I was reminded that yesterday would be a melancholy Mother's Day when I telephoned Mom to say "Happy Mother's Day" and she didn't respond with her usual (and rather Oedipal-sounding) "Well, you made me a mother." Having been widowed last month for the second time, Mom was a little, but only a little, slow on the conversational uptake. By the time I picked her up for our luncheon at a suburban ale house we both like, she was as astringently opinionated as ever, especially on the recurring theme of All My Children.
All six of us, that is. A favorite pericope in the Gospel According to Mom is the story of how 26-year-old Kitty McGough shocked one of her friends by announcing that she was pregnant with No. 3 in the fourth year of her marriage. Mom's friend, a non-Catholic graduate of a progressive college, pointed out that population-control guidelines suggested an optimal family size of 2.2 kids. "I'd like to see the point-two," my mother replied.
There was more scandal in store: half a dozen children in a little over 11 years. Had my father not died in his late 30s, before No. 6's third birthday, there probably would have been more of us, putting the McGoughs within striking distance of the Donahues and Eglers, Pittsburgh Catholic clans big enough to field a softball team.
Reviving my mother's riff with her Planned Parenthood pal, I used to shock dorm-mates at my Waspy college by running down the roster. Sometimes I performed the ditty we taught No. 6, my sister Megan:
Michael, Kiki, Laurie
Then Matthew came along
Pop! All of a sudden,
Martin came along,
And this we thought was the end of the song, but ...
Pop! All of a sudden, Megan came along.
Did she ever. According to the folk genetics subscribed to by everyone in the family, Megan is the closest of all of us to being a clone of my mother--in looks, in irrepressibility, and (discounting for national trends in family size) in fecundity. After my stepfather died, Megan and two of her three kids, ages 5 and 16 months, decamped from Fairfax County, Va., to provide a few days of delight and discombobulation. No credentialed bereavement counselor could have done a better job. (Before we left for lunch. Mom showed me the card that came with Megan's Mother's Day flowers. It read: "It was the worst of times, and it was the worst of times.")
Megan loomed large in Mom's lunchtime conversation, a kind of State of the Motherhood speech addressed to My Son the Journalist. After inventorying all of her children's accomplishments, and a few derelictions, Mom pronounced herself generally satisfied. I know there are women my mother's age who lecture their grown children, all 2.2 of them, about Kosovo or gun control or the failure of the United States to pay its back U.N. dues. For me that would be adult-child abuse.
In his poem "My Mother," Pittsburgh's Ed Ochester writes:
My mother doesn't know
the name of the Secretary of State
but she knows that Diahann Carroll
is married to Vic Damone ...
For the record, my mother does know Madeleine Albright's name, just as she knows the names of some of the candidates in next week's county elections whose "litter-on-a-stick" campaign signs ruined our late-afternoon drive back to her house. She just doesn't think they're all that important, compared with her children, her grandchildren, her grief. Unprofessional as it might seem, her son the journalist agrees.