Marge McLain Arnade
My first memory as a child is hiding behind my mother’s skirt from a ship’s captain who loved to pretend to throw children overboard. We were a family of nine crossing the Atlantic, on our way to live in Nigeria, a country in the middle of civil war. My father was to teach in a university far from the capital. Much was uncertain.
If my mom were concerned or complained, she kept it to herself. Her curiosity and her desire to see the world trumped all else.
She was used to uncertainty, used to austerity. She was born one day after the stock market crash of 1929, on a struggling dairy farm in Tecumseh, Michigan. She never forgot that period. She never felt comfortable with spending money or with luxury items, or that I worked in a bank. Her memories of losing the family farm to bankers were still strong fifty years later.
Like most farm girls, she also worked her ass off. She was her high school valedictorian. She earned an undergraduate degree in Medical Technology from the University of Michigan. She earned a Masters in library science from University of South Florida, eventually working as a librarian there and at St. Leo College. She raised seven kids. When Castro took over Cuba she took in two children who had escaped without their parents. She hosted, and temporarily mothered, a string of foreign exchange students, visitors, and friends.
We traveled a lot. Long crazy trips before they were in vogue. Our family trips were not ordinary. They were “experiences” to wherever in the world things were not considered good. We missed large parts of school. My mom filled in as the teacher.
The lessons were sometimes conventional: Problem sets on fractions as I rode a train. Mostly though she taught through endless conversations about what we had seen, what we had done. I would ask her tons of questions. She never shushed me. Her answers were reasoned and rational. Her lessons were also creative and effective. When we visited South Africa in the late ‘70s, at the height of apartheid, she took me to a hotel bar in neighboring Lesotho. She wanted me to see the white South African men there who traveled to buy black prostitutes. It was my class in hypocrisy.
As a kid she seemed to know all, and as I grew up I realized she pretty much did. I continued those conversations, mostly over long phone calls, all my life. I could talk to her about anything, religion, philosophy, math, work, kids.
She was also very organized. A pragmatist. The logistical challenges of traveling with seven kids in some of the poorest regions of the world required that.
On a long trip to Eastern Europe in the ‘70s, my parents, my brother, and myself were dragged off a train in small border town of Czechoslovakia and put in jail for a day. No reason was given. While my father was yelling and fuming my mom kept my brother and me happy, playing endless games of cards, while finally winning the guards over with her politeness and charm. They ended up putting us back on the train with bags of candy as gifts.
She was courageous as well. Our home base was a tiny southern town, San Antonio, Florida. My parents loathed the racism they found in Florida when they moved there in the ‘50s. They were appalled by segregation and were focused on ending it. They founded the local NAACP chapter in 1968 and held the first meeting in our house because even the churches were scared about the physical backlash.
My father got most of the accolades, but he worked at the university, a place that was more tolerant of his views. My mom was raising a family. She had to go into the grocery stores, the hardware stores, and the local butcher. She had to deal with the brunt of the anger, the stares, and the not so quiet whispers of “nigger lover.” She would later tell of having trouble sleeping at night during the worst of that period, concerned about the threats to burn down our old wooden house. We lived only two blocks from the firehouse, but she was told by one angry gentleman, “remember it’s a volunteer firehouse, sometimes they miss the alarms.” She kept those concerns from me, allowing me to sleep.
That anger was just about a tiny vocal sliver of the population. Despite those fights I don’t remember her ever saying anything bad about the town. My mother loved it, loved our old house there, and loved her long walks where she would pick up litter as she went. Her decency and concern about everyone won her many friends. When my parents moved away, to care for my sick father, the town threw them a going away party.
Last year I was going to a rooftop to visit a pigeon keeper in the South Bronx. I brought my mom who was in town. It was a gang building. The drug dealers were milling around, doing their menacing stare thing. I have had many much younger, male journalists decline to enter, questioning their safety. My mom walked right into the building, a tiny white 82-year-old woman, said good afternoon to the drug dealers, and went up the six flights of stairs. She climbed the rickety ladder to the roof. I never considered that she wouldn’t.
- A gorgeous tribute to his mother from photographer Chris Arnade (who, by the way, has an amazing ongoing project about drug addiction and homelessness that’s worth checking out.)