Mother And Son


I had the good fortune to be a neglected child, free as a weaned colt in an unfenced pasture. Of course, I had a few duties in the country. I took care of our two, by then, middle-aged horses, rounding them up in the back field and leading them to the barn for oats. I was supposed to keep the woodbox full of kindling, though often that was a forgotten chore. Usually after breakfast and sometimes without it, I disappeared for the day. I wandered alone in the woods, which seemed to embrace me and say, “You belong here, you are ours.” Sometimes I fished in the pool below the Red Mill Dam. I was shyly fascinated by the miller’s daughter, May Otto, who was my own age but had defter fingers. She would disentangle the knots that always got into my fishing line, and meanwhile I tried not to look at her bare skin through the holes in her faded calico dress.

May always went barefoot in summer, as I did too until mid-October. I wore nothing but a blue chambray shirt and a pair of bib overalls. If these last climbed too high on my legs, Mother let me charge another pair at the village store. She indulged me after a fashion, but she was too wrapped up in each new project to be much concerned with my wants.


One summer, when I was eleven, she was summoned to Pittsburgh by a family crisis and left me alone for a month. Of course I could charge staple groceries, the only ones carried at the store, but I hadn’t learned to cook. By the end of the month I had sores on my legs that were afterward diagnosed as symptoms of scurvy. They disappeared after we went back to the city and had Ora Newton to cook for us.

Mother would have liked to be proud of her only child, but in those days I was too unsocial and pigeon-toed to be displayed before the Pittsburgh ladies on the few occasions when she invited them for an afternoon tea. She was a little abashed by the ladies and was eager to impress them with her treasures. She would spend hours polishing the family silver and ironing the fine linen tablecloths she had strained her eyes to embroider. I shared distantly in the excitement until the ladies arrived; then I was banished to the bedroom, where I lay on the floor reading a book.

When I was twelve, Mother adopted a two-week-old baby, the child of a distant connection who had gotten into trouble. Mother was always kind to people in trouble, but this time she had a selfish motive too; she needed a baby to love. She took the pregnant young woman to our farmhouse and arranged with a hospital for her confinement; after that Ruth’s natural mother disappeared into the respectable world and the baby was Mother Josephine’s. She relived her early proud years of motherhood in her absorption with Ruth. I too came to love the little girl, though I rebelled against wheeling her through East Liberty in her baby carriage. Mother had little time for me. During three Pittsburgh winters she let me walk a mile to school without an overcoat or even a muffler. For the fourth winter she bought me a raincoat that she had found while shopping for bargains.

SHE WASN’T consistently indifferent to what I did. She bought a baby-grand piano—for me, she said and believed— then insisted on my taking music lessons, though my fingers were almost as short and stiff as Popsie’s. Later, when I played my first Beethoven sonatas with more brio than correctness, she would listen raptly. Warmed by her quite unwarranted admiration and feeling close to her again, I must have dreamed back to those mornings of early childhood when sometimes, if she had slept late, she let me climb into her warm bed. That there was still a bond between us was revealed even when we quarreled, more bitterly as time went on. We always quarreled as equals, almost as a married pair.

Were there other symptoms of the too-famous Oedipus complex? They would be hard to find. I never quarreled with Popsie, never felt him to be a rival, and always respected him for holding fast to his beliefs, including those I rejected. Instead of rebelling against him, I nodded my head and silently disregarded his advice. There were times when I wanted to protect him almost as if he were a tender child. Yet I also trusted in his fatherly affection, something that he found hard to express in words. Usually he let me have my way, as he also let Mother have hers, very often at the cost of his own wishes. He gave in to me once again during the spring of 1915, when I chose a college that was dominated, so he thought, by godless Unitarians. He hadn’t money enough for my Harvard tuition, small as it was in those days, but he agreed to help. For once I became enterprising and talked myself into a scholarship. Mother was unhappy but didn’t interpose a veto; she had Ruth to console her.