Motherhood as a jig-saw puzzle

May 06, 1994|By Charles P. Thobae

ONE OF the most remarkable mothers in our country's history was a woman named Abby Sage Richardson, a 19th-century writer, lecturer, feminist and mother.

A recent book titled "Lost Love," by author George Cooper, tells Abby Sage Richardson's compelling story. It describes a young mother who divorces a useless and unstable husband named Daniel McFarland. McFarland later fatally shot journalist Albert Deane Richardson, who was alleged to be Abby's lover.

A celebrated murder trial of her former husband ensued, in which the defense depicted Abby as an immoral woman and an unfaithful wife. The defense also put the victim on trial posthumously. Richardson was depicted as an enemy of family values.

Having thus set the stage, McFarland's lawyer asked the jury for an acquittal on the basis of McFarland's temporary insanity. In spite of strong evidence of premeditation, the jury returned a not guilty verdict and the courtroom spectators cheered loudly.

In her divorce from McFarland, Abby had relinquished custody of her oldest son, but kept her youngest. As Albert's widow (Richardson had married her just before he died) she now assumed responsibility for raising Richardson's four children by his deceased first wife.

Time was on Abby's side. Gradually she overcame the publicity of the trial and educated her children as well as Albert's. Her oldest son ultimately came to live with her, taking Sage as his surname, and she established a reputation as a distinguished, if not gifted, writer and lecturer. Abby worked out her seemingly insurmountable problems with resolve and style during an era that was hostile to single women.

When she died at age 63 in Rome it was with dignity and fulfillment as a mother. One of Abby's sons became a theatrical agent and the other a writer of romantic novels. Her stepson became a journalist like his father; he wrote plays and was the drama critic for the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph.

Recently a friend of mine gave the eulogy at her mother's funeral service. Unlike Abby Sage Richardson, her mother did not suffer a bad marriage and divorce, but she did lose her husband to a heart attack in the prime of his life and, like Abby, she ended her life with dignity and fulfillment.

The daughter likened herself and her three siblings to principal pieces of an intricate picture puzzle that comprised her mother's life.

Some of the pieces were difficult to fit, the daughter remarked; the pieces didn't always relate one to the other, but by working the puzzle patiently over the years -- the last 26 as a widow -- her mother skillfully melded the pieces into a cohesive whole and the picture was completed before she died.

I had never looked at the institution of motherhood in the light of working a puzzle, but it makes sense. We are all little jigsaw pieces in the picture puzzles of our mothers' lives. How our mothers place us in relation to other pieces -- our fathers, siblings, relatives and friends -- determines how family pictures finally turn out.

Mothers have to be Machiavellian and each has her own style. My wife works the pieces to her puzzle slowly and deliberately with our three daughters. She is aware of the unique shapes of these pieces and places them carefully in juxtaposition with one another into the forming picture.

She realizes that one daughter needs to develop more self confidence and has encouraged her to strike out on her own to meet life's challenges. Another is over-confident. This one she has slowed down with words of caution. When I am overbearing dealing with one, she cautions me.

My daughters' mother has faith in how the picture puzzle will turn out. She patiently works with the shapes at hand which sometimes include the jagged edges of soured romantic relationships and the amorphous forms of disappointment.

I honor the mothers I know and love today for the puzzles they work, for the unconditional love they show their offspring, and for the singular triumphs of their completed pictures.

Charles P. Thobae writes from Houston, Texas.

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