Thomas Wolfe Was Wrong; Mom Was Right. by
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I’ve written a fair bit about my wise mother and the advice she gave me over the years in my earlier Retro stories — certainly too often for me to try to link to here.  Though, as I think about it further, her advice was rarely imparted verbally (i.e., “Son, sit down and let me tell you…..”); it was more often done by example.  Most notable in this way was how I learned from her that, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to do so, giving substantial time, effort and money to charitable causes one cares about should be a significant part of one’s life.   She did it, I saw it, I also did it.

That said, I do well remember one actual — and very important — bit of verbal advice my mother gave me, one which I’ve probably referenced in prior stories.  But here it is again, because it does still resonate strongly with me, albeit with my apologies for the likely repetition.  And, to be fair to me, as Ernest Hemingway claimed about a vastly different phenemenon, I only have a finite number of stories  to tell.  And at least I can repeat them, and in quick succession.

By way of background, in the spring of my senior year of high school, I was, not surprisingly, focusing considerable attention on where to go to college. At that point, my brother was a sophomore at the University of Chicago and my parents were divorced.  My father had re-married, but my mother, with whom my brother and I lived, had not.  We lived outside of New Haven (my father taught at Yale Medical School) and my two top choices for college were Yale and Harvard, having been admitted to both.

At first, I had been totally dismissive of going to Yale, as had been virtually all of the guys I knew the years ahead of me in my high school who had also gotten into both schools.  Their standard mantra was, “After eighteen years in New Haven, it’s time to get the hell out of here.”  But, as I pondered it more, I realized that, if I were to leave town for college, my mother would be living completely alone; the proverbial nest would be empty.  Never mind that she clearly had a very full social and professional life; semi-dutiful son that I was, this thought weighed on me.  And going to Yale instead of Harvard would hardly be a sacrifice on my part. Plus, I would still be living on campus, that much I knew for sure, even if it was only ten miles from my home.

I don’t believe I ever directly brought up the idea of going to Yale with my mother, but she somehow — as mothers can do — knew that I was seriously considering it.  So, one day before the spring deadline for acceptants to inform colleges of their decisions, she took me aside.  And, yes, gave me some advice.

My mother’s advice went very much as follows, though this is obviously a paraphrase (I didn’t make a transcript):

“Look, I know you’re thinking about Yale because you’re worried that you will be leaving your poor, decrepit mother alone in that great big old house.  Just stop it. Stop it right there.  First, as you know, I’ve got my own very full life and am hardly a case for pity.  So just don’t worry about me. Second, and more importantly, you should go away from home.  It’s really  important for your personal growth.  See another school, learn another city, figure stuff out more by yourself than if you just hung around good old familiar New Haven. And, finally [and this was the real clincher], you’ll still get home plenty.  You’re only two hours away — especially the way you drive —  and I am hoping and fully expecting that you’ll bring your roommates, your girlfriends, and your buddies down here on lots of weekends for some nice home cooked meals and TLC from me.  And, of course, for the Yale-Harvard game [as she called it].  Believe me, we’ll see plenty of each other. So, as the ________ brothers [older guys from my high school who had gone to Harvard over Yale] told you, get the hell out of here.  And then come home.”

Wow, Mom.  And that was the end of it.  I quickly chose Harvard and with about as little, if any, guilt as a nice Jewish boy can have about “leaving” his mother.  And, as I have also written about before, not only did I have a terrific experience at Harvard (with the usual bumps along the way), but, just as she predicted, I often came home with my college pals happily in tow and we all had a great time — including not least my mother. Yet, also to her credit, she never explicitly said to me, “I told you so.”  She just beamed when I was home and saw that I was beaming, too. We both knew what it meant.

In short, Thomas Wolfe was wrong and Mom was right: You can go home again.

 

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In honor of Mothers Day, here are a few photos I have of me with my mom over the years:

In Geneva in 1962, along with her mom (“Tootsie”)

 

At my (first) wedding in 1974

 

   At a family wedding in 1991 (not mine)

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    Hi John, I must be missing something, as I didn’t see the paraphrased advice your mother gave you. But obviously she said something that enabled you to make a free choice. She sounds like a wise and wonderful person indeed.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Odd, Khati, I didn’t see it on my iPhone, but it is still in the text on my lap top. Anyhow, here it is again:

      “Look, I know you’re thinking about Yale because you’re worried that you will be leaving your poor, decrepit mother alone in that great big old house.  Just stop it. Stop it right there.  First, as you know, I’ve got my own very full life and am hardly a case for pity.  So just don’t worry about me. Second, and more importantly, you should go away from home.  It’s really  important for your personal growth.  See another school, learn another city, figure stuff out more by yourself than if you just hung around good old familiar New Haven. And, finally [and this was the real clincher], you’ll still get home plenty.  You’re only two hours away — especially the way you drive —  and I am hoping and fully expecting that you’ll bring your roommates, your girlfriends, and your buddies down here on lots of weekends for some nice home cooked meals and TLC from me.  And, of course, for the Yale-Harvard game [as she called it].  Believe me, we’ll see plenty of each other. So, as the ________ brothers [older guys from my high school who had gone to Harvard over Yale] told you, get the hell out of here.  And then come home.”

      • Khati Hendry says:

        Thanks for the additional info—don’t know why it went missing—and that is what I had imagined, stated eloquently. She wanted you to feel free to go out and be your own person (so essential for growing up) and not resent the family ties that would persist. And seems like that was great advice and it worked. Lucky son.

        • Dave Ventre says:

          Come-and-go text seems to be a widespread phenomenon. I have has Instagram Messenger exchanges wherein seemingly random posts in the convo disappear, then come back later, or can be seen if I am on a computer but not on a phone, or vice versa.

          Good advice, though. Personally nothing could have kept me from moving out of the house when I did, but both parents were then very much alive!

    • John Shutkin says:

      p.s. And yes; my mom was wise and wonderful — even when she drove me crazy.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Your mother was a wise woman, John. As much as I dearly loved mine, she wanted me to stay home (literally) for college and attend Wayne State University, a commuter school back in those days. It was my father who pushed me to attend the University of Michigan (my only other choice as I had no idea there were ways to afford colleges out of state). I guess I should save that for my story about him. We encouraged our kids to choose colleges based on their passions, not geography. Of course, the downside is that only one of the three eventually came home again.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Laurie. And good for your father – -and for you for listening. And, coincidentally, just last week I was in New Haven visiting my older daughter who went to and now works at Yale. As we were walking around, I was thinking to myself, “Well, Mom, here I am back on the Yale campus anyway.”

  3. Suzy says:

    So glad your mother gave you that advice, John, or else I never would have met you! And as one of the pals of yours whom she hosted, I can vouch for what a great hostess she was! Love the two wedding photos you included – was she wearing an off-the-shoulder dress in the 1991 pic?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy — though undoubtedly one of my three high school classmates who was in your class at the Cliffe would have said to you, “Hey, wanna meet this really cool guy I went to high school with who goes to Yale?”

      And yes; about my mother. One piece of advice my mother apparently never got was about not dressing flashily at a wedding other than your own. Which reminds me, even more specifically, did your mother ever advise you that the mother of the groom should always wear beige? (I’ve heard that often, but obviously not from my own mother.)

  4. Your mother was indeed a wise woman John!

    I had a similar decision to make – library grad school in New York, or going out-of-town to Simmons.. As Columbia was considered the top library school and Ivy League to boot, I stayed but lived in a women’s grad dorm, not at home. It was the right decision and I don’t remember my parents pressuring me one way to the other.

    When my son was ready for college he didn’t even consider staying in New York!

  5. Marian says:

    Excellent advice from a savvy and loving mom, John. She got you to “stretch” and still maintain a strong connection with home and Yale. When I transferred to Mills, my parents lived just 20 minutes away, but I insisted on living in the dorm and finding my own way around Oakland, which was a great experience.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. Clearly the right advice. But, that said, I am quite sure that we would have both ensured my independence from home even if I had gone to Yale. Indeed, I was reminded of a high school friend of my brother’s who was at Yale two years ahead of me and whose father was also on the Yale faculty. I had had lunch with him on cmapus in early November of my senior year in high school and we accidentally bumped into his father walking in the other direction. They nicely embraced and made it clear that they hadn’t seen each other since the semester started in early September and he had moved back into his residential college.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great advice, John. Two hours (particularly since you had your own car, so going home wasn’t a burden) isn’t far at all. And developmentally, it was your task to separate and grow and experiment. Which is just what you did!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Exactly right and thanks, Betsy. Though, of course, I’ll never know what would have happened had I, in fact, taken “The Road Not Taken.”

      But I can confirm, as I now drive from home in the Boston area to New Haven to see my older daughter in New Haven, that the drive time is just about the same. (I may drive a bit slower, but the route through Hartford is a bit more direct. Plus my beloved but underpowered Karmann Ghia in college really struggled on hills.)

  7. Jim Willis says:

    John, I loved your moving account of the choice you face and how your mother lovingly intervened to help you do what you wanted to do anyway. As I think of it, my mom was actually ready for me to go to school, although the University of Oklahoma was only 30 minutes away. She had been prepping for it emotionally, and she was also warming up to the idea of turning my bedroom into a sewing room (she did leave me bed, though, which I appreciated when I came home.) I’ll have to go back now and look and some of your earlier reflections on your mom to see if there are other similarities between her and mine. Maybe there’s a Mom’s Club out there where moms trade their wisdom and ideas with each other?

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