She loved me very much; her love and support for me was the unshakeable foundation on which my life was built. And because she loved me very much, she saw me quite honestly, and she feared for me. She saw my grandiosity, and my compulsive need to be liked, and that touch of ruthlessness that I try to hide. As much as she encouraged me, she warned me.
She was the last child of her parent, a successful German American Baptist preacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was the caboose child and was raised, it seems, by her older sisters. Her oldest sister, Esther, I think, was the one person she was afraid of.
She was tall, very tall, six feet tall, skinny as a rail. Her nickname was "Heinie", a word that was not allowed to be said in our house growing up. She got a scholarship to go the University of Wisconsin, but didn't go, because girls didn't an education, and it was the Depression.
She met my father when she was still in high school. They met at a Baptist Youth Organization national conference. My father was also the child of a German Baptist minister. Henrietta and Bob were engaged for seven years -- waiting until he had graduated from seminary before they wed. Both of their parents were part of the liberal wing of the American Baptist convention; they believed in historical criticism of the Bible, and in the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.
He served some churches as a Baptist and then became a Unitarian minister in 1947. His career was short; by 1954, he quit the active full-time ministry and took a job in a steel mill in Warren, Ohio.
He told me once that he had not one day of happiness before he met her, and not one day of sadness after.
I don't know where it came from, but my mother was very radical. My father worked the 3 to 11PM shift most of my growing up, and our dinner table conversations included a lot of political education. My mother was forthright about a few facts: that America was just another country, not greater than anyone else, that it was built by slave labor on stolen land, and that we, the three little Schade children, were among the luckiest people in the world, living as we did, in wealth unimaginable to most of the children of the world.
I believed it all; and resented the guilt trip. I still believe it and still resent it, which accounts, in part, for the high level of angst that I carry about that sort of stuff now. "Thanks for the guilt trip, but I have already taken that ride to the end of the line."
She read a lot; hardly ever watched television. She was a community activist when she was finally free of being a minister's daughter and a minister's wife. She was active in the YWCA and the League of Women Voters.
When a librarian at the public library tried to stop me from checking out Mila 18 by Leon Uris because it was too adult, my mother confronted her and told her that she should remember me, because I was allowed to read anything in the library I wanted to read, no questions asked.
I got the idea from her somehow that true love was noble and sexual desire a deceptive substitute and that the worst sort of man you could be was one who fell in love with a attractive woman because of desire. That little sweet and sour meatball of wisdom confused me for years.
Most of the time I spent with her, she was plagued by rheumatoid arthritis, which made her mood unpredictable. She was incredibly brave.
Somehow, for reasons I am still trying to figure out, we were done with each other when I left home to go to college. I got carried away into a lot of radical politics and didn't spend much time or energy on keeping up my relationship with her. But the cooling was mutual -- I think that she saw in me the kind of man that she warned me against, a man who looked a lot like her father, big in public, an extrovert, but one who didn't give her the love that she needed.
She died when she was just 64. I will be 64 in a few months. I now know how much too soon her death was.
Love between parents and children is a complicated thing. It can be hard, and there can be seasons in which it seems to lie fallow. The changes we go through can make it seem like we are visitors from other planets.
Try harder, friends. Try harder than I did.