My actress mother never gave up on love, hope and my disabled brother

My actress mother never gave up on love, hope and my disabled brother

Larry Strauss, Opinion columnist
Published 3:00 a.m. ET May 12, 2019 | Updated 8:11 a.m. ET May 12, 2019

My actress mom believed her severely disabled son would get better until he died at 44. I’ve carried that lesson through 3 decades of teaching teens.

This is my first Mother’s Day since my mother passed. She lived to 92, but before she was 40 taught me everything I will ever need to know about love and never giving up on people.

My older brother suffered from a severe developmental disability and mental illness. He did not speak until he was 6. Was not toilet trained until after that. This was the 1950s and early ’60s, and there was little support for parents with children stricken with autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. My aunt and uncle urged my parents to institutionalize Andy. A child like that could destroy their marriage and our family.

I wasn’t with my parents when they disdained those warnings, but I watched them calm Andy when he would freak out at the sound of screeching subway wheels or a dog on the street or pigeons at the park or the approach of garbage trucks, which he seemed afraid would swallow him. I watched them indulge his interests in order to draw him out. I watched him watching records spin round and round on the phonograph and I saw him take an LP with him into his bed and sleep next to it. I watched him take pictures with an Instamatic camera, snapping through 24 exposures in a few seconds, and I went with my mother to the drug store where she had them all developed and printed as if the random images might unlock something in Andy’s mind.

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I shared the joy when Andy spoke his first words, when he learned to use the toilet and play a few notes on my father’s piano. And I saw my mother’s relentless optimism. She never stopped believing that somehow Andy could get better. Until the day my brother died at the age of 44, she never surrendered hope.

I have been a high school teacher for nearly three decades and have never given up on a student. Not even the ones who seemed hopelessly under-educated or combative or arrogant or disinterested. Not the ones who dropped out or got kicked out of the school or went to jail. I doubt it has mattered to all of them but I hear from some, years later. They don’t always remember much about what they were like when they were students in my class, but they remember that I believed in them.

Mother’s Day lessons from my actress mom

It made a difference for my brother that our mother never gave up. He probably did not understand it like that, but I know that with all the limitations burdening him he had many happy moments and at times found genuine meaning in his life.

Most people remember my mother, the actress Charlotte Rae, for her work in film, theater and TV shows like “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” But I’m remembering her on this Mother’s Day, less than a year after she died, for what she did for my brother and me. 

I am also thinking about three other mothers.

One is a former student’s mother who sold her house and now spends nearly every dollar she has to fight a murder charge against her son. This is the third Mother’s Day she will spend traveling to jail to talk to him on a dirty plastic phone and look at him through a stained partition and keep him hoping that his innocence will somehow bring him home. I am embarrassed when she thanks me for corresponding with him or putting money in his account. I understand her effusiveness but it still embarrasses me because she has sacrificed so much and suffered as I can only imagine. I think in some way we just expect that of a mother, but we ought to recognize how extraordinary that kind of devotion is.

The genius of knowing what a child needs 

Another mother I am thinking about is one I won’t ever meet because she passed away before her daughter was in my class and wrote about her. This student said she grew up in a large extended family all crowded into a modest house. Lots of aunts and uncles and cousins under one roof. Then her mother died of cancer and she found out she wasn’t related to any of those people. They were all recovering drug addicts and homeless men and women her big-hearted mother was trying to help.

Finally, there is my wife, who is having her first mother’s day since our son went away to college. He is actually home for the summer already — college calendars being what they are — but it has been a strange and challenging year of long-distance parenting for both of us. The goal of parenthood, of course, is to render oneself irrelevant, but I don’t know if that is ever an easy transition.

There is a genius to knowing what a child needs, and I think that genius may be most needed when children become young adults. Sometimes they don’t need anything. Sometimes they need to be left to struggle on their own, but not always. And every young adult is different. Navigating these complexities together has been sometimes fun, sometimes aggravating, occasionally terrifying, but I’ve never lost confidence and I think I owe most of that confidence to my wife. I may have gathered some wisdom in 30 years of parenting, but I am in awe of her genius.

So a well-deserved happy Mother’s Day to my wife and to all the mothers — near and far and in memory.

Larry Strauss, a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss

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