David Bruce: Mothers Anecdotes

• Terry Colangelo had learned that a good reporter knew what was going on and so he or she needed to read lots of newspapers thoroughly. She followed this advice, and she read this in the classifieds ad section of a newspaper: “$5,000 Reward for killers of Officer Lundy on Dec. 9, 1932.” The murder had occurred 12 years previously, and she was interested in why a reward was being offered at that late date. It turned out that a man had been convicted of the murder, and for the last 12 years his mother had been working at night as a scrubwoman. All of the money she had earned she had saved to establish the reward. Several reporters got involved in what had seemed at first to be only a human-interest story, and they uncovered evidence that the scrubwoman’s son was innocent of the murder and had been represented by an alcoholic, incompetent lawyer at his trial and appeal. Eventually, Illinois Governor Dwight H. Green pardoned the scrubwoman’s son on the unanimous recommendation of the Illinois Department of Correction.

• Bill Russell’s mother was tough, and she expected her son to be tough, too. When Bill was nine years old, he and his mother moved to Oakland, California, to join his father, who had gotten a job there. While Bill was outside in the Housing Authority project where he lived, five kids ran by him, and one of the kids slapped him. He told his mother what had happened, and she went with him to find all five kids. When Bill said that they had found the five kids, she said, “Good, because you are going to fight all of them, one at a time.” Bill won two fights, and he lost the other three, but his mother told him, “Don’t you feel bad now, William. You did right. You stood up for yourself like a man. Always stand up for yourself like a man.” As a Boston Celtic, Bill played 13 seasons, and he and the Celtics won 11 championships.

• Johnny Cash’s mother recognized that he had musical talent, and she bought him a Sears Roebuck guitar for $6.98. She also washed and ironed someone else’s laundry so she could earn money to buy him voice lessons. She gave him 50 cents for a half-hour lesson, and young Johnny went to voice teacher Miss LaVanda Mae Fiedler. She listened to him sing “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” a country hit by Hank Williams, and she listened to him sing it again. She then told him that he was a natural singer and she couldn’t teach him anything. Johnny was relieved—now his mother did not have to wash and iron someone else’s laundry.

• Early in his life, Bernie Mac knew that he wanted to be a comedian. His mother was crying one day, the television was on, and comedian Bill Cosby made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Bernie was present, hoping that his mother would stop crying, and soon he saw that she was laughing at Bill Cosby even though her tears were still on her cheeks.  A little later, she was laughing hard, and no one could tell that she had been crying. Although Bernie was only about four years old, he told his mother, “Mama, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m going to be a comedian—so I don’t ever have to see you cry.”

• J.K. Rowling, creator and author of the Harry Potter books, was not as poor as perhaps the media has made her out to be when she was writing the first Harry Potter book, but she was a single mother who did lack money. One day, she visited another mother whose boy was roughly the same as J.K.’s daughter. That little boy had a room full of toys, and J.K. remembers, “When I packed Jessica’s toys away, they fitted into a shoe box, literally. I came home and cried my eyes out.” Those feelings of depression are the kind that the Dementors give in the Harry Potter books.

• The paparazzi could be annoying to Audrey Hepburn. Once, a photograph of Audrey with her newly bearded son appeared in a magazine. Because of the new beard, the paparazzi had not recognized her son, so this caption appeared with the photograph: “Audrey com il nuovo amore della sua vita.” Translation: “Audrey with the new love of her life.” She said, “Well, apart from the ‘new,’ for once they got something right.” That was one media photograph she cut out and framed.

• Jerry Herman wrote the scores for many great Broadway musicals, including Mameand Hello, Dolly!and Mack & Mabel, among others. His mother seems to have been much like Mame. One day, when Jerry was a schoolboy, he came home from school and saw that his mother was hosting a party. He asked her what they were celebrating. Was it someone’s birthday, was it an anniversary, was it an obscure holiday? His mother enthusiastically told him, “No, Jerry—it’s TODAY!”

• NBA star Isiah Thomas grew up in a tough neighborhood. One day, he stole a plum and got caught by the security guard of the grocery store, who told him that he was going to call the police but that first he was going to call Isiah’s mother. Isiah begged him to call the police but not call his mother because he knew that she would be disappointed in him.

• After Cameron Diaz graduated from high school, she signed with a modeling agency and began to travel around the world to model in exotic locales. Her mother gave her a gift at the beginning of her career: a long silver hairpin. Why? If necessary, it could be used as a weapon. Cameron says, “Moms are like that.”

• When Joseph Epstein was a small boy of six or seven, he was bored, and he whined to his mother about being bored. She replied, “Really? May I suggest that you knock your head against the wall. It’ll take your mind off your boredom.” Mr. Epstein writes, “I never again told my mother that I was bored.”

• Norton Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, and his mother typed draft after draft. Mr. Juster says that when the book was published, his mother terrorized bookstore owners who did not have copies of the book on sale: “What? You don’t have my son’s book?”

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David Bruce: Mothers Anecdotes

• While running his dog sled team one day, using a wheeled cart instead of a sled because it was spring, children’s book author Gary Paulsen came across a dead ruffled grouse and a nest of her eggs. He took the 14 eggs home and put them in the nest of a banty hen named Hawk. This simple action may have been a mistake, as it brought down what his wife called a “summer of terror” on the Paulsen household. The eggs hatched, and Hawk devoted her life to protecting her chicks. However, ruffled grouse can fly much further than banty hens, which meant that Hawk had to patrol a wide area to protect the young grouse. Hawk therefore sat on top of a woodpile and whenever the grouse were threatened — or Hawk thought they were threatened — she charged down the woodpile and attacked whatever she thought needed attacking. A fox once grabbed a chick and Hawk slammed into the fox so hard that spit flew from the fox’s mouth as it let go of the chick. Unfortunately, Hawk attacked some things that didn’t need to be attacked — such as Mr. Paulsen’s wife, son, cat, and dog. On one occasion, his wife went to get some tomatoes from the garden, and when she returned, the tomatoes were smeared on her shirt — this despite the bicycle helmet she had worn for protection from the attack that she knew was coming. Smeared with tomatoes, she announced to her husband, “The Hawk strikes again.” After the ruffled grouse grew up, Hawk calmed down — but the Paulsen pets were still very careful when they were near her.

• During World War II, German soprano Elizabeth Schumann raised money for the Allies, but her son was a pilot for the Nazis. In 1945, while she was in London, she learned that during the Sicilian campaign her son had lost a leg after his plane was shot down. Being a mother, she wanted to help her son, even if he was on the wrong side in the war, so she tried to enlist the help of a friend in getting a well-made prothesis to her son. The friend — who was bitter because of the many deaths that had occurred due to the Nazi bombing of London — replied that since her son had fought for Hitler, he would not help him. Ms. Schumann never again spoke to the former friend.

• While Tim Conway was appearing on TV in the sitcom McHale’s Navy, his mother called him to say, “You know, one of the Schutt boys is leaving the hardware store. There’s an opening. You know the other boys, so if you could apply for that job, it would probably be to your benefit.” He asked if she wanted him to work in a hardware store instead of on TV. She replied, “Yes — because the hardware store is a much steadier job. At least you know where you’re going to work in the morning and how long you’re going to be there.”

• Adelina Patti’s mother was willing to use underhanded methods to help her to succeed. Once, Ms. Patti was singing with a rival who had shaved her real eyebrows and put on false eyebrows. Ms. Patti’s mother wanted to make the rival look ridiculous, so she began to stare at the rival. Under her breath, the rival asked, “What is the matter?” Ms. Patti’s mother lied, “Your right eyebrow has fallen off!” Immediately, the rival tore off her left eyebrow and for the rest of the act wore only a right eyebrow.

• Ezra Stone played the part of teenager Harry Aldrich on The Aldrich Familyradio program. Following World War II, because space was lacking, he shared his dressing room with singer Jo Stafford. One day, his mother came to visit and was surprised to find his dressing room closet filled with frilly feminine garments. Mr. Stone, a happily married man, had to convince his mother that he was not keeping a mistress on the side.

• When she was a very young gymnast, Tracee Talavera’s worst-scoring event was the vault; however, she did receive five perfect scores of 10 from the judges of this event at the final trials for a United States World Championship team. When Tracee called home with the good news, her astonished mother asked, “Tracee, did the vaulting judges have seeing-eye dogs?”

• As a young, unknown musician in Paris, cellist Pablo Casals made little money, so his mother took on such jobs as sewing to bring in more money. One day, Mr. Casals was saddened to learn that his mother had sold her long, beautiful hair to a wigmaker. However, she said, “It is only hair, and hair grows back.”

• After her first book, The Joy Luck Club, became a runaway success, author Amy Tan was asked what her mother thought of the book. Ms. Tan replied that her mother went into bookstores, looking for her book, and if she didn’t see it, she scolded the bookstore employees.

• If you ever get a chance to see a mother bobcat in a zoo, look at the back of her ears. You will see white spots. The mother bobcat’s kittens see the white spots, which make her more visible and help them to follow closely behind the mother bobcat when necessary.

• Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ mother was a remarkable woman. Mary Gates served on the boards of several big organizations, including United Way and First Interstate Bancorp. When she was a schoolgirl, her friends called her “Giggles.”

• On September 7, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother died. While going through her possessions, he found a box containing some of his baby toys and some gifts that he had made for her when he was a child. He cried.

• Soprano Rita Hunter’s mother was very proud of her. While Ms. Hunter was singing in Gotterdammerung, her mother turned to a friend and asked, “My God, did I really give birth to that!”

• Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Her mother, Amy, also made a first — she was the first woman to climb to the top of Pike’s Peak.

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David Bruce: Mothers Anecdotes

• Jean Little, a young people’s author, was born with nystagmus, strabismus, eccentric pupils, and corneal opacities — in other words, she had very bad eyesight. Because of this, her parents thought that she was blind. One day, her mother, a pediatrician, was examining a small child who reached for her stethoscope. She felt sad because little Jean had never reached for anything. However, Jean’s parents noticed that she always moved to face the window when she was in bed, no matter how they placed her in the bed, so they realized that she could distinguish light from darkness. Finally, one day when her mother was feeding her, little Jean reached for a spoon, and her mother was so happy that she cried.

• When the ballet Rodeo opened, it was a smash hit with the audience applauding for 22 curtain calls. Even the musicians in the orchestra pit were giving a standing ovation — a sure sign of success. Agnes de Mille, who choreographed the ballet and danced the part of the Cowgirl, was responsible for much of the ballet’s success. An unsung hero was her mother, Anna, who supported Agnes through years of struggle. Asked if she was proud of her daughter after Rodeohad opened, Anna replied that she had always been proud of her daughter, including during the times when Agnes could find no one to give her work in dance.

• As a child, violinist Josef Gingold had a mother who was very supportive of his musical interests and of him. One Friday, a truant officer showed up at her house to tell her that Josef had missed school four Fridays in a row and was probably doing such things as playing pool with bums. Mrs. Gingold told the truant officer, “As a matter of fact, he’s in the other room practicing.” She then picked up a rolling pin and added, “He goes to the New York Philharmonic on Friday afternoons. Do me a favor, and leave this house. Next time I see your face, you’re going to get it over the head.”

• Children’s book writer Phyllis Reynolds Naylor grew up during the Depression, when money was hard to come by. Entering kindergarten, she had only two dresses: one with red checks and one with blue checks. Her mother told her that if she alternated the dresses, wearing one the first day and another the second day and so on, then everyone would think that she had more dresses than she really had. This made young Phyllis think how clever her mother was.

• Some young children are surprised that older adults have parents, too. Librarian Jeanette C. Smith once made friends with a 10-year-old girl who often came into the Minnesota public library where she worked. One day, Ms. Smith’s mother visited her, leaving as the 10-year-old girl arrived. The 10-year-old girl asked who the visitor had been, and when Ms. Smith explained that the visitor had been her mother, the 10-year-old girl exclaimed, “YOU HAVE A MOTHER!”

• The family of golfer Nancy Lopez was very supportive of her. Young Nancy was not allowed to wash dishes because she needed to protect her hands, and so her mother washed the dishes instead. In fact, her mother once decided not to buy a dishwasher so that she could use the money to pay for Nancy to play in tournaments instead. The sacrifice paid off. As an adult Nancy became a superstar golf player, and at age 10 she won a tournament by 110 strokes!

• Alexander the Great claimed to be the son of Zeus, the Greek god who was married to the goddess Hera. Alexander once wrote his mother, Olympias, and began his letter, “King Alexander, son of Zeus Ammon, greets his mother Olympias.” His mother wrote back, “My son, please don’t say such things. Don’t slander me, or bring charges against me before Hera. She really will have it in for me if you admit in your letter that I’m her husband’s lover!”

• When Julie Krone was young, she told her mother that she wanted to be a jockey. When her mother told the family veterinarian what young Julie wanted to do when she grew up, he advised her to knock Julie in the head. Her mother didn’t follow that advice; instead, she took Julie to the racetrack. Julie grew up to become a famous jockey.

• Once a mother, always a mother. Sculptor Louise Nevelson was justly proud of her son, Myron “Mike” Nevelson, who was also a sculptor. A friend of Mike’s once heard him on the telephone talking to his mother. The middle-aged sculptor said, “Yes, Mother. Yes, I’ve eaten. I had lunch. I haveeaten, Mother.”

• “I always encourage people to get into therapy, because it’s good for you and it’s not hard. It’s like a really easy game show, where the answer to every question is ‘My mom.’” — Robin Greenspan, quoted in Ed Karvoski Jr.’s book, A Funny Time to be Gay.

• When novelist Jackie Collins was raising the two daughters she had with Oscar Lerman, the first word she taught them was not “Mummy” (she was born in London), but “Anything.” Why? She wanted them to learn that they could do anything.

• Paul Gauguin’s mother knew that her son could be abrasive. After she died on July 7, 1867, she advised in her will that he start a career “since he has made himself so disliked by all my friends that he will one day find himself alone.”

• When Marc Cherry, the openly gay creator of TV’s Desperate Housewives, came out to his mother, she told him, “Well, I’d love you even if you were a murderer.” This line was so funny that he wrote it into the series.

• Actress Noreen Nash, one of the stars of Giant, found it easy to decide to give up shooting on location. After shooting a movie, she returned home and discovered that her two-year-old son barely knew who she was.

• When Twyla Tharp was young, her mother drove her hundreds of miles to music and dance lessons. Once, her mother estimated that during Twyla’s youth, she had driven young Twyla 30,000 miles to her lessons.

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David Bruce: Mothers Anecdotes

Professional women’s basketball player Lisa Leslie was tall from a very early age. In fact, in the second grade, she was already the tallest student in her class; she was even taller than her five-foot-two teacher. Of course, her height—and that of her older sister Dionne—was no surprise. Their parents were both tall. Their father, Walter, was six-foot-five, and their mother, Christine, was six-foot-three. (Lisa’s adult height was six-foot-five.) Their mother wanted the two sisters not to feel conscious about their height and often told them, “Being tall is nothing to be ashamed of.” She also told them that being tall was a sign that they were descended from African royalty. One of the things that their mother did to make them feel good about their height was to hold an at-home fashion show at the end of each summer when she bought them their school clothes for the upcoming academic year. Both sisters would take turns modeling their outfits. The training their mother gave them paid off—Lisa later did some professional modeling in addition to playing in the WNBA.

Jewish comedian Sam Levenson’s mother had to drive a sharp bargain when he was growing up because money was scarce. She would go into a grocer’s, hold up two cucumbers, and ask how much they were. When the grocer replied, “Five cents,” she would hold up one cucumber, and ask how much it was. When the grocer replied, “Three cents,” she would say, “All right, I’ll take the other one.” Once, young Sam needed a tie, so she took him to a tie salesman. The tie salesman said that the price for the tie she wanted to buy was 50 cents, and she immediately agreed to pay the full price, astonishing young Sam. When he asked her about it later, she replied that she had never liked the tie salesman, and “Tonight he will kill himself because he didn’t ask me for a dollar.”

When Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Kerri Strug was in the fourth grade, she spent six months working on a science project: a biosphere in a large aquarium. Unfortunately, when her brother drove her and her science project to school, he had to hit his brakes to avoid a collision with another car. The aquarium shattered, destroying six months of work, with dirt, water, frogs, and fish scattered everywhere. Fortunately, her mother was able to bring Kerri another aquarium, and they put the science project back together. However, Kerri told her mother, “This is the worst day of my life.” Her mother then said something wise and wonderful: “I’ll be happy if this is your worst day.” (For the worst day, it wasn’t so bad — Kerri’s science project won second prize.)

In April of 1993 at Washington D.C., Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke at the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. He told the story of a woman in the Carpathian Mountains 50 years previously who had heard about the rebellion of the Jews in Warsaw, Poland, and who could not understand why they were fighting. She asked, “Why are our Jews in Warsaw behaving like this? Why are they fighting? Couldn’t they have waited patiently until the end of the war?” This woman was unaware of the concentration camps and of why the Jews were fighting. One year passed, and then she and her family were forced onto cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz. Mr. Wiesel then told the crowd, “She was my mother.” She did not survive the Holocaust.

The mother of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was very encouraging to her son. He once showed her a drawing he had made of an animal with enormous ears. He told her that the animal was called a “Wynnmph,” and his mother said that of course that was the animal’s name and that his drawing of it was wonderful. In addition, his mother encouraged him to read and play piano as well as draw and actually used his love of reading to bribe him to practice his piano lessons. When he played well, she took him to a bookstore and let him pick out a book for her to buy for him.

When world-famous window dresser Simon Doonan was four years old, he threw his mother’s bras out the window. When she asked him why he had done that, he replied. “Because they flutter.” (Young Simon was effeminate and gay and interested in fabulous fashion. At the circus, he saw some ladies wearing fabulous costumes with plumes and asked his mother, “Why can’t you dress like that?”)

Miriam gave birth to seven sons, all of whom were martyred because they declined to worship idols, even when doing so could save their lives. When her final son was about to be executed, she kissed him and told him to give a message to Abraham, “Say to him: do not be proud because you were willing to sacrifice your only son—I have sacrificed all my seven sons.”

Some of the comedy routines of Mike Nichols and Elaine May started with a line from real life. For example, Mr. Nichols’ mother once telephoned him and said, “Hello, Michael, this is your mother — do you remember me?” Mr. Nichols had to ask her to hang up so he could call Ms. May and tell her about the new comedy line they would improvise around that night.

In the 1970s, actor Donald Sutherland, star of M*A*S*H, was both a cinematic icon and a sex symbol; however, some people may consider him an unlikely sex symbol. When he was in his teens, he asked his mother if he was handsome. She replied, “Donald, to be perfectly truthful, no. But your face has a lot of character.”

The mother of New Yorker cartoonist George Booth gave him good advice: “Always stand upright. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Finally, no matter what you’re getting paid, give it plenty of oomph!”

Conductor George Szell’s ear was developed at an early age. As a child, he used to listen to his mother play the piano. Whenever she played a wrong note, he slapped her wrist.

“Just when a mother thinks her job is done, she becomes a grandmother.” — Anonymous.

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