A Mother’s Day Gift to My Children – Part II

Charlotte, Age 12, With Cello
The Bogdanovich Collection

When Charlotte, my mom, was not quite six, the family uprooted and moved to Zagreb.  Though he was a civil engineer with advanced degrees from the University of Vienna, Papa found that his Jewishness impeded employment; he had turned to sales and opened a new territory in Croatia, representing several European textile manufacturers. He subsequently opened a wholesale store and a textile mill, and he began to prosper.  Life seemed good.

When comparing herself to her sisters, Mama (center) described herself as oversized and clumsy, a boyish blunderer; but none of the photographs from the time attest to that image.

Charlotte considered herself grotesquely large and healthy in contrast to her sisters. Thea had always been wan and delicate, prone to illness; now there was Ruth, two years Mom’s junior, who was so sickly, as an infant she had required a transfusion, which she got directly from their father, who lay on a gurney, connected to her by the tubing that carried his blood the short distance to her little thigh.  Ruth officially took over as Papa’s darling, so Charlotte studied cello and played team sports in order to protect her position as the son her father didn’t have.
In 1927, the family finally did add a son — Hannes Edward — but Charlotte did not denounce her throne; she was the designated “son” and took on all the responsibility attached to the role. “I was the one,” she would whisper, as though her brother might be in the next room listening, “with perpetually scraped knees from climbing trees.  They kept Johnny wrapped in cotton wool, but not me.  You know what I loved to do?  There was a pecan tree in our yard in Zagreb.  I found branches that would hold me just so, and I would sit in that tree for hours reading.  I read all of The Three Musketeers there, then I would climb out of my tree and challenge my dog, King, to a duel.”

The world turned upside down in 1932, and it did not right itself for a very long time.  In January of that year, Thea, just five months shy of her 12th birthday and a ballet prodigy, having only recently recovered from a near fatal bout with scarlet fever, was struck with meningitis and died.  Charlotte, who had prayed for illness, had been profoundly jealous of the attention her sister received, was devastated and blamed herself for the tragedy, convinced that her parents would have been far less afflicted if it had been she and not Thea who had died.  She told me, “I used to go to the cemetery and sit on Thea’s grave for long conversations.  I was only ten.  It was a great weight I carried on my shoulders.”

My grandmother was undone, and her health deteriorated in multiple ways, leading to conditions that eventually addicted her first to morphine and then to alcohol.  “Papa went a little berserk,” Mom would mutter, as though admitting it were tantamount to denunciation.  He became ultra-religious and drove his family to near insanity with his obsessive adherence to details he hardly believed in.  Charlotte became more committed to her cello; though she longed to dance, she couldn’t — it was a realm that belonged to Thea, and besides, she believed that no one would “think of giving a roly-poly girl ballet lessons.”  But she was a talented musician and studied religiously, eventually performing often in concerts and recitals.

I, Mother

Every year on Mother’s Day I feel let down.  Everywhere I look are reminders that it’s Mother’s Day.  In the street, when I take my morning walk, I see children carrying flowers to Grandma’s house, and families decked out in their Easter Sunday best coming out of restaurants sated from celebratory Mother’s Day Brunch, and strangers call out, “Happy Mother’s Day!”  When I get to work today, the dispatcher who supervises the buses during my shift, whom I have come to like and look forward to seeing, won’t be there.   Her husband bought her an I-Phone 4S for this day, and she booked off  to enjoy a day with her feet up, learning the in’s and out’s of her new toy.  My Mother’s Day is just another Sunday, except that I write anti-war emails and FB posts while I watch a flurry of new ads telling me what I should be receiving as gifts.  How can I not succumb to jealousy?

I have to remind myself that I made it so.  When my kids were little, I scoffed at the ads for the Hallmark Holiday the day had become, and I told them that I didn’t subscribe to the notion of a day to say thank you.  I have a day already; it’s my very own day, my birthday.  Honor me and respect me and love me all the days of your life; celebrate my birth on its day.  But don’t buy into the aberration of this day.  Let’s keep Mother’s Day as it was originally intended: a day of contemplation on the horrors of war.

In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, the poet who (perhaps ironically) authored The Battle Hymn of the Republic, pushed for the adoption of a day, a mothers’ day, set aside to remind people of the true nature of war, the true  cost.  War was, in her estimation, a simple carnage, the wasting of mothers’ sons’ lives by other mothers’ sons.  Later, she averred that the “collateral damage” of war was also the annhilation of mothers’ children, and Mother’s Day should be a day when mothers stand up and insist that their children not be slaughtered and that their children not be sent out to destroy other mothers’ lives.

I take this day very seriously.  I am a mother, neither a good mother nor a bad mother, but a mother who would be devastated by the loss of any of my children.  I weep for women who do not predecease their offspring; it’s a suffering I never want to endure.  I don’t need flowers or candy to prove to me my kids and grands love me; each of them shows me that in her/his own way.  What I do need is to be sheltered from the worst horror I could imagine: one of them being swept up by hatred and bloodlust, by politics and insanity, by the firestorms of war.

Julia Ward Howe

It’s Mother’s Day.  Let there be peace.

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. . . .”

                                                         Julia Ward Howe
                                              Mother’s Day Proclamation

A Mother’s Day Gift to My Children: A Remembrance of Charlotte Esther Robinson Swett – Part I

Charlotte Esther Robinson, University of Vermont, Class of ’44

 Charlotte Esther Robinson Swett, my mother, never knew how very much I admired her.  We were, for many years, closer than most mothers and daughters, but she couldn’t know the depth of my esteem for two reasons.  First, this complex woman never quite internalized the breadth of her inestimable value; and second, I never quite understood the scope of my emotions.  So I write this now for my children and grandchildren.  They need to know.

When I was small, my cousins referred to our grandmother as Mama, but I could never muster the word; she wasn’t anything like a Mama to me.  She was harshly critical, emotionally cruel, and I recognized early on that she had not even earned the right to that moniker from the woman I knew was my Mama.  Grandma had suffered terribly in her life, and in her last twenty years, after she found sobriety and a modicum of peace, especially after my grandfather died and liberated her from her subservience, she became a friend and a confidante, but it was clear to me that as a mother, she had provided no model for my mother to emulate, had failed to nurture and protect her daughters, and had damaged them all irreparably.

My mama shared her life with me in timid drabs over late night vigils.  My father was a traveling salesman, and he was often on the road into the wee hours of the night; it was I who kept her company while she waited, always frightened that the worse might have happened.  Fearing the worst was a learned response to a life of worsts, but she found them difficult to tell, difficult to explore, and until I was twelve, all I really knew were the funny stories.  One was the story of her birth, which she told between gales of girlish giggles that invariably made me laugh too . . . until I was old enough to get it.

Picture Postcard Vienna, 1918

“I was born on a crystal clear Viennese night in April, 1923,” she would begin; she was only eleven months younger than her sister Thea, born in 1922, who was four years younger than their first sister Herma, born in 1918.  “Mama told me there wasn’t a cloud in the sky outside her window, just a glittering sliver of moon.  But poor Papa was devastated. He was sure this time he would finally have a boy.  He had put his head at Mama’s belly, and he was certain that this time he would be father to a son. He was so excited he could not sit still for most of the 9 months of the pregnancy.  I often imagine my Papa’s reaction when the doctor came out of the delivery room to tell him he had a big, robust, healthy daughter!  He went crazy.  Mama didn’t see him for weeks . . . maybe even months.  The story changed whenever she told me.  But when he did come back, he was determined not to be disappointed, and from then on he encouraged me to be a tomboy, which was just fine by me!