05/14/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

An Unconventional Salute to Mothers (and Others)

When I think of my mom on Mother's Day, I don't think about the nurturing stereotype on the greeting cards. That just wasn't my Mom. Having escaped abuse in the ghetto she grew up in, earned a Ph.D. and turned around impoverished, segregated, inner-city schools as a principal, my mother had little sympathy for me regarding the birth defect that stunted the growth in my right leg. She was more tough-cookie than cookie-baker.

So you may think it's strange, at first, to hear that my mother loved the movieThe Sound of Music: Beautiful scenery, favorite old tunes, a powerful love story... she just couldn't get enough of it. Poor young Maria failed as a nun, but fell in love, married the wealthy Baron and adopted his seven children! It was a Cinderella story with a twist, and everybody lived happily ever after in the end.

But what my mother talked about most over the years wasn't the love story in this picture. She always pointed out how Maria Von Trapp led her new husband and stepchildren on foot, in the middle of the night, over the jagged peaks of the Austrian Alps for days to escape the Nazis. What courage it took to leave behind their palatial home, friends, massive fortune and beloved country. They went to America with nothing but their faith and God-given talents. They became a world famous singing family... and were blessed with new lands, more children and a lasting legacy. But they had no idea what they were heading into on that dark night in the hills above Salzberg.

Unlike the Jews who were rounded up and murdered in concentration camps, Baron Von Trapp had access to inside information about the evil nature of the Nazi plan because he was a privileged member of the Austrian power structure... he had warning and a chance to escape. Yet many families like the Von Trapps feared the Third Reich and hesitated to stand up against them. Most of these people went to jail -- or worse, turned and collaborated with the Nazis so they could maintain their position and material holdings. The most important lesson of the story, my mother always said, was this: having character and standing up for what is right is the only real wealth in this world. Refusing to aid in the atrocities was more important to the Von Trapps than their possessions, titles and social stature. Ultimately, this family was able to regain not only material wealth, but also more importantly, overflowing love, happiness and freedom.

The brave nun who fell in love with the grand Prince Charming and his family didn't find her "happily ever after" in his earthly kingdom. Quite the reverse; he and his children were saved by her total reliance on faith and their collective unwillingness to succumb to evil.

On Mother's Day, we seldom celebrate the kind of moral and personal courage that Maria von Trapp exhibited. But that's the kind of 'happily ever after' that resonated for the battle-weary single mom who raised me. It is also worth noting that we tend to forget to honor all the mothering done by women who may not have given birth to anyone -- just as Maria took charge of that brood of kids who weren't biologically hers.

So as the daughter of an unconventional mother, this is my unconventional Mother's Day salute to the courage of women everywhere who may or may not be recognized by the somewhat limited archetype of motherhood merchandized on this particular day.

Personally, I know, love and appreciate so many women have mothered me in addition to my own mom. So when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I'm feeling sad, I simply remember all the mothering I've enjoyed over the years -- and then I don't feel so bad!