Wanted: a Priceless Gift <i> From </i> Mother : Family life: What’s behind our parents’ enigmatic facade? First we’re too young to know. Then it’s too late to ask.

<i> Joseph H. Cooper is the editorial counsel for the New Yorker. </i>

Mothers, please, give your children a gift this Mother’s Day. Give the facts of your life--at least some of them, so that your children and theirs will not lose you.

I have lost my mother in the sense that she is unable to convey to me the facts of her life. She has suffered almost total memory loss; she will be 88 this summer. The only evidence of her vitality as a young woman is in photographs, undated, of her ice-skating and canoeing, of her on a ship and on a boardwalk. Judging by the clothes, the photos are from the 1920s and 1930s. But there aren’t any notations about the places and the people in the photographs. The photos are scraps; there isn’t any scrapbook. I wish I knew what she thought about and hoped for back then.

A Certificate of Honorable Service from the Army Air Forces 1 Fighter Command Aircraft Warning Service says she was “a loyal and faithful volunteer.” It is dated May, 1944, Mitchell Field, New York. I try to picture her in an airfield bunker wearing earphones and moving miniature planes across a map as position reports are relayed to her. I try to imagine what it was like. She never talked about this service.

The framed photos of my parents have no context. I don’t know how they met or when they decided to marry. From their marriage certificate (Harrisburg, Pa., Aug. 26, 1945) and my father’s discharge papers (Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, Aug. 24, 1945), I can make a few assumptions. There is no other physical evidence at hand. Family and friends are gone.


My father died unexpectedly three years ago. The few times I broached the subject of his past, he asked why I wanted to know. I never had a good answer. He wasn’t given to talking about such things, and my mother, I suspect, took her cues from him. And I was shy about probing into my parents’ personal lives. I didn’t imagine they had anything to hide, nothing scandalous or shocking or shameful. I was curious but reluctant to pursue matters they had no inclination to divulge. By the time I had the courage and clarity to ask my mother about her life, her responses were not reliable; they were interesting, and maybe revealing, but not reliable.

Did she actually work in her father’s tobacco shop in 1915, at the age of 13? Did he leave her alone in the shop when he had to make a delivery? Was she scared? Did she have to work, and give up school, so her sisters could go on to higher education? Did she drive her brother’s Pierce-Arrow to a lodge in the Poconos for a weekend? And did the young people gathered there come out to the front lawn to admire “her” car? What happened to my father’s Army uniforms? Did she and my father go to Atlantic City for their honeymoon? During labor, in Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, was she really seen by a doctor who had attended F.D.R.?

I think she went to great lengths for me. Did we walk all the way around the field behind our first apartment to get to the convent for music lessons? I remember (barely) holding a triangle. How many buses did she and I have to take to get me to Cub Scout meetings?

I remember neatly folded T-shirts and towels being packed for overnight camp. Or was it for ROTC boot camp? What did she think about when she sewed on my name tags? And when she saw me off? Did she wash and iron for every game? Our house was always neat and clean. I wonder what she thought about as she did the cooking and cleaning, day in and day out.

I have some sense of what she feared for me. I know she worried that my little forays into student politics might lead to the rough-and-tumble of real political endeavors. I don’t know what she imagined for my future. I know she worried about my heart being broken. When things didn’t go my way at school, in sports or at work, she’d console me by saying, “You’ll be lucky in love.” When I wasn’t lucky in love, she said that I had a lot to be grateful for. I wonder if that was how she viewed her lot in life.

There are so many things about her I would like to know; so many things about our family I would like to know; so many things about me as a baby and a little boy I wish she could tell me. It was always too soon to ask. Now it is too late.