Martin Meeker’s April 2021 Director’s Column
With the month of May fast approaching, I have been thinking a great deal about motherhood in general and my Mom in particular. Growing up, Mother’s Day was a big deal around my house — and my Mom wasn’t shy about letting us know that she appreciated the day off (from work at the office and home) and didn’t mind a little fuss being made for her. And she deserved it. My two sisters and I put her (and my Dad) through the paces. The entry of her kids into adulthood wasn’t so easy, either, with our cultural and political clashes, divorces, and career uncertainty. But our family persisted, largely due to my Mom, who willingly, or perhaps expectedly, assumed a peacemaker role. Lately, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the family more closely together with regular Zoom reunions and an active, if usually silly, text group.
This week will mark the first time I get to lay my eyes on my mom in about 18 months — too long, considering that she’ll turn 80 this year. So, I’m thinking about the many, often difficult, roles that mothers are compelled to play and how those roles have changed. And, with COVID, have become more fraught and challenging.
When I begin to ponder something, arcane or universal, I’ll often turn to the OHC archive of 4000 oral histories with an eye to hearing first person accounts of real experiences on a given topic. Thankfully, our archive is replete with mainstream and remarkable stories of women who reflect on the joys, the work, the meaning, and the trials of motherhood.
Beverly Hancock Bouwsma, who was interviewed in 2001 for the UC Berkeley History Department project as a faculty wife, mused throughout her oral history of familial division of labor and the work of motherhood — in her case raising five children. When asked by OHC historian Ann Lage, “Did you enjoy motherhood?” Bouwsma replied, “Oh, I loved it. I did. I mean, sometimes it’s the worst thing in the world, but I always had a nice time with the children and cared desperately about them growing up. It seems like I didn’t, because when I hear now what they did, and I never knew about it, it seems like I must have been an awful mother. But I remember, at the time, I did what I thought you should do, and I really cared a lot.” This brief response articulates the love and frustrations and ambiguity many narrators in our collection reveal about motherhood — their recollections are rarely pat, especially when given the opportunity to reflect and speak at length.
Bay Area businesswoman Margaret Liu Collins, who was interviewed in 2011, recalls having two children with a husband who was abusive. Eventually the marriage ended and she raised the kids on her own, which kept her busy trying to build a business during the daytime, attending prayer meetings in the evening, and soccer games on the weekends. Then tragedy struck: her seven-year-old son was hit by a drunk driver. Collins recounted the moment, “It was 1979 sometime in October. I heard a siren going past my house because our house was on Belmont Canyon Road. The school was just across the street. We moved there from Cupertino because I had to travel a lot to Texas to do all my real estate, as well as go to Hong Kong and meet all my clients. I heard footsteps running onto the deck of our driveway, and somebody banged on the door. I had a really bad feeling that something was happening. The girl next door came and said, ‘Mrs. Liu, your son has been hit by a van and has been taken by the fire department to a hospital nearby’.” She continued, “When I went to Mills Hospital, he was in a coma. The doctor said he might never wake up. I was in pain. He was a brilliant child. It was my child. How could he pre-decease me? He had a whole future ahead. He had always lived with such enthusiasm, such curiosity. He loved people, and everybody loved him. He was generous. He was kind. He was giving. He could always solve problems. I still remember at that moment, I was feeling very sad.” Several months of treatment, uncertainty, and fear followed. Eventually, her son emerged from his coma and made a full recovery. She thanked God for his blessings but it was her devotion and love that brought her son back from the brink.
As well as recollections from women about their own experiences of motherhood, OHC’s collection contains thousands of memories of mothers by daughters and sons. Shirley Henderson, who was interviewed for our Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front project, remembered growing up in Berkeley in the 1930s admiring her mom for engaging in service activities outside the home: “My mother was the original community volunteer. She was a very capable and bubbly, outgoing woman. She did Girl Scouts; she was indefatigable at the church. I wonder what churches are going to be like when there are no more women to work as volunteers, which is about where the churches are now, almost. She ran a Sunday school class, a very large class of girls, because the girls were all so enthusiastic about the class that they brought their friends. My mother had them from the fourth grade through the twelfth grade, the same girls for that whole time. My mother had a very good third ear, and some of those girls had family troubles, and they were lucky to have my mother. I can remember being jealous of them because my mother gave them more attention than she gave to me. But I didn’t need it. That’s, of course, the other half, the flip side.”
These passages represent the slightest hint at the extensive archive of stories of mothers and motherhood in the OHC collection. While OHC has never embarked on an “oral history of motherhood,” by using our search tool, you can construct your own such archive by uncovering many more of these remarkable narratives of exceptional mothers. And we hope you do this Mother’s Day and beyond.
Find these interviews and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.