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Diana Butler Bass Headshot

Remembering My Mother: Love Your Neighbor and Play By the Rules

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My mother died on June 30.

It is hard to write those words, even harder to post them. But part of dying is the practice of the public memorial, spoken words in eulogies and written ones in obituaries. After death, words communicate joy and grief, appreciation and contribution. Words are memory. And I would like to offer here a public remembrance of my mother.

Marcia Hochstedt lived humbly. There might be a small notice in the Arizona Republic citing her birth and death, but no lengthy article claiming a lifetime of achievement. She was neither rich nor famous. She did not go to college, see the world, or have cosmopolitan tastes. She was a regular person, the kind of person that politicians say they know, understand, or work for (but so frequently forget). I do not particularly think my mother would have liked being called "regular" or of humble circumstance, but there you have it.

She was born during the Great Depression to working class parents in Baltimore. Her earliest memories of life were of deprivation. When she was very small, her father, who worked at Westinghouse, won a refrigerator at the company Christmas party. Before it could be delivered, however, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the new refrigerator was commandeered by the military as scrap metal. Her family, like pretty much everyone else in their urban neighborhood, made due with the icebox until 1950 or so. Mom often spoke of Victory gardens and tin drives, of giving food to truly poor people who begged at their door and helping out at the USO. She always said, "We may not have had much, but we always had enough to share." That was, of course, because her mother often went without food to feed her children and the beggars at the backdoor.

And that was my mother's creed: We may not have much, but there is always enough to share.

Mom's Methodist church reinforced this creed. My mother's parents were not particularly religious--her father was a freethinker-atheist and her mother rejected the Catholic Church in favor of a sort of folk spirituality. But a great-aunt partially raised my mother--and Aunt Marcie was a devout Methodist, a feminist and temperance activist in the early 20th century--a passionate believer who wanted an American and Christian share of justice for the poor, outcast, and women. Aunt Marcie's church taught my mother that the Great Command to "love you neighbor as yourself" was the core of of both American democracy and the Christian faith.

My mother took it all very seriously. Not only did she endlessly give things away (often, like her own mother, to the point of great personal sacrifice) but stood up for social justice. She was the only person among her family and friends to support the Civil Rights movement (and later, the feminist movement and, although hard for her, rights for LGBT people). When her high school was integrated in the 1950s, my mother refused to boycott school on the day that the first black students came to class. Instead, she showed up to meet the bus and welcome her new classmates.

Throughout her life, she loved politics and saw the political process as a way to enact the Great Command. Oddly enough, she was never terribly cynical about politics, choosing instead to believe that good people would act on the behalf of justice for all. Her politics were laced with pointed jokes and Elvis tunes. She campaigned for John F. Kennedy. She went through a conservative phase in the late 1970s and 1980s (which she regretted) and proudly boasted to all her Republican neighbors in Arizona that she had voted for Barack Obama. She would shake her head in sorrow for what had been done to both the slaves in her native Maryland and Arizona's indigenous peoples. In the weeks before she died, she told me how angry she was that the governor of Arizona had signed that "terrible" anti-immigration bill saying that she would boycott her own state if she did not live there!

My mother was not, by any means, perfect. I do not want, through the mists of sadness or regret, to romanticize her (she would hate that). She was often hampered by her own ideals, her lack of pragmatism constantly inhibited her ability to make good decisions, had a quick temper with anything she perceived unfair, and she did not understand anything about the darker hues of human nature. Like many women of her time, she married and had children too young and before she knew herself. She was deeply skeptical of rich people--thinking money vaguely sinful. Her humble Methodism was reinforced by her equal love of baseball, her real life's passion. She believed that there were nine innings to play by the rules, that honest umpires maintained a fair game, and if you had the best pitcher and the best hitters, the good guys would always win (unless, of course, if you were the Yankees and could buy the World Series).

In many ways, my mother was the 20th century American everywoman, a sort of "Jimmy Stewart-ish" Georgiana Bailey--there was not a Mr. Potter bone in her body. Life, however, is not Hollywood and her closing scene was not as rewarding as It's a Wonderful Life. Nobody really knew her story except her family, some friends, and co-workers--and there was no rescue from difficulties at the end.

Marcia Hochstedt was a good person who died rather too young, but lived a life based on the best of her ideals as far as she was able, raised some decent kids, and believed in God, John Wesley, Brooks Robinson, and the Democrats. She played by the rules, even when the game did not go quite her way.

Thanks, Mom. I hope there is baseball--with no Yankees--in heaven.

This post originally appeared at Diana's Beliefnet blog: