Sunday, May 11, 2008

Who's Your Mommy?

Happy Mother's Day!

There are mothers and then there are...MOTHERS!

From Medea and Hetty Green to St. Ludmila and Boudicca, there have been mothers to be adored, shunned, admired, feared, sainted, loathed and simply... loved.

I won't write any mushmouthed words to make you sigh, because I'd just like to take you through a panoply of rather distinctive mothers on this day. No rhyme or reason, just ones that come to mind.


She was Queen of the Iceni in an ancient Britain occupied by Romans. They killed her husband, flogged her and raped her daughters. So she fought back: she gathered tribes to drive out the Romans and attacked every Roman stronghold she could find. Her harassment was so thorough that Emperor Nero almost thought of abandoning the territory of Britain. She was defeated, but she made such an impression that today, Britans taut her as their first ruler.


What can be said about filicide? Truth is, the tale of Medea had many variations in Greek drama and legend. Euripdes' play was the one that lasted the longest. (From Wikipedia):

The tragic situation of Medea, abandoned in Corinth by Jason, was the subject matter transformed by Euripides in his tragedy Medea, first performed in 431 BCE. In this telling, Medea resorted to filicide before her flight to Athens. Euripides was revolutionary in his retelling of Medea's myth because he was the first one to show that she hadn't killed her children because she was mad or a barbarian, but because she was extremely distressed and furious at Jason for leaving her to marry a princess. Fueled by a need for revenge, she sent Glauce a poisoned dress and crown that burned her to death. Creon found her corpse and clutched it in mourning, crying, "Let me die as well." The dress was poisoned so as to kill anyone who touched the girl. It killed him as well. After some hesitation and self-debate, Medea then killed her two sons, Mermeros and Pheres, to hurt Jason.

Hetty Green

Hetty was known as the "Witch of Wall Street". In the Gilded Age (1880-1900), when having a cool million could get you invited to Mrs. Astor's house, Hetty was worth $40 million. Men swore that all her money was on her person, under her (always) black cloak. She was not only the country's wealthiest (independent) woman, but considered the meanest (from wikipedia):

Her frugality extended to family life. Her son Ned broke his leg as a child, but Hetty took him away from the hospital when she was recognized. She tried to treat him at home, but the leg contracted gangrene and had to be amputated – he ended up with a cork prosthesis. When he moved away from his mother to manage the family's properties in Chicago and, later, Texas, he became an ardent philatelist, who assembled one of the finest stamp collections ever in private hands. In middle age, he returned to New York; his mother would pass her final months with him. Ned ultimately married his long time "housekeeper", Mabel, of whom Hetty wholeheartedly disapproved.

Bess of Hardwick

In an age when the daughter of an insignificant country squire could only pray for a good husband, Elizabeth of Hardwick did more than pray. Some might even say that she "preyed": she married four times. Her first husband was a teenager (Bess was only thirteen at the time) who never even consumated the marriage, but left her with a small widow's pence. Her cousin at court obtained for her a position as lady in waiting to a countess. Her second husband was a man much older than she was who already had eight children. He was William Cavendish, a talented courtier who became Henry VIII's "Clerk of the Works" - a position he took great advantage of when Henry's dissolution of the monasteries meant that land and buildings would be given to the right people. He and Bess lived well enough for them to build Chatsworth (now known as "the Palace of the Peak" in Derbyshire, England). When William died and left one half of the estate (by law) to Bess, she wasted no time and went right back to court for another husband. He was William St. Lowe, Elizabeth I's Grand Steward of England. By the time Bess was widowed again and only 40 years old, she was considered the richest woman in England (besides Elizabeth I). Her fourth and final husband was the Earl of Shrewsbury - and the richest man in England. Bess was a considerate (if not overly loving) mother. The conditions of the marriage contract which she herself drew up: ALL of her marriageable children had to marry all of his marriageable children. Bess not only managed to keep all of the money in the family, but at the age of 70, built Hardwick Hall (shown here). You'll note that on the very top of the house (which she also designed) instead of plain railings, she had carved all around the top: "ES" - Elizabeth of Shrewsbury. Her children and grandchildren were rather intimidated by her, but were forced to admire her nonetheless.

Auntie Mame

Alright, she wasn't a mother, but so many people wish she were THEIR mother! Underneath all of the craziness, she thought first and foremost of her nephew Patrick. Rich or poor, Mame exhibited a joy of living that could only be contagious. When escorting Patrick's young son, Michael, up her Beekman Place staircase, Mame waxes poetic on India where she will be taking him..."...and the monks of the monastery atop the mountain are very good friends of your Auntie Mame's and maybe they'll let you ring the temple bells to call them to evening prayer..." Michael's mother sighs and says, "I give up, she's the Pied Piper!."

Saint Ludmila

O.K., what if your mother wasn't the best, but your grandmother was a bonefied saint? Such was the case with "Good King (also Saint) Wenceslaus" of Bohemia (and the Christmas carol):

Wenceslaus' mother Drahomíra became jealous of Ludmila's influence over Wenceslaus. She had two noblemen murder Ludmila at Tetín, and part of Ludmila's story says that she was strangled with her veil. Initially Saint Ludmila was buried at St. Michael's at Tetín. Then buried in the Royal Chapel of St. Vitus Cathedral.

Jenny Jerome Churchill

Victorian women in England were definitely to be seen but not heard and certainly not to be considered "vivacious". But Jenny Jerome was an American and she was so beautiful that most men forgot that she was Randolph Churchill's wife, heiress to an American fortune, and the sister-in-law of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlboro. And she was just as scandalous as her political husband (both of them had extramarital affairs), but she was more of a stern friend than a Victorian mother to her son Winston. Churchill always credited his mother for his tenacity and will power. And he always knew what it was like to be considered just slightly outside society's upper class.

Evelyn Sylvia Vojir (nee Mrazek)

Yes, I'm putting my own mother amongst these notables. Hey, it's my blog, after all! She was as vivacious as Jenny Jerome, as practical as Bess of Hardwick, as loving as Saint Ludmila and (when needed) as headstrong as Queen Boudicca. While she taught me some valuable lessons about the Great Depression, she didn't let it define her. She told me about the times she had to cadge coal from behind the railroad trains so her family could have heat that day. She also told me how she maneuvered guys into taking her home from the Aragon Ballroom (Chicago), primarily because she didn't have the trolley fare home (a nickel). She trained my pet parakeet to talk, dance and play dead (don't ask) and she loved to get her fortune told - by her own mother (goods times in the north woods of Wisconsin).

She wasn't a paragon of motherhood, but she always did the best she could. Who couldn't love a mother like that?