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Pause and Call Them 'Blessed'

A Mother's Day walk through history

By William Shelton • May 13, 2023

Motherhood is a complicated role, and every culture from the dawn of man has placed the burden of great expectations on mothers. Some take to it naturally, others play the role by ear, striking a sour note occasionally, but most excel through hard work and gumption. It is regrettable testimony that more often than not their success is not recognized until long after the mothering of motherhood has passed, and their brood are raising children of their own. How fitting, right, and proper it is that we pause annually to rise up and call 'blessed' those women who brought us into being through pain, tears, and toil.

There are some mothers with whom history has not dealt kindly. Of the four children of Cleopatra, only her daughter, who bore her name, survived their mother's political machinations to reach adulthood and have a family of her own. Likewise, Eleanor of Aquitaine who served as both Queen of France and subsequently Queen of England, plotted in favor, and against, each of her children during her long life. Greek mythology is no less sparing of motherhood. Medea killed her sons in revenge for being jilted by the hero Jason, and Phaedra was so consumed with lust for her stepson Hippolytus that only death could quench her desire. Then there is Grendel's Mother, whom Medieval scholars cannot decide if she was a heroic figure of the epic poem Beowulf, or the granddaughter of murderous Cain. Just as life imitates art, there are mothers who fall short of their high calling, and deserve our pity rather than scorn.

Perhaps it is the villains of Walt Disney Studios who have helped give stepmothers a bad rap? Everything from attempted homicide to being grounded from going to your first dance, the stepmoms in Disney films are rotten to the core of their poisoned apples. Were it not for the forest creatures, elves, dwarves, fairy godmothers, and a handy prince or two, what would have become of the hapless damsels of these movies?

Not all stepmothers are viewed in such a negative light. Abraham Lincoln forever praised the influence of his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, for lifting the pall of his early life spent in grinding poverty and ignorance. It was she who encouraged him to learn to read and pursue the larger world outside of a log cabin on the frontier wilderness.

Miss Jane Pittman, who allegedly reached the prodigious age of 112, is a prime example of village-style motherhood. Her cabin was the home of numerous children from the Quarters, none of whom were her own. This is a common feature of both rural communities, and urban blocks: the collective motherhood for the entire passel of children, never out of calling distance of some matronly figure be it grandmother, aunt, or Gladys Kravitz.

Sometimes, through death, indifference, or adoption, the person who fills the role of "mother" is not the one who was the source of life for certain people. Is the bond, or love, any less? I have heard of a mother who lost her son to murder, then came to fill the maternal role for the young man who took the life of her son, dutifully visiting and advocating for his wellbeing for the remainder of her life.

For me, it was an aunt who, though childless throughout her marriage, found herself with two nephews and a niece in middle-aged widowhood. The runt of this litter was breach birth, premature, and weighed less than three pounds. Carried from the hospital on a pillow in her arms, she remained my champion and cheerleader until some thirty years later when I closed her eyes in death. Marie Shelton Hodge did not have to teach me the virtues she espoused in life, I learned them from watching her quiet humility, never-failing thoughtfulness for others, and the forgiveness without blame which she extended to her transgressors. Whatever sterling qualities I may possess came from her example.

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