In late April 2023, I was invited to participate in a production of Listen to Your Mother, a national series of live readings by local writers in celebration of Mother’s Day, created by blogger Ann Imig. The following is the transcript of the story I told.
I would like to tell you a story about how I met my seven mothers. This is not a story about a family of sister wives. Nor is it a fairytale about a philandering father and seven evil stepmothers. Each of these might be an entertaining story. But they are not my story.
My story, the story of how I met my seven mothers, begins on a particular day just a few weeks after I turned one. That means I don’t have first-hand memories of this day. What details I know are from the stories I’ve been told and the story I would later read, over and over, in a now yellowed clipping from the next day’s newspaper. The headline was just three words:
Local Dentist Drowns.
Life can change in an instant. My mom, the first mother in my story, was now a young widow. A single parent with a one-year-old and a six-year-old, my sister Sammie. My mother’s name was Annabelle. Every person should be loved by a mom like mine. Her capacity to love was seemingly endless, extending well beyond our nuclear family to our extended family, and a great circle of friends. When mom died a couple of years ago, and we were going through her things, we found her prayer list. There were literally hundreds of people on it and she prayed for each of them every day.
While my mother’s love was endless, her time and attention would soon be spread quite thin. That’s when the other women in my life stepped in. My sister Sammie would be the first to do so. That’s what big sisters do when needed, isn’t it? They love and care for their little brothers or sisters. Great practice for loving their own kids they may have some day. When Sammie did have her own children, they were all boys. Four of them. I would like to think that loving and caring for me helped prepare her to love and care for her own sons. My sister Sammie was #boymom long before there were hashtags.
When I was three, there came another plot twist in my story. Not a sad one; but one nearly as dramatic and sudden. My mom married again. This time to a widower with five, yes five, daughters. Overnight, I became the little brother to not just one big sister, but to a total of six.
A new husband and an instantly expanded family gave her a lot of people to love. And, with that new marriage, my mother also became a pastor’s wife, gaining an entire congregation to care for. I think the only time my mom sat down was during our church services. I loved sitting next to her, playing with the rings on her fingers and taking in the soft scent of the White Shoulders perfume she wore.
You’ve met the first two mothers in my life. Now let me introduce you to the other five. My sister Jeannie was the eldest of my new sisters. She was already a young mom when our families blended. When I spent time with Jeannie, she treated me like one of her own. To be frank, I was a little bit afraid of Jeannie. Actually, I still am. Jeannie doesn’t mince words or pull punches. From Jeannie, I learned about tough love and that actions have consequences.
Cathy comes next. What struck me first about my big sister Cathy was her beauty. All my sisters are beautiful; but Cathy has a beauty you just couldn’t look away from. Cathy has an Ali McGraw quality about her. We had, in our house, a figurine with the likenesses of Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal. You could wind it up and it would tinker out the haunting theme from the movie Love Story.
Where do I begin, to tell the story of how great a love can be?
Next in line is Patricia. The one blonde among a bevy of brunettes. My sister Patricia is an amazing baker. Her yellow cake with butternut frosting was a family favorite. We shared a birthday month and often a birthday cake. As I think back, I’m pretty sure she made our birthday cakes herself.
Then, there is sweet Mary Ann. You know how parents are never to confess that they have a favorite child? Well, apparently my stepfather didn’t get that memo because he would freely admit, even in the presence of the rest of us, that Mary Ann was his favorite. She was our church pianist. My most fond memories of Mary Ann are of sitting in her lap while she sang:
Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?
Nancy is the last of the seven mothers in my life. Nancy finds joy in the smallest things, when she sees a favorite flavor of soda on the menu or a when an old movie she loved was going to be on TV. I loved staying up late with Nancy to watch Doris Day get exasperated with Rock Hudson…again.
Annabelle, Sammie, Jeannie, Cathy, Patricia, Mary Ann, and Nancy. My seven mothers.
As I was considering the details of the story I wanted to tell today, I realized something. There was actually an eighth mother I need to tell you about, the mother of my sons. From girlfriend, to fiancé, to spouse, to mom. Watching Lisa become a mother has been and continues to be a great joy. Miraculously, in Lisa, I may have found the one person on the planet who embodies the qualities I love in all seven of those other mothers you’ve already met. If there are any Freudians in the room; please keep your psychoanalysis to yourself. Don’t ruin this for me.
Like Annabelle, the number of people Lisa loves is seemingly boundless. Like Jeannie, Lisa does not pull any punches. Neither I nor our sons can sneak anything by her. Like Cathy, her beauty takes your breath away. She equals Patricia as a skilled baker. Perhaps the only lobbyist at the Indiana Statehouse who makes homemade treats for legislators. She’s our church pianist, and like Mary Anne, she fills our sanctuary and our home with beautiful music. She shares Nancy’s love of old movies. And like my sister Sammie, she’s an amazing boy-mom.
As you may have read in my bio, I am a professor of leadership at Purdue University. Let me leave you with a scholarly observation. A 2015 survey by PwC asked who makes the most ”strategic” leaders, those who can help organizations and communities grow, innovate, and change. Guess which demographic topped the list – women over the age of 55. I can’t help but think about how much we could benefit from more of this kind of leadership.
Consider this. Of all the people who have been elected to national leadership positions in the U.S.– senators, representatives, and Presidents. Only 3.5% of them have been women. Men, we’ve had a good run but it’s time to even up that playing field. We could use a lot more Annabelles, Jeannies, Kathys, Patricias, Mary Anns, Nancys, Sammies, and Lisas Our organizations, our communities, our nation, our planet would be better for it.