- Historic Sites
Mother And Son
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
She died in the Wallace Building, three stories of grimy yellow brick in the commercial center of the district known as East Liberty. Even late at night streetcars grumbled past two sides of the building. It had shops on the ground floor, some of them expensive, though even these had taken to changing owners. The upper stories contained a few cramped apartments, like ours, but were mostly occupied by music teachers—voice, piano, violin—and by a few unprosperous physicians who lived next to their offices. Every two or three years there was a fire in the building, but it was always brought under control. During one fire Mother stood shivering in the street beside my father and watched firemen playing their hoses on the roof.“Oh, doctor,” she said, “I forgot to empty the pan under the icebox. ” She emptied the pan next morning when they went back to the apartment and found it not much damaged except by smoke.
She had lived in the Wallace Building since it was spanking new and she was a bride. She died there in a little room lined ceiling-high with my father’s books, which she never opened, and dimly lighted by an air shaft. She died of a heart illness that had lasted, in its acute form, a little more than three weeks, although it went back to another attack two years before when, as always, she was spending the summer in the country. That first attack would have killed an ordinary woman, but Mother had brought herself through it by a pure determination to live. In her extreme pain she had sometimes moaned, “Mamma, Mamma,” as if begging forsolace from arms that had seldom embraced her. She asked to see a Catholic priest, for the first time in forty years. My father, who was a devoted Swedenborgian, nevertheless summoned a priest, and I think she was given absolution. From that day she slowly began to mend.
Though the nurture she offered him was haphazard, this distinguished writer recalls his mother and the frustrations of her life with loving generosity
Back in Pittsburgh she tried in vain to resume her usual life. She had always been a restless, energetic woman, bigboned, full-bosomed, and confident of the strength in her arms, but that strength couldn’t be restored. Her chief task in those last two years had been taking care of my father. Popsie, as I always called him, was a little round Santa Claus who by then was severely crippled with arthritis. Unable to make house calls, he had lost much of his practice as a homeopathic physician. Mother worried about food for the winter and kept herself too busy canning and preserving. In her last October she bought a bushel of late tomatoes at a special bargain and decided to make ketchup. Her final heart attack occurred while she was stirring the ketchup in a big kettle boiling on the gas range. Somehow she got it into jars before collapsing on her bed. Popsie had faith that she would recover and phoned to us in Connecticut reassuringly.
Meanwhile she tossed in her bed and worried about money. She quarreled with the nurses, partly, I think, because she didn’t know where the money was coming from to pay their wages. She was short of breath and insisted that the window be left open in my father’s waiting room. Popsie complained that his patients went away. Though never before a demanding person, Mother was a lot of trouble to others when she was dying—until the last three days, that is; then she became peaceful, breathed without pain, and slept all night. “I have good news for you,” Popsie told me in a letter that arrived the day before Thanksgiving. “Mother is getting better.” I think now that she had suddenly felt at ease because her body had resigned itself to death. This time she hadn’t moaned for her iron Mamma or asked for a priest. But neither had she sent me a last message, though I think she loved me better—after a long intermittence—than anyone else in the world. Even in those last years she would try to snatch a suitcase out of my hand when we were climbing stairs together. “You mustn’t strain yourself,” she would say. And now, for fear of causing me expense, of interfering with my work, she wouldn’t call me to her deathbed. When I arrived a day too late, Popsie told me that her face in death was calm and smooth, almost like that of a girl.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Ruth died of diphtheria when she was 33 nine years old and left an appalling vacancy in Mother’s life. Ruth had been affectionate, mostly obedient, always eager to help—everything I hadn’t been as a boy—and Mother could talk to her. Now that Ruth was gone, she instinctively looked to her son for consolation—or so I gather from her letters— but it was something I could not provide. I was living in New York, then in Paris for a time, and I had a wife whom Mother detested as a Greenwich Village type, irreligious and a bad housekeeper. She was polite to Peggy when they met, but for many years I saw Mother only during brief summer visits to the farmhouse.
One summer when I was eleven, there was a family crisis and Mother left me alone for a month. I could charge groceries but I hadn’t learned to cook.
Nervous energy kept driving Mother into new projects that might or might not earn a little money. One year she raised canaries. I found on a visit to the farmhouse that the big parlor was given over to a free-flying cloud of them. When I passed a window, it would suddenly be filled with canaries—fifty, a hundred, too many to count—all chirping for food with a great fluttering of yellow wings. The following summer they had disappeared. Mother had sold them all and for once had made a small profit on the venture, or so she said. Instead of raising canaries she was making quilts, with the help of Belsano housewives, and was visiting country auctions to collect music boxes and student lamps.
Even though she saw little of her son, I had once again become her hope for the future. I was then betraying the hope by living with Peggy in obstinate poverty. When there was a little money in Popsie’s bank account, she tried to raise my standing as a consumer by making me presents that she couldn’t afford. Once it was a secondhand Chevrolet coupe to replace my fourthhand Model T with a broken top. In a society that judged people by their automobiles, she couldn’t bear to think that a son of hers was driving a miserable jalopy. Another time it was a splendidly embroidered Chinese silk dressing gown. I wore it in the tumbledown house where Peggy and I were living, on Hardscrabble Hill, and I remember how my fingers, roughened by chopping firewood, would rasp the satin lining. The dressing gown was such a bargain that Mother bought a second one for Popsie. She couldn’t resist bargains, though it was seldom that she bought anything for herself.
Our relation changed again, and dramatically, after Peggy and I were divorced in 1931. Mother didn’t believe in divorce, but she was entranced by my new and final wife; here was someone beautiful and orderly in whom she could confide. When we gave her a grandson she was in raptures, and Popsie shared them. I had sent a happy telegram, and Popsie at once wrote Muriel a letter, one that we still cherish. It began:
My dear Daughter,
You have made us very happy by presenting us with a grandson. How we wish we could see him & you. We have been looking forward to this for so long & now our hopes are realized. We can put our thoughts on paper but not our feelings. Perhaps if I had Peter’s [Peter Blume’s] talent I might draw them or if I were a musician I might play or sing them. I am singing your praises inside of me now.
She now worried about the future, and with good reason. Once she wrote me: “Father is sitting opposite me reading the Bible—yesterday he was so wobbly on his feet and coughing so much and weak constitutionally as well as his knees. I shiver with fear how will we get through life now that he is breaking down. … This letter is just for you a heart to heart talk.” Early in 1931 Popsie had fainted and fallen; he never recovered full use of his legs and could no longer visit patients. Many of those who came to his office didn’t pay their bills, for Pittsburgh had been hit hard by the Depression. He wrote me, “I get tired of sending out bills with no returns.” Mother scrimped on food, and they struggled along.
A curious feature of those years is that my parents had rather more social life than before, especially in the little Swedenborgian community where their oddities had been accepted as lovabilities. Once or twice a week they went out to play contract bridge, and Mother was surprisingly good at it; she had a memory for cards. But their friends, once prosperous, had lost their money too; everyone in Pittsburgh had lost money. Popsie’s Uncle John, the only rich Cowley, was in the hospital at age eighty-four. “Uncle John lost heavily, $8000, in a building-and-loan failure—money tied up in closed banks. No sale for real estate. He says he never thought that in his old days he would be poor.… Our church here is in financial straits. We may have to close the day school as there is no money to pay teachers. The Lechners and Schoenbergers can hardly keep going. S. S. Lindsay,” once a millionaire, “lost heavily as he was a stockholder in the failed Bank of Pittsburgh and liable as such.” Nobody remained who could offer help.
Years later I realized I had not been a wholly undutiful son; I had merely been imperceptive and short of funds and busy with my own affairs.
After a few weeks of better food, Mother went back to Pittsburgh, much restored in health but not in strength. She never again trusted herself to drive the car. Popsie had grown increasingly feeble, and she had to give him his daily bath, since he couldn’t climb out of the tub. In some ways he had become her child. Once he fell in a hallway of the Wallace Building. When she tried to raise him to his feet, she fell in turn and cracked a collarbone; it was an episode they didn’t tell me about for months. The bone healed and Mother began thinking again about new schemes for making or saving money; preserving food was almost the only one she still had energy to carry out. Afterward I found her engagement ring with the stone missing; it must have been sold to pay the grocer. That was almost her last sacrifice. Of course, the very last was not calling me to her deathbed.
Shortly after the funeral I went back to my usual life, with each of its weeks divided between countryside and metropolis; nothing had changed in the routine. It took me a long time to realize how much I had been shaken by Mother’s death. I began to think of her story since girlhood as a tragedy of frustrated hopes and misdirected vitality, but also of uncalculating affection. Her last years were heroic in their fashion, but all her life she had a large human potential on which she was unable to draw because of circumstances. In spite of our failures to understand each other, we were closer in many ways than I had recognized. She had passed on to me much of herself besides the Hutmacher nose. She had given me some of her unspoken standards, such as keeping ones word, paying one s debts, not being wasteful, and doing honest work even if it went unpaid. She had also given me a practical sense of what things were worth—though I didn’t hunt for bargains—and a feeling of guilt when I failed, as often happened, to meet her standards. I wish she had given me more of her nervous energy and more of her instinctive kindness to waifs and strangers. For years I found it hard to write anything that might have wounded her deeply if she had been there to read it. I had never gone to her for solace in defeat, although I had vaguely felt —even during those years of neglect —that the solace was there for the asking. If I received some little honor, I found myself thinking, “This would have pleased Mother.” Without her imagined pleasure, the honor had no meaning.
It was forty years after her funeral that I wrote a poem called “Prayer on All Saints’ Day.” It began:
I went on to boast a little, for her benefit, and indeed I had achieved several of the modest aims she set for me. Then I detailed at greater length some of my lapses in sympathy, for herself and others: “it is what I haven’t done that tortures me at night.” At the end of the poem I said: