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Jerry Lanson Headshot

Who Says Our Mothers Don't Shape Our Lives and Values?

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My Mom had opinions on just about everything. And she wasn't shy about sharing them either.

Ethel Lanson was a teacher -- first biology and then, when I was growing up on Long Island in the '50s and '60s, a high school guidance counselor. And if her two sons sometimes didn't do their assignments, in life or school, she'd let us know about it. Or she'd just step in and get things done herself.

Not that I always appreciated her -- shall we say -- enthusiasm. But, as Mother's Day approaches during this National Teacher Appreciation Week, I look back at her life and influence with a smile and a touch of longing.

One of my earlier memories of Mom was at a dressy '50s business affair at a country club for the Madison Avenue lighting company at which my Dad worked. She got into a lively conversation with some of the "ladies," and protested loudly that I could marry whomever I wanted regardless of race, color or creed. That wasn't the conversation of country clubs in those days (is it now?), and given that I was only eight or so, I had no plans on getting married just yet anyhow. I blushed, but it's a memory I carry proudly.

Other memories aren't so much about Mom as about how seamlessly she organized my life as I followed along, oblivious. This happened a lot.

She herself was a tailor's daughter, an only child. She grew up on the stoops of the Bronx, read voraciously at the library and stood in the back of the Metropolitan Opera for a quarter. She met my Dad at a camp in New York's Catskill Mountains, where she was a counselor with a friend of his from Germany. So I guess it's not surprising that one of the first assignments in the education of Jerry Lanson was to spend summers between age six and 10 at Camp Lexington in the Catskills. There, I tipped a canoe or two, shot archery, camped in the rain, and very gingerly held the garter snakes that Ethel Lanson, nature counselor, was fond of handing me. To this day, I stay clear of snakes.

Summer at a farm camp in North Carolina followed, not Mom's best choice. The owner was a gentle, elderly Quaker. But this was the South in the early '60s. My counselor was from Ole Miss and bigotry, in his words and those of the townies with whom we'd play softball on Saturdays, intruded often.

Kinhaven, the bucolic Vermont music camp Mom picked out the next year, made up for it. There, I spent the three most wonderful summers of my childhood, barefoot but for the weekly trip to town to buy fudge, playing French horn by morning and capture the flag or, on rainy days, endless Monopoly games, by afternoon. The camp had no TV, radio or record players. And today's "technocopia" was decades away.

High school eventually came to an end and Mom was ready with a list of six college choices. I shrugged and applied. I did at least pick which one I wanted to attend. Mom didn't get to pick the girl I married either; I managed that myself. But she did have her say. During a college semester when Kathy was studying abroad and I started a semi-serious relationship with someone else, Mom stormed in the door of my brother's New York apartment, where I had brought that other girl, and she made plenty clear that she did not approve. I always wondered about her impeccable timing on that occasion.

As Mom grew older and moved to Vermont, living there first with Dad, then after his death in 1980, alone on a 14-acre hillside overlooking the Connecticut River, she, ever the teacher, caught tadpoles and frogs with our two daughters in her pond, reminded me (more than once until I got it done) to cut the lawn or take out the trash, and volunteered in the local elementary school.

Sometime during the late '80s or early '90s, her weekly letters began. She'd always enclose clippings -- for our girls, on acne and menstrual cramps, vitamins and summer camps, and for us, articles on education, politics, travel and, more than likely, knowing Mom, relationships.

I generally groaned when they arrived, but missed them more than anything else when she died in November 1999 at age 83, in her own bed on that Vermont hillside.

When Mom turned 80 she had asked for just one thing: letters from friends and relatives and their kids, sharing a memory of her. I remember being amazed at the outpouring and today pulled out and dusted off the big black binder we put them in with "Happy 80th Birthday" lettered on the outside in our daughter Betsy's hand.

One of my favorites was written by a young woman who grew up on the other side of that frog pond in front of my parent's house. She's a music teacher today and was when she wrote, too.

"Sometimes, when I hear the buzz of the school, I think of 'Aunt Ethel,'" she wrote. "How much she values education and always craves more. Her love of the arts has been a great influence on my life."

Four years after Mom's death, her house and property beginning to show the strain of disrepair, we sold her beloved retirement home to the writer of that letter and her guy. I know on Mother's Day she'll walk down the hill to where Mom's ashes rest under the big maple and have a little chat with her.