigger boys didn’t often pick on me, but still I had misadventures; sometimes I came home with scratched knees or a bloody nose. Mother no longer consoled me in her arms. In the Wallace Building, isolated as it was in a business area, I had no playmates after the janitor moved away with his two young daughters. I wandered at first through East Liberty, then farther afield, while living in an imaginary world peopled with Scottish clansmen and Robin Hood’s band.

I felt that my real life was in the country. We opened the farmhouse near Belsano in May after driving there in a buggy and spending two nights on the road. Popsie drove; that was his one physical accomplishment. In muddy places he knew exactly what our horse, old Donald, could do: ten paces and rest, ten paces and rest. I sat on Mother’s generous lap and felt close to her again. We sang old songs, a few of which I remember:

She saw the boat go round the bend, Good-by, my lover, good-by, All loaded up with traveling men, Good-by, my lover, good-by.

Popsie went back to Pittsburgh by rail; he would have to change trains twice. Mother bustled round the house and yard or drove off on some errand; she liked to talk to strangers on the road. Always she had some new project for making money (most of them ended on the debit side). For three years the project was raising chickens of special breeds. If I saw them today I could still recognize Silver-Spangled Hamburgs, Blue Andalusians (Mother’s favorites), Golden Bantams, Light Brahmas (with roosters weighing sixteen pounds), Langshans (feathered down to the toes), Minorcas, and Houdans. There were also guinea fowl, turkeys that laid their eggs in hemlock thickets, pigeons in the attic, and a flock of geese that sailed over the new telephone wires on their flight to Black Lick Creek. Obsessed with poultry, Mother paid little attention to cooking meals, and at times I would have gone hungry if it hadn’t been for pans of cold cornbread on the pantry shelves. At other times she would be seized with a rage for baking and would produce, in one day, never less than six or seven big pies (I can still taste them) or a huge wooden breadbox full of fragrant loaves. When she made jelly, there was usually enough to last for two years.