Strong-willed mothers turned our lives for the better. That’s just one of the amazing parallels that run through our lives to this day. I am speaking for my long-time friend Jerry Howard and for myself. Our parents’ positive and enduring influence, delivered under challenging circumstances, may seem “as simple as pie,” but it turns out that there is good science behind what they did.
We both grew up in Philadelphia, sons to women who didn’t have it easy. Our moms were divorced from our fathers in an era when people viewed single-mothers very differently than they do now. Jerry’s mom Minnie subsequently married a man who became an exemplary husband and father. Hélene never remarried. Minnie became one of the first black women to be hired at RCA in Camden, NJ, to do something other than clean, and Hélene waitressed across the river at Schrafft’s coffeeshop in center city Philadelphia. They both became trusted and valued employees, and they both steered their only child into good high schools and made their boys believe they should become the first in their family to attend college.
In 1966, I enrolled as a freshman at Community College of Philadelphia, and a few years later, Jerry did the same. By 1974, we both had returned to work at CCP, and that’s when our trails crossed. The more we learned about each other, the closer we became, working together by day and by night, and eventually playing in the same band, with Jerry as the drummer and Ned as singer and percussionist. We’ve both written songs that the Sacred CowBoys have performed and recorded. We played together again this past weekend at Philadelphia’s Mermaid Inn. We also both found careers in education and social service. Because of our work, we never really quite left community colleges.
Through weddings, births, graduations, a recent wedding (Jerry’s son Douglas), and funerals, we’ve remained close, and generally laughing. My adult son and daughter still refer to Jerry as their uncle, and I melt every time I hear grown-up Doug introduce me as his Uncle Ned. We share loving memories of our mothers, who, among other great powers and accomplishments, created the two best apple pies we’ve ever tasted.
But their influence went way beyond refining our taste in pie.
I write in this space about TURNING POINTS, and I don’t want readers to think that by that term I mean solely those special moments when something large occurs. For Jerry and me, living every day with those special women deeply influenced the way we think and act. Our lives turned because of incremental changes that happened in us over the course of a childhood. We saw how Minnie and Hélene behaved at home and in the larger world, and we saw how people responded to their character and strength. Psychologist and theorist Albert Bandura would call that Observational Learning. Jerry and I would also call it another example of mom’s love.
Despite the insults and injuries that life in that era brought these women, they maintained an extraordinarily positive perspective on life. They focused on what THEY could do about the circumstances of their lives, again providing their sons with models for both behavior and attitude. That’s strong will!
Psychologist Julian Rotter would say that their behavior illustrated an internal “locus of control,” meaning that instead of focusing on the many (and real) factors in their life that were beyond their control, they turned their attention to matters over which they COULD make some impact. Turns out that people with such a focus tend to be far more efficacious in their efforts than their counterparts who tend to focus on things over which they do not have control. Makes sense. Just like our mothers.
Another way of putting this comes from Temple University’s Laurence Steinberg, who would describe Minnie and Hélene as having a HEALTHY “attribution style.” They explained their success or failure in terms of what THEY did or didn’t do, not in terms of outside forces—again, though outside circumstances certainly made life difficult for them.
They didn’t make Jerry and Ned bitter about life or about other people. We were hardly naïve about or indifferent to the horrible injustices in the world, but we learned something about trust and open-mindedness from these two strong-willed mothers. They raised two men who were curious about learning, and willing to take a chance on other people—even while helping them learn about the role that each of us must play in life. Pie and science, coming together, through love.
When we create atmospheres in families and in schools that promote personal beliefs, values, and practices that foster learning and growth, we do better as a society. We don’t even have to “love” one another to do that, but it doesn’t hurt if we do.