Several months after my mother passed away, the Executive Director of Shalom Counselling Center, the non-profit at which mother counselled underprivileged women and children for two decades, asked me whether I would be willing to be the featured speaker of a fundraiser for the Center that would serve as a celebration of mother’s life. Of course, I was happy to do so and the event took place on April 20, 2013. In attendance were my father Lloyd (born 1929), my older brother Rick (1954), my next younger brother Brad (1959), my youngest brother Terry (1963), baby sister Jackie (1969) and me (1956), plus ten grandchildren.
In a conversation with my friend Arianna Huffington in April 2020, I mentioned the video of that talk, which can be found on YouTube. When she watched it, she recommended that I clean up and edit the transcript of my talk for publication. Since I generally take Ariana’s advice, that is what I have done below. I will start with eight vignettes from which I will draw the three most important lessons that I learned from my mother.
Vignette One: The Practice Rule
All five Martin children played sports incessantly, so much so that there was rarely a day of school after which we did not have practice for one sport or another. When I got to high school, my mother imposed on me the rule that she had imposed on Rick when he had reached high school. If, for any reason whatsoever, I felt sufficiently ill to stay home from school, I was not allowed to attend a sports practice that evening. I suspect the rule came into being when Rick had made a miraculous midday recovery and attended a basketball practice after having missed school.
The consequence of this rule was that I did not miss a single day of school for my entire high school career because I was incredibly motivated to get to the practice of whatever sport I was playing at the time. I never thought of it as a negative motivation. I just knew that I had to feel well enough to go to school so that I could go to my beloved sports practice.
Vignette Two: Notes for Terry
We grew up in the hamlet of Wallenstein (population under 100 at the time) and all of us attended Elmira District Secondary School in the nearby town of Elmira, Ontario (population about 5,000 at the time). It was a relatively strict school and if you missed school for any reason, you needed to arrive the next day with a note from your parent. My youngest brother Terry is really smart and a very fast study and was easily bored when he got ahead in school, which happened routinely. Because he and my mother were likeminded and close, he would repeatedly ask her to stay home from school and hang around with her or just read.
Instead of sending him off to school every day, she let him stay home when he asked. She would send him to school the next day with a signed note that read: “Terry was absent from school yesterday.” This persisted for some amount of time until my mother got called into the vice-principal’s office to have explained to her that the spirit of the rule was not that you just had to have a note signed by your parents, the note should actually give some rationale for the absence. My mother generally adhered to the spirit of the law, not letter of the law. But in this instance, she simply held firm and informed him that the rule was that a parental note was required and she was providing a note. The vice-principal backed down and the practice persisted for as long as Terry was in high school.
Vignette Three: Cheerios in Church
Throughout my childhood, our family attended Hawkesville Mennonite Church. In the Mennonite culture, churches are quiet austere places. One Sunday morning in the pew ahead of us was a mother with a boy about three years of age who was getting increasingly agitated. He had a little plastic cup that had previously been full of Cheerios that he had powered through. His agitation was clearly a product of the lack of success in convincing his mother to get him more Cheerios. The mother was attempting to quiet him but it wasn’t working. He was getting louder and she was getting more distressed about spoiling the serenity of the service. My mother, who also had been watching, quietly walked over to the boy, spoke to him sweetly, after which he handed his cup to my mother who took it, walked to the kitchen at the back of the church, refilled the cup and gave it to the boy.
Since I tended to quiz my mother on a routine basis about just about everything, I asked her why she did it. She said: “Well Roger, you know that young boy gains no value at this point from being in church. He can’t understand the sermon and he’s just too young to go into Sunday school. What you want to happen is for him to appreciate church so that when he is old enough to understand what it is about; he will have a positive feeling about the potential value of church to him.”
Vignette Four: The Harvard C-minus
I went straight from Wallenstein and Elmira District Secondary School to Harvard College. To an even greater extent than most Harvard freshmen from prestigious prep schools and big cities, I wondered whether I was truly the admission mistake. I took the standard program of four courses in the first semester, one of which had an unusual structure. Rather than having a midterm at the halfway point, Economics 10 had two midterms: one at the one-third mark and a second at the two-thirds mark. So, my first feedback on whether I was an admissions error incapable of the rigors of Harvard was the Economics 10 first mid-term. No other feedback would come until the mid-terms in the three other courses several weeks thereafter.
Sure enough I got a C-minus. I was saddened and worried by the truly awful grade. So, I thought I would call home and commiserate with whoever answered the phone, which was mother as it turned out. I told her the tale of woe and queried whether I was up for this. My mother responded in the cheeriest possible voice, so cheery I will never forget it for the rest of my life: “Oh Roger, just quit with that Harvard thing, come on home. This is not for you.” I was furious. I told her that this is when she was supposed to reassure me and tell me that I would overcome the challenges. But she persisted in arguing that it was fine to come back and end this nice experiment. At that point, I was really mad. I explained to her in no uncertain terms that I was not quitting, I was not coming back, and I was most certainly not going to fail.
Vignette Five: Felix & the Christmas Tree
The youngest of the grandchildren is Felix, Jackie’s youngest, who was five at the time of this vignette. Felix loves having nine older cousins but sometimes he is left at loose ends if they are all engaged in an activity for which he is too young. It was our Martin family Christmas gathering at our parents’ house and Felix was in a rambunctious mood, running around and throwing a Nerf ball that he had gotten for Christmas. It hit the Christmas tree and knocked off a half-dozen ornaments. They didn’t break but they were scattered over the floor.
My mother went over to Felix and, rather than scolding him, said in a pleasant voice: “Well Felix, you see, that’s why we don’t throw things around indoors.” Felix turns to his beloved grandmother and said: “Oh grandma, I will never throw a ball in the house ever again.”
Vignette Six: Where was the Last Time You Held it in Your Hand?
There were many times growing up that I would ask my mother to help me find something – a toy truck, a baseball, or an article of clothing. While I probably thought that a loving and kind mother would go find it for me, that never happened. She would always ask me the same question: “Roger, where can you remember the last time you held into your hand?” And I would think it through and she’d help me with it. I’d say “Well, I remember it upstairs in Rick’s bedroom.” And she would ask: “Was that really the last time Roger? Can you not think of anything, anytime, that was after that?” I’d work it through in my head and finally come to conclusion on the last time and place. She would smile and suggest that I go check that location and inevitably it would be there.
Vignette Seven: Mother vs Food with Heidi
We had a miniature schnauzer growing up that was a product of Jackie’s excellent strategy. She wanted a dog and because Jackie is very clever, she used the ultimate card with mother: “I want a baby sister. All my brothers have one have one and I don’t.” Mother said no to the baby sister and offered up a puppy instead meaning that Jackie got the dog that she actually wanted all along. Mothers resist requests for a dog because mothers know that even though it is notionally a child’s dog, it inevitably becomes primarily attached to the mother because the mother typically ends up being the primary source of food, which is what happened with Heidi. As a result, Heidi loved mother with an undying and largely unrequited love.
The other thing Heidi loved was meat. We decided one day that we needed to do a rigorous experiment to determine which Heidi liked better: mother or meat. We set up the experiment in our family room. Heidi was positioned in between two relatively high stacks of seat cushions from the couches, from side-wall to side-wall. One of us got a piece of hamburger meat from the fridge and stood on one side of the cushion-wall. Then, we cajoled our dear mother who was busy in the kitchen to come and stand on the other side. The experiment involved simultaneously revealing the meat and having mother call ‘Heidi come’, which my mom would almost never do. If she ever gave any sense of love or attention to Heidi, the dog would go absolutely crazy. So, this was the acid test: mother versus meat
It was very important to us but, of course, incredibly silly. As you can well imagine, the answer in this small and only modestly intelligent dog’s head was to leap over to grab the meat and then as quickly as possible leap back over two stacks of cushions to mother, hoping no doubt that mother would not notice that she went for the meat first.
Vignette Eight: Dad Coming Home from South America
There were very few times when we were growing up when either the whole family wasn’t together or mother and father weren’t together. The only time I remember father traveling alone on a long trip was when he went to South America as part of the delegation of a charity organization, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, that was providing technical advice and financial support to struggling farming communities in Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia. It was about three weeks long and we all we all missed him.
On the day he was flying back from South America, there were news reports that a plane that flying from South America to North America crashed in the Caribbean killing all on board. In those days, of course, you couldn’t go on flightaware.com to figure out exactly which flight it was. So, we were quite rattled. We hoped it wasn’t his plane but we had no idea. I’ll always remember when father walked through the door, delighted and happy to be home, but also blissfully ignorant of the plane crash because he had been in transit the whole time. My mother just raced over to him, hugged him with all her might and sobbed uncontrollably. I’d never seen any such thing from her before because she was quite stoic. But she was so happy to see dad that her emotions were uncontrollable.
At this point, one might reasonably ask: What is one to take away from these eight vignettes? Or maybe even: Is there anything one can take away? Take heart! For me, there are three powerful lessons woven through the fabric of these vignettes.
Lesson One: Sometimes the Same is Different and Different is the Same
Terry and I got treated very differently. As you recall, I couldn’t go to basketball practice unless I went to school, so I chose to never miss a day of school. Terry got to not go to school whenever he darn well pleased. But that’s because mother treated us differently to produce the same result. She knew I was resourceful – I talked teachers into letting me go to the gym for 15 minutes at the end of their class to shoot baskets if my work was all finished – and more dutiful about school. And she knew it could break Terry’s spirit to be bored to tears at school and knew he wouldn’t spend the time at home shooting baskets on the driveway; he would read. Mother’s objective was to produce children who were happy and doing the things that worked for each. Since Terry is now a chaired Harvard history professor, it seemed to have not impeded him academically.
The kid in the church got treated differently from others because that’s what that kid needed at that point. She didn’t go wandering around giving Cheerios randomly to the kids in church, but in that particular instance, different meant getting the same result. Sometimes you need to apply the letter of the law to get the results sought by the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law was to have students succeed. She used the letter of the law to get the results desired by the spirit of the law.
The lesson is that if you always treat different people the same, sometimes you will actually get different results; results you might not want. Sometimes the only way to get the same desired result is to treat different people differently.
Lesson Two: There is no Substitute for Training a Young Person to Think
The kid in church needed to learn about how to think about church in a productive way and that meant Cheerios. Felix needed to learn how to play carefully inside and that meant not scolding him. I needed to learn how to find things by myself and that meant teaching me the right question to ask. I needed to figure out for myself that I wanted to stay at Harvard: nobody else could figure that out or teach me that. I had to figure it out that intrinsic motivation is so much better than any other kind. It was worth mother taking the chance that I would listen to her and quit. I think she knew me well enough to take a chance in order to get the intrinsic motivation.
I should have probably expected the response to my Harvard SOS call. Whenever I had previously complained about anything, she would just say: “Oh, just stop doing it then Roger!” If I came back from basketball practice and complained about something or other, she would just say in the same cheery voice: “Oh just quit Roger; it’s not worth that.” I would angrily inform her that there was absolutely no way that I would quit basketball. And her response, of course, was that maybe I didn’t need to waste our time complaining about it.
The lesson is that for my mother, there was no substitute for training a young person to think and I was a big beneficiary of that training.
Lesson Three: Be Optimistic!
A recurring event in my life and those of my siblings was that whenever one of us would come to mother with a tale of woe, we would be told: “Life has its vicissitudes.” It was not said in a harsh or unfeeling way but rather calmly as a factual description of life. One might think that this is a pessimistic view but it was exactly the opposite: while life can never be stripped of all vicissitudes, you can get and will get over them.
Kids can develop important skills and positive attitudes, you can figure out how to find stuff, you can develop positive intrinsic motivations, you can love deeply even if it means experiencing the associated pain from time to time, and, finally don’t be afraid to fool around and just be silly.
These are the lessons that I learned from my mother.