In praise of mothers, past and present

On many days, I scratch my head, look up to heaven and sigh, “Mom, you’re to blame for the way I am.” And on many other days, I scratch my head, look up to heaven and sigh, “Mom, I never appreciated you enough. Thanks for everything.” Mother’s Day is one of those days.

When my friend Peter’s mother died a few months ago at age 85, he flew to Ireland for her funeral. He was one of 13 kids, and she was one of 22. She had a sharp tongue, Peter recalled, and ran a tight ship.

To Peter, it was obvious she did her job well, and it was also obvious she knew how to parent without the benefit of Dr. Spock’s advice, during an era when the wooden spoon was widely employed as a persuasive tool for kids who got out of control. Back then, there were no new age practices like “time out.”

Some mothers put corporate America to shame with their managerial skills. Others put the Marine Corps to shame. And when you consider their undying commitment to caring for their children, their motto could also be “Semper Fidelis.” Always faithful.

Motherhood is enormous work with few rewards. Oftentimes there’s no appreciation — at least that’s what my wife tells me — so this year, I’m making a special effort to appreciate mothers, past, present and future. Theirs is a monumental job, a job that is ultimately more meaningful than positions of authority and influence like the CEO of JPMorgan Chase and the Mayor of New York.

I’ve always been in awe of my father’s mother. She was an Italian immigrant who was widowed in her early 40s and raised nine kids single-handedly in an apartment on the East Side of Bridgeport during the Great Depression. She did it without any financial assistance or social service agencies. How is that possible?

Every afternoon when my father and his brothers came home from St. Mary’s Grammar School, they’d grab their shoeshine boxes and walk to Main Street to make some money to support the family. Later, they’d go down to the docks, where they’d pick up coal that fell off the trucks so they could heat the apartment.

When I was a youngster, I spent summers with my grandmother, and during the afternoon while I lay on the kitchen floor with my coloring book, she’d sit nearby in a rocking chair, praying her rosary. Then, she would put two sweet potatoes in the oven for us. Eventually, she fell asleep in the chair but woke up just in time to take the potatoes out and fill them with butter. They were the best sweet potatoes I’ve ever eaten.

Years later, when she had to go into a nursing home, I visited her every Friday, and one evening as my mother and I were leaving, she looked at my grandmother sitting peacefully in her rocking chair and said, “One mother can take care of nine kids, but nine kids can’t take care of one mother.”

There’s no employee of the month award with motherhood. It’s all about unconditional love, endless work and endless worries, often in the face of resistance and criticism, and usually the fruits of your labor aren’t apparent for many years.

So we set aside one day a year to make up for the millions of times we neglected to say thank you. Happy Mother’s Day ... and thank you to mothers near and far, to mothers past and present.

Joe Pisani can be reached at