“Stand By Me,” the 1961 recording by Ben E. King that we’ve been hearing a lot during the coronavirus pandemic, wasn’t written as an anthem for Mother’s Day. But it could have been.
Nobody, but nobody, stands by you like your mom. She’s your biggest cheerleader, your most ardent defender, your best friend.
A few weeks after the college closed its doors and went to online education as a precaution against spreading the disease, I got word from a student I had not heard from despite several emails I’d sent. I was surprised at his lack of communication since he had been one of the top students in the class. He apologized, saying he was sending this email from a friend’s house. “We don’t have a computer at home,” he wrote, “but my mom said she might be able to buy me a laptop next week.”
I had a strong suspicion what those words “might be able to” meant and it broke my heart. It sounded to me like she was planning to spend some of her government stimulus check so her son could continue his education from home. “Don’t let her do that,” I was tempted to write back, certain she could use the money for a lot of other expenses. But how do you stop a mom from being a mom? “She’ll find a way,” I thought. “She’s probably been finding a way all her life.”
That’s what moms do. They rise to the occasion. And then rise to the next.
A former student asked in an email if I could please assist her as she tried to help her daughter with an at-home English assignment. This is a woman for whom English is a second language. “I can’t believe I am having trouble with first grade work,” she wrote. As I had done many times before, I reminded her of something she too easily forgets: that she earned two college degrees and made dean’s list while studying in a language she never heard spoken at home. “I’m the one who should feel inferior,” I tell her. “I can’t speak a word of Spanish.”
The first grade lesson was on contractions. One in particular was giving her trouble: mustn’t. She didn’t know what it meant. When I told her it stood for “must not,” she said she never heard it before. “Don’t worry,” I said, “almost no one ever uses it.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her my Grammy Ackerman had her own version of mustn’t: “daresn’t.” I knew it meant “dare not,” but I always wondered where that “s” came from.
A week later, that same former student called to say she’d just finished painting her daughter’s bedroom in white and pale grey. “Purple isn’t my first grader’s favorite color anymore,” she lamented. “She’s tired of being a little princess.”
“Of course not,” I answered, “she’s a teenager now.”
Whenever this mom doubted herself, whenever she felt a poor Latina girl had no business going to college, whenever the pressure of being a mom, a wife and a student seemed overwhelming, she’d always say, “But I have to set an example for my daughters.” And she’d flip open her laptop and get to work on her studies.
I was covering sports in 1975 and witnessed a scene at a Pittston Area High School wrestling match I still find hard to believe. I recall writing that when PA heavyweight Bob Sylvester leaned against Steve “Smokey” Smocharski of Nanticoke at the beginning of their bout he might as well have been leaning against Campbell’s Ledge. Smokey was more than half-a-foot taller and about 170 pounds heavier. I was almost afraid to look. Yet, somehow, Bob managed to pin the giant.
But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was watching Bob’s mom run out onto the mat to hug him.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve relived this moment in my mind, especially on the occasions when I’d run into Bob Sylvester, who later became a fellow professor at LCCC. I must add, I’ve also frequently thought about Smokey and his mom, who undoubtedly was there to console him that night. My thoughts went to Smokey’s mom, too, in 2011 when I came upon his obituary in the paper. He was only 53.
About 20 years ago I found myself nursing yet another student through a broken heart. It was not the first nor last time. He was an exceptional writer and one day he left on my desk an essay on how he wished to be loved. One line in particular stood out. “I want her to defend me before she hears the facts,” he wrote.
“Of course you do,” I thought. “We all do.”
But that kind of unconditional love is rarely found.
Unless we’re talking about a mom.
Moms always defend us before they hear the facts. And often after.
So do grandmothers, who are simply moms, without the stress.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.