Songs My Mother Taught Me by
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With Mom in 1972

Mother was very insecure and depressed. She didn’t like to cook, had a maid for much her of life, didn’t know how to do laundry or iron, wasn’t good at domestic chores. She got by. Her entire life, she never drove on a highway.

She didn’t like her own looks and projected that displeasure and neuroses onto me, which didn’t help my own sense of self-worth.

Before I married I remember she told me that “sex wasn’t all it was cracked up to be”. That was not helpful advice. She belittled and criticized me a lot. I sought out surrogate mothers for comfort and support; older cousins and friends’ mothers. Also my warm father, who eventually divorced her. Yet, when the time came that she needed assistance, I moved her to an assisted-living complex near me in the Boston area, and cared for her for the final 15 1/2 years of her life. I felt that obligation. She did teach me about commitment and follow-through.

From my mother, I learned to be a lady. I learned good manners from her (before the complete breakdown of her mental health caused her internal filter to collapse and she said anything that popped into her head; frequently something nasty or inappropriate).

But mostly I learned to love the arts from her. I took beginning ballet at the age of 7. She spent a year in New York in 1935, studying with the greats of the era, trying to be a modern dancer. It wasn’t to be, but she looked back at that time as the happiest of her life. She appreciated and encouraged my interest in acting and singing. I began talking voice lessons in 11th grade.

“Songs My Mother Taught Me” from the classic song book 56 Songs You Like to Sing was the first song I sang with a new teacher, a former opera singer, in 12th grade. Mother did teach me the Broadway repertoire when I was a very young child. She’d sing Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes while bathing me. She had a lovely voice and I was a quick study. I’d sing them out, full-blast, on my backyard swing each morning; “Oh what a beautiful morning”, to the amusement of our neighbors. For that, I am eternally grateful.

11th grade, after “Arsenic and Old Lace”; I played Elaine, the love interest. Surrounded by friends, and relatives. Mother is on the right.

I came full-circle at the end of her life, as I would sing a recital of Broadway show tunes, accompanied by the Activities Director, once my mother moved to the skilled nursing section of her life-care community. I went once or twice a year to sing for the residents. Mother just beamed. My singing finally gave her pleasure. As I was friendly with all the staff, I continued for five years after her death, until the Activities Director retired.

She took me to see the great European ballet companies when they came on tour to Detroit. My parents had season tickets to see the Broadway touring companies and would take my brother and me to appropriate shows (Carnival, Camelot, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). The Metropolitan Opera came on tour to Detroit every year; my parents took me to one performance each season. I remember on a flight home from Brandeis one year, I noticed a man studying a score in the row in front of me. I engaged him in conversation and discovered that he would be singing in the opera that I would see the next evening.

My mother took me often to the Detroit Institute of Art and the Cranbrook Institue of Art, two of my favorite places on earth and molded my love and appreciation for the fine arts early. We dressed well. She had taste and refinement. I learned all that from her.

When it came to parenting, I did not ask for any advice from her. In fact, I tried to model my parenting after my father, who was a sweet, gentle soul, always good at listening, rather than my mother. Instead, I tried to be UNLIKE my mother as a parent. She was not a good role model. These days, I try to dwell on the good and move beyond the difficulties I encountered with her.

From Josie

My wonderful Core instructor, Josie Gardiner, posted the above on Facebook as I wrote this story. She inspires me every day. I think her wishes speak volumes and I second her thoughts for all mothers and children.

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    You have found the good despite the bad—your mother’s love of music and the arts especially. Families are so complicated. Sometimes we learn by both good and bad examples, and you seem to have done that. It isn’t always easy to get perspective. Your recognition of her good qualities is sweet, and your dedication to her in her latter years may not have gone unnoticed by your own children.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes Khati, we had a complicated relationship, but I try to balance both sides of the equation. I hope you are correct and my children paid attention to the care I gave, despite her lack
      of gratitude.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Knowing from your other stories how difficult your mother had been (to put it somewhat euphemistically), Betsy, I was most interesting in seeing what you would say this week. And, as expected, it was wonderful — and brave. You faced head on your mother’s “difficulties” and made it clear that you never followed her advice (or model) in child raising. But you did then focus on how your mother had passed on to you her love of the arts, and you described it beautifully. And that is no small thing.

    Of course, I loved how your story did come “full circle,” as you noted, when you sang at her life care center. And, finally, she beamed at your accomplishments. Brava!

    And Josie’s advice is spot on.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. I try to focus on the positive and loving the arts is certainly a positive in my life. She was always pleased when I sang at her life care community and that was a blessing.

      Josie is a wonderful person, both as a fitness guru (she is truly remarkable), but also as a warm and loving person. When I saw her Facebook post, I knew I had to include it. It is such a positive message to end on.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Your mother was challenging but she did impart a special gift — your love of music and performing. My mother also sang those classic show tunes with me when we did the dishes every night. Unfortunately, neither of us had the talent to perform them, but I remember the songs fondly.

  4. Suzy says:

    Betsy, we have heard about your difficult mother before. Nice to know that she had some positive influences on you, in music and art and good manners and how to dress. I had to laugh at the advice that sex is not all it’s cracked up to be. That sounds like something my parents might have said as part of the virginity pep talk – but you were about to get married, so a totally different situation. Love the advice given by your core instructor!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      My mother did impart some good advise, Suzy, and I like to give credit where it’s due. She didn’t know that she was late in her “sex” comments by the time I got married. She was naive.

      Josie is a special person, far beyond being a fitness instructor. She is a cancer survivor, a former member of the Boston Ballet Company, inventor of Zumba Gold (for seniors), a person of rare energy and enthusiasm who makes working out fun. Her words ring true, so I included them. She is a person I greatly admire.

  5. Marian says:

    This story rings true, Betsy, and summarizes beautifully the complex relationship you had with your mother. My mother was very difficult as well, but she introduced me to theater, reading, and all the visual arts, for which I am grateful–and she had a good fashion sense. Cool that you got to play Elaine in Arsenic and Old Lace. Seeing that play in my freshman year of high school got me to enroll in drama class the following year. I’ve always wanted to play Aunt Martha.

  6. Knowing your mother was difficult Betsy it’s a saving grace that you’ve been able to recognize the good she did impart, especially your love snd appreciation of theatre and the arts.

    And how you cared for her the last 15 years of her life was remarkable, many in your shoes I fear would not have. And as well as a kindness to her, I think it helped you move on.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Dana. I remember seeing my grandmother in similar straits when I was young and I silently vowed that I would care for my mother. I followed through on my own promise. She lived in a good community (though she wouldn’t have agreed), but I took her to her appointments, had her to dinner every Sunday as long as she was able to get around, visited her often, made sure she was looked after, brought in aides and other services as needed, took over her checkbook when I needed to. The elderly do require a great deal of care. She died three days shy of her 97th birthday and had severe dementia in her final year. I did all I could.

  7. Kathy Porter says:

    Very moving story. In spite of a difficult relationship, you were able to take something positive from your mother. My relationship with my mother was very different, but there must be a source of strength in your being able to do that.

  8. Those who make us who we are.

  9. We learn, if we are lucky, to re-parent, and re-mother ourselves. It is the greatest learning there is. Thank you Betsy, for the full circle of your experience. I’m sorry your mother suffered. I’m so glad you found your way forward.

  10. Dave Ventre says:

    Forgiving my parents for their child-rearing mistakes was a hard lesson to learn. As I age, the good memories have proven to be more persistent, which is a blessing.

    You seem to have had more justification for not doing so than I ever did!

    I finally came to realize that mine did the best that could, and that’s all anyone can expect. The experience might well be why i never wanted, or had, children of my own.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      My father (who was a very kind soul – I wrote about him in “A Tribute to My Father” and will write more for the next Father’s Day prompt; I must go back and see if I have more to write) kept telling me to forgive my mother, that she was sick. That was difficult to hear when I was living through it, but a bit easier now. As I’ve stated, I was adept at finding alternative mother figures to go to for advice and emotional nourishment, so my life wasn’t devoid of kindness and role models. And Mother had many strengths too. I got good at going around her weaknesses and we did yell at each other quite a bit.

      One’s parents all have limitations; they do the best they can and we strive to do the best we can. That’s all we can hope for.

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