Some Reflections on Mother’s Day

AlicePietyAndOneOfHerBabiesMy father said he had no memory of his mother, none that is, except for one very vague, shadowy memory of being held by a woman who was standing at a stove, cooking something. He was the third of what would eventually be five children. His mother was seventeen when he was born.

Alice Eugenia Farrar liked to write poetry. She never finished school, though, because she was forced to marry her teacher when she became pregnant by him. Her husband, Austin LeGrand Piety, protested in a letter to one of his children that he had not seduced her. He was twenty-seven when they married. She was fifteen.

Fifteen is too young, of course, to begin having children. Five children in rapid succession ruined her health. She contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium when my father was still a toddler. Her husband was unable both to earn a living and take care of five children all by himself, so he deposited them in the Working Woman’s Home and Day Nursery in Little Rock. That was sometime in 1934 when my father was three years old.

As far as I can make out, he never saw his mother again. She had brief periods when her health improved, but she never fully recovered. She died of tuberculosis when my father was twelve. He told me several times that I looked like her, but that judgment must have been based on photographs rather than memory. We had a few photographs of her when I was a child. I didn’t know they were photos of her, though. I didn’t know who the subject was. They were just old photos of someone I didn’t know.

My father never talked about his mother when I was a child because he had no memories of her to share. I didn’t even know her name until I was in my thirties. It just never came up. She must have been a very good mother, though (an impressive accomplishment for someone who was herself still a child) because all her children turned out well. And by “well” I don’t mean they became successful professionals, though they did. I mean they were kind and caring people, sympathetic and empathetic with developed social consciences. Research has shown that the first two to three years in a child’s life are crucial to its development, more crucial, perhaps, than any subsequent years. A child who isn’t held enough, during this period, who isn’t nurtured and coddled enough, cooed over and talked to enough, will not develop normally in an emotional sense (see, for example, Hildyard and Wolfe, “Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes”). I don’t mean to suggest that it is impossible for children who received insufficient attention in those crucial early years to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults. I don’t know that that is something anyone could ever know. What we do know, however, is that achievement is more difficult for them.

Alice Eugenia Farrar Piety must have been an extraordinary person. It is almost impossible now, however, to learn anything about her. There is no one alive anymore, so far as I know, who knew her when she was alive. Among my father’s papers, there is one heart-rending letter from her to her sister-in-law begging that her children not be put up for adoption.

There are also a couple of her poems. They’re unimpressive, though, compared to those of her more intellectually accomplished husband. But then, she was not allowed to become intellectually accomplished. An early pregnancy and subsequent poverty killed whatever dreams she may have had of that sort.

She doesn’t look poor in the photo at the beginning of this piece. She looks, in fact, very middle class, sitting in the backyard of a nice middle-class house, coddling a baby that her apparent age suggests she is looking after for someone else. She isn’t the child’s baby-sitter, though, she’s its mother. No one even knows anymore who the child in the photo is. The writing on the back reads simply “Alice with one of her babies.” The photo was likely taken early in her marriage, before her husband’s pay was cut in half, before he began to lose one job after another.

Scan 4The photo here, of my father and his two older brothers Philip (far left) and Louis (middle), gives a better idea of Alice’s material circumstances after her marriage and repeated pregnancies. One can just glimpse a portion of their house in the background.

James Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that the inability of the share croppers he studied to control how many children they had was one of the main reasons they were unable to work themselves up out of poverty. How many people, men as well as women, have been forced into marriages simply as a result of the fact that they could not control whether they would have children if they had sex? How much alcoholism, drug addiction, and child abuse can be traced back to unwanted pregnancies? How much violence more generally can be traced to anger at feeling trapped in a life over which one has no control?

My father was a life-long contributor to Planned Parenthood. He was a kind-hearted person with a soft spot for children. He didn’t like the idea of abortion, but he liked even less the idea of children being forced to become mothers, or worse, driven to acts that might end their own lives as well as those of their unborn children. Many people associate Planned Parenthood with abortion. Most Planned Parenthood clinics don’t provide abortion services, though, but only contraceptive services (see their website where they state that only “some” Planned Parenthood clinics provide abortion services), as well as more general healthcare services. (I received treatment for a bladder infection at a Planned Parenthood clinic when I was in graduate school.) Such services, my father thought, were essential to a humane and properly functioning society.

How many women’s lives have vanished, like Alice’s, because they became mothers too young?

My father was adamant about continuing his monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood, even when, late in retirement, he could ill afford them. I never asked him if this was in part because of his mother. It seems to me now, though, that she has to have been there, in the back of his mind, the shadowy figure, balancing his tiny form on her hip as she stood at the stove.

 

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in the 11 May issue of Counterpunch. I had erroneously indicated that Alice’s age when she married was thirteen. That was what my father had told me. My cousin Timothy, one of Louis’ children corrected me, however. He calculated Alice’s age when she married based on her birthday on her gravestone and the year his father, the oldest child, was born.)

All Over America the Lamps are Going Out

Agee photo finalThese are bad times. I thought of James Agee’s beautiful and heartrending work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman case. There’s an account, very near the beginning of the book, of Agee’s and Walker Evans’s encounter with a young black couple that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days. Agee and Evans had found a church they wanted to photograph. The church was in a relatively deserted wooded area and was locked. As the two men were wondering whether to force their way in, a young black couple came walking by. The couple, Agee writes,

[w]ithout appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, … made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. (p. 36.)

Agee decides to go after the couple to ask them if they know where to find a minister or someone else who could let them into the church. Agee, being Agee trails behind them at first simply observing them “taking pleasure… in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, … and in the beauty in the sunlight on their clothes.” They are obviously courting, both dressed in their Sunday best. He in “dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat,” she in “a flowered pink cotton dress” and “freshly whited pumps.

“I was walking more rapidly than they,” explains Agee, “but quietly.” Still, before he had gone far, the couple, as if they could sense his presence, turned back and looked at him “briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field.” Agee waved at them, but they’d already turned away again. He began to walk faster, but was impatient to catch up to them, so he “broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel,” writes Agee

the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, … [said] ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. …. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking. … I …  asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and … again, … I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back. (pp. 37-39.)

I remember when I read this passage the horror that came over me to think that anyone would ever have to live with such constant fear. That couple had been frightened, even if only briefly, for their lives.

I knew what it was like to be pursued. I was one of the very few white children at my school for most of my childhood and though the black children who knew me were almost always kind to me, the ones who didn’t know me, the ones I might encounter at recess or walking to or from school, were not. I’d been chased before and been called names and had things thrown at me. I once had a glass bottle thrown at me. It shattered just in front of me so that I could feel the force of the tiny fragments against my shins. I’d learned very early to keep walking, no matter what what was going on behind or in front of me, I’d learned somehow by instinct, I think, not to display fear. Of course I couldn’t ignore people either. I had to acknowledge them, but I couldn’t appear to be afraid. I don’t know why, exactly, that worked, but it did and I knew somehow, even as a child, that it would.

So I identified with that couple. I knew what it was like to affect nonchalance when you are really very afraid. I knew the intricacies of the subtle etiquette of self defense and how it kicks in automatically at such times. I identified with this couple. But still, I had never been afraid for my life.

There are not words to describe what it must be like to live that way, to live with an ever-present fear for one’s very life. I remember when I read that passage I thought to myself, thank God, thank God black people do not have to live like that anymore.

These are bad times.

(This piece was originally published in Counterpunch, 24 July 2013.)