Just in time for Mother’s Day, granddaughter Blake has presented our family with a baby girl, bringing my great-grand total to eight. Little Charlotte Mary’s not-so-big brother was an only child for a short 20 months. He has been a happy baby, and we’re hoping that won’t change. In these pandemic days, he has become accustomed to the constant presence of his mother and he may not want to share her with this newcomer.

Such is the way of the establishment of a family. As important as the father is in any family, most of us still agree with poet William Ross Wallace whose praise for motherhood is still quoted all these years after publication in 1865. “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” he said. Throughout the poem he praises motherhood as the preeminent force for change in the world. While his words bring to mind a picture of a loving and caring stay-at-home mom, the message is clear. The impact and influence of strong, wise, compassionate mothers is a fact of life.

While some mothers just don’t measure up, others become admirable examples. We could begin with Eve, whose boys were, apparently, a handful. Then there is Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, and the Virgin Mary, who will forever be revered. Susanna Wesley’s influence in the lives of her sons can be seen throughout the annals of Methodism. I don’t know the story of Whistler’s Mother, but I venture to say she was proud of him. Today’s Queen Elizabeth had to share her mother with all Britishers who lovingly referred to her as Queen Mum. And then there is the rest of us.

I was not prepared to be a mother. Is anybody? I never held a baby until I had one. I received a lot of advice and learned a lot of valuable lessons from those mothers who preceded me in our family. I grew up in a home that had two mothers, my birth mother and her mother. (Papa was there, in the background, making a living.) Grandma certainly ruled her world, and she came from a generation whose mothers actually did rock cradles. I don’t recall ever hearing her talk about her own mother, but she surely was influenced by her. Grandma married at age 16, and although functionally illiterate, she ran her household with an iron hand. She reared four sons and a daughter to adulthood, but lost three babies in infancy. For her, motherhood was a way of life. Everything she did to make a home was for her children and grandchildren … and my Papa, a saint if ever there was one. During WWII, she, along with my mother and mothers all over America, worked outside the home. But that was not her calling.

My own mother learned first-hand from Grandma, day in and day out, all about mothering and making a home. A single mother at a time when that was not the norm, she became a sort of “hired hand,” working alongside Grandma. There was the never-ending laundry, and cleaning, and stoking the fires. They tended the flower and vegetable gardens, from planting to harvest and preserving. They ran a one-cow dairy, there was always milk and buttermilk and butter. They fattened the hogs, and helped to butcher them and harvest their many parts, down to rendering lard and grinding sausage. There were always fat hens and crowing roosters and baby chicks and nests of eggs. I learned early on the answer to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” It was simply to get away from Grandma. And always, the kitchen was the center of the home’s activity. It was perhaps motherhood’s throne room. It was certainly where Grandma best showed her love. Mama found other ways to love me, her only child. While Papa’s reading matter was the Bible, and Grandma’s learning came from the Farmer’s Almanac, Mama’s treasure in print was Webster’s dictionary. Our happiest times together were on Sunday afternoons, slaving over the Atlanta Journal crossword puzzle. In later years, we graduated to Scrabble. I miss her, still, ever grateful for her love and the influence she had on my life and on the lives of her three granddaughters. There’s a saying making the rounds, that you know you’re a mother when you hear your mother’s voice coming out of your mouth. How true.

Over a period of eight decades, I’ve watched the changing roles of motherhood. While we don’t use the word cradle anymore, I still own a rocking chair, just in case there’s a baby to be cuddled. The cradle is symbolic, filled with meaning, inspiring mothers to love and teach and take care of their children, even in these times of constant transition. We can’t protect them from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but we can try to prepare them, even in this uncharted territory. I like this advice that comes from today’s daily calendar of quotes, “Two things every mom needs … Velcro arms and a Teflon heart.” Have a Happy Mother’s Day by making some new memories. They’ll come in handy in days ahead.

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Columnist Juanita Hughes is retired head of the Woodstock public library and a local historian.

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