My parents were from two different worlds, yet it was the difference in their upbringing that would often provide the strength we would need as a family in bad times. These differences also offered me the wisdom and humor that would help to guide me throughout my life. Today, I can say with absolute clarity that my parents were and remain my rock.
Both were raised during the Great Depression, my mother living in the mini-metropolis of Worcester, Massachusetts, while my father was brought up in a small West Virginia hamlet called Rowlesburg. I frequently joked that my mom was a bobbysoxer, driven by intellectual pursuits, while my father would often refer to himself as nothing but a “simple hillbilly.” There is some truth in each of those statements, but it only scratches the surface of who my parents were.
I am a paradox for I am both a “mama’s boy,” while also being my father’s son. Each of them gifted me with what would become the best parts of me. I lay my victories down at their feet, while my failures rest solely with me because I failed to heed their advice. Their differences blended extremely well within me, yet I am only half the person of either one of them. They always challenged me to be better, and even now the memory of them pushes me.
My mother was the one who taught me to play chess, but also coached me in the very New England sport of candlepin bowling (a sport native to her hometown of Worcester). As many sports trophies as my father had, my mother had more. She was both an incredible chess player and marvelous athlete, but also a valued tutor. She always pushed me to appreciate things I would not necessarily pursue on my own.
My mother was also a frustrated writer, every so often typing short stories while my brothers and sister were creating mayhem (which we did with absolute perfection). My mother encouraged me to read poetry, often giving me the works of Frost, Emerson and Thoreau for my birthdays. Mom also introduced me to classic authors, “asking” me to read “Little Women,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Emma” (her favorite). She would simple say “trust me.” I am pretty sure my mother knew it made a positive difference in my life, but I still regret I never thanked her for gently pushing me in the right direction.
As much as each of these readings expanded my intellectual endeavors, they also had a wonderful side benefit. Girls. Whether by design, or mere happenstance, I found that some young women were intrigued that I actually knew about Emma Woodhouse, the March sisters, and Mr. Darcy. I was only slightly mocked by my less than sophisticated friends when they started to notice that I did not have any difficulty talking to the opposite sex. It didn’t hurt that both my mother and father made sure I could defend myself, which made the mocking less likely.
During my sophomore year at Portsmouth High School (Go Clippers!), she was overjoyed when I started to study Shakespeare. Maybe it was her Scottish lineage, but her favorite story was “Macbeth.” Seeing the thrill she had for that story is one of my most favorite memories. She would ask me every day “what scene are you on?” Then she would immediately engage me, connecting what I had read with their meanings. She had the greatest smile and was a wonderful teacher (except with math, yikes!), and God knows I miss that so much.
Oddly, every time I hear “Macbeth,” I fondly remember my mom kneeling down cleaning a stain on our living room rug, uttering the phrase “Out, damned spot” laughing hysterically. I would just shake my head and call her a “goof.” Yet, years later, I did the exact same thing to my son.
My mom also gifted me “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn,” my two favorite books. These books taught me at a very young age about injustice, integrity and friendship. My mom and dad reinforced these principles by whom they invited into our home as friends.
Sitting at our dinner table as friends were an African-America airman who was raised in Jim Crow Mississippi and his wife, and Irish immigrant from Belfast. A Hawaiian of Chinese ancestry, who loved to prepare Mexican cuisine, who also happened to be married to a woman who immigrated from Japan. My parents’ welcomed people into our home with love, honor and respect. As I write these words today, I understand the impact, but as it was happening, I looked upon it as “normal.”
People of all faiths and ethnicities surrounded us during a time in which our country struggled with race and religion. Yet, somehow a bobbysoxer from Massachusetts and a hillbilly from West Virginia figured it out because they believed and taught each of their children to “Love Thy Neighbor” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Lastly, I have my mom to thank for one of my most cherished gifts, my name. She told my father without exception that my name would be Jeffrey Scott. My father put up only token resistance.
Although the name has fallen in favor over the past decade, it is in the meaning of each name that serves as a reminder of my mother’s hopes for me. Jeff, “peaceful gift/pledge.” Scott, “of Scotland, traveler.” Looking back at my life, I can only hope I have lived up to the name my parents gifted me.