Teachers are forever throwing discussion bombs out into the middle of the classroom floor hoping to ignite some type of viable conversation to help students connect to prior knowledge, connect to new knowledge, and create even more questions for future lessons.
So, one day last year found me sitting on my classroom stool waiting for conversations to stop, papers to stop rustling, and 3-ring binders to stop their incessant clicking. I finally lobbed my discussion bomb. I direct students, “Tell me about a time your mother embarrassed you.” Instantly every hand in the room goes up including my own.
Parental embarrassment of any kind seems to be the great equalizer in a very diverse group of people including my young students. For the next several minutes I’m regaled with tales of mothers who like to show baby pictures (especially the naked type) to friends and family, mom’s who go out in public with curlers in their hair, and mom’s who laugh or talk too loud. In my own case my mother was notorious for taking up with virtual strangers in waiting rooms and grocery store lines, and in the course of five minutes she would be telling them all sorts of personal and private things about my sister and I while we looked on in horrified fashion.
I’m a huge embarrassment to my own children at times. I even know what it is I do to elicit the eyerolling and the exasperated exclamations of “Oh, Mother!”, but I can’t help myself. Perhaps it all stems from some type of hormone that is present during pregnancy and never goes away. At any rate it would seem that if there are children mothers who embarrass them are never far away.
Now I don’t merely bring up embarrassing mother stories just for the heck of it. I usually do it as an introduction to a read aloud I use in my classroom by Jean Fritz titled George Washington's Mother. It is a wonderfully researched tale of Mary Ball Washington and some of her interactions with her famous son especially those of the embarrassing kind. Students instantly connect to our first president as they realize they have something in common.
Recently I posted a painting for my wordless image at History Is Elementary by Jean Ferris titled Call of the Sea (1920). The subjects in the painting are George Washington at the age of 14 and Mary Ball Washington. He is looking out the window as he receives his mother’s decision that he cannot join the British Royal Navy. As I’ve proven many times here, here, and here bring up George Washington and you are sure to have a debate of some kind regarding fact and fiction, national legend versus verified history, and a view of history as it was presented in the 18th century versus 19th and 20th century presentations.
In his biography of George Washington titled Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith he makes a very valid point regarding Mary Ball Washington. Eighteenth century writers sanctified [her while more] modern writers have depicted her as Medea in a mob cap, grasping, possessive, envious to a fault. Willard Sterne Randall states in his biography titled George Washington: A Life [men like Parson Mason Weems and Rev. Jared Sparks] grafted and pruned facts to form a Washington myth [and] we owe them for the early deification of Mary Ball Washinton.
After looking over local lore, various scholarly biographies, and the letters of George Washington I would have to state Mary Ball Washington was not our typical idea of what a mother is or does. It does appear from the evidence that George Washington’s relationship with his mother was very formal and at times strained. I have no doubt that Mary Ball Washington could be a star in the Maternal Embarrassment Hall of Fame.
It is no secret that Mary Ball Washington was the second wife of Augustine Washington. He married her at 22 at a time most of her neighbors had written her off as a spinster. Randall wonders, Could it have been something so strong and indepependent about her that every suitor seemed to back away? Luckily for our nation Augustine Washington did not. Randall also mentions Mary Ball Washington’s step-grand daughter (the wife of Robert E. Lee) passed down the family tradition that Mrs. Washington required from those about her a prompt and literal obedience somewhat resembling that demanded by a proper military subordination.
Always of a mind that past events can be evidentiary in future actions I find it interesting that during Mary Ball Washington’s pregnancy with her son George a fierce thunderstorm arose during dinner and a guest was killed at the dinnertable from a strike of lightening. Margaret C. Conkling in her book Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington (1850) advises the force of the strike was so strong the knife and fork of the dinner guest was fused to her hand, and Mary Ball Washington felt the jolt of energy surge through her body as well. Throughout her pregancy she worried about the safety of her child. Could this be why she held such a firm hold on George and later felt so neglected and alone during his adult years?
Let us also not forget that Mary Ball Washington suddenly found herself a widow with several young children and as Jean Fritz’s book tells my students she suddenly felt poor. While not as aristocratic, as socially prominent, or as wealthy as families such as the Fairfax family, Mary Ball Washington was by no means destitute, but her security was suddenly very compromised by the death of her husband. Augustine Washington’s sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr. (Jack) inherited the bulk of the estate. Mary Ball Washington was promised an income for a period of five years from Ferry Farm prior to the property transferring to George Washington when he came of age, but she continuously worried about money.
Some historians have surmised that Lawrence Washington and his father in law, Lord Fairfax, took young George under their wings regarding his education in order to get him away from a very firm mother who did not want George to ever leave her side. Those same historians like to state that Augustine Washington enjoyed his job surveying the countryside mainly because it took him away from his wife for long periods of time.
The painting I used in my wordless post centers around an event that occurred on September 8, 1746 when George Washington met with his benefactor, Lord Fairfax, to receive two letters from Lawrence Washington. One letter was for George and the other was a letter for Mrs. Washington asking her to allow her son to join the British Royal Navy. My students learn from my read aloud using George Washington’s Mother that young George’s mother did exactly what any mother would do. She stalled for time hoping the ship would leave without her son, and she also wrote her bother, Joseph Ball, who had returned to Britain some years earlier. When she finally did hear from her brother he advised her that her since her son was a middle son and had no further prospects of inheriting additional property he would be better off keeping his Virginia contacts, taking over Ferry Farm at the prescribed time, and try to make it as a planter. Joseph Ball advised his sister that without the proper patronage and contact the Royal Navy would be a very unkind place for young George to be saying that the Royal Navy could cut him and staple him and use him like a Negro, or rather, life a dog.. After reading her brother’s letter that was the end of any hopes George Washington had for naval career. Joseph Ball’s letter is quoted in the seventh volume of Douglas Southall Freeman's biography of George Washington (Scribners, 1948-1957). Of course, we now know that George Washington did very well as a soldier, used his planter contacts, and upon the death of Lawrence Washington inherited Mount Vernon as well, but young Washington did not know this at the time and his mother's decision was very upsetting to him.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of events that caused George Washington great embarrassment where his mother was concerned.
In 1755 while at Fort Cumberland in the Ohio wilderness a message from his mother arrived via a family friend who had been enlisted to deliver it. Mary Ball Washington requested her son find her a “Dutchman” meaning an indentured servant to help her run the farm. She also requested her son send her some butter.
So while the future Father of our County was off nearly getting killed in the Ohio Wilderness he had to write his mother we are quite out of that part of the country where either are to be had. There are few and no inhabitants where we now lie encamped and butter cannot be had here to supply the wants of the camp…. From the papers of George Washington you can see the letter here.
In an article titled Washington and His Mother by Frederick Bernays Weiner published in the American Historical Review (1991, 26, vol. 3) an episode is recounted where Mary Ball Washington petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates (formally the House of Burgesses) for a state pension. She also indicated she needed to have her taxes lowered and claimed she was destitute. Benjamin Harrison, speaker of the House of Delegates, promptly sent a message to General Washington advising him of his mother’s petition.
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to state George Washington was shocked and surprised. Weiner states he was outraged and promptly answered Harrison’s message explaining he regularly sent money to his mother and whence her distress arise therefore, I know not, never having received any complaint of inattention or neglect.
It also didn’t help that throughout the Revolution Mary Ball Washington was a staunch loyalist. Randall states only George Washington’s stature protected her from being driven out of the community by resentful neighbors.
Randall mentions there is no evidence George Washington wrote his mother at all during the Revolution but he did see to it that she had received an annuity and all her living expenses were paid by Lund, his farm manager. Eventually George Washington bought his mother a home in Fredericksburg where she lived until her death.
At one point in 1787 Mary Ball Washington actually requested to live at Mt. Vernon but Randall contends George Washington refused and references a February 15th letter he wrote in response….you would not be able to enjoy that calmness and serenity of mind which in my opinion you ought now to prefer to every other consideration.
In another letter to Richard Conway, George Washington correctly predicts his stopover in Fredericksburg in the Spring of 1789 would be the last time he would see his mother alive. Randall refers to Washington relating his reason for the visit as [an effort] to discharge the last act of personal duty I may ever have it in my power to pay my mother.
Randall also relates a local legend that when Washington arrived Mary Ball Washington continued to work in a flowerbed while the soon-to-be-inaugurated President attempted to engage her in conversation.
After reading the read aloud to students by Jean Fritz we discuss possible reasons for Mary Ball Washington's actions throughout George's life and students begin to see that in her own way she probably cared for her son and was proud of him. Later I ask students to remember their own embarrassment story about their own mother, and I ask them to write an essay regarding why their mother acts the way she does at times. It's always very interesting to see how students begin to understand and justify their mother's actions.