Partners on the Journey

A life's allies can be more than family and friends

In late January I had the pleasure of celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday as we pulled away from Cozumel (all passengers accounted for, thank you very much). However you slice it, 80 years is an abundant life. Looking at the breadth of hers, it’s fascinating to see where she and society have been.

She tells me that when she was a little Baltimore girl, an older sister hoped to have a picnic in the backyard with her Unitarian youth group. Some of the kids in that group happened to be black, though, and my grandmother feared they would scandalize their 1940s neighbors. Less nuanced was the sign on the neighborhood pool: ”Gentiles Only.”

By midlife, the world was a much different place. Bigotry still existed, of course, but at least it was no longer respectable – unless you had sodomites in your sights. That really wasn’t any concern of my mom’s, though. She had her hands full with heterosexual dilemmas.

First, there was the family planning to tackle. There were two elements working against my practical mother’s general aversion to surprises, a trait I inherited. A condition my mother had to meet in order to marry my father was converting to Catholicism. Not a good fit when you’re hoping to keep control of your uterus. Then there was the fact that it was the 1950s and the mores of the day tended to favor men, to put it mildly. My father laid down the law when it came to birth control: There would be none. (Granted, she must’ve had some tricks up her sleeve in that she only had three children, as planned. Then again, if I was unplanned she probably wouldn’t tell me.)

That long-ago scenario helped push my mother into the Planned Parenthood camp, where she has since remained. The Catholic Church no longer receives her tithe, but Planned Parenthood can always count on a donation.

Second, she landed in the divorce landscape sweeping late-1970s America. Though she’d worked as a teacher, a real estate agent and in other professional capacities over the years, she found herself in a common conundrum of the time. She was newly divorced, in her 40s, and had no established credit of her own. She managed the household finances, but the credit was in Dad’s name, technically. There was one company who took pity on my poor mom, though: JC Penney. I can’t recall the last time I was in a JC Penney, but it remains a revered brand in the family lore, the only company willing to give my mother the benefit of the doubt when she was down.

On that birthday cruise, my mother got the best gift we could give her, which was our love, our attention, and our bonhomie. From segregated backyards and anti-Semitic swimming pools, here she was in 2012. Eighty years from where she began, the president – for whom she voted – is African-American. Her youngest, me, was joined by his legally wed husband. She definitely gives one the impression that, at 80, it’s so much easier to grasp what’s meaningful versus what’s just noise.

Another gift, of her own making, has been the recent headlines surrounding Planned Parenthood getting shafted by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and the American Family Association’s One Million Moms giving JC Penney grief for having the nerve to hire America’s sweetheart, Ellen DeGeneres, as spokesperson. Essentially, that’s the birthday card that reads, ”Congratulations on being on the right side of history.”

Add to that Shirley MacLaine’s upcoming appearance on Downton Abbey and it looks like 80 is going to be a banner year for Mom.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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