Mindy Newell: Mothers Dearest

We all have mothers. I had a mother of a cold last week, and since Sunday was Mom’s day, I thought I would take a moment to honor all those women who have taken on the absolutely hardest job in the multi-verse… even though I’m a bit late.

I think the best-known mother in the four-color universe is the farmer’s wife from Smallville who, with her husband, found and raised the “strange visitor from another planet” who would grow up to become the one and only Superman.

Although I’ve always known that farmer’s wife as Martha Clark Kent, her name varied for quite a while; she was known as Mary Kent in Superman #1 (1939). In George F. Lowther’s 1942 novel, The Adventures of Superman, and on the radio program for which Mr. Lowther was a writer, Mrs. Kent’s first name was Sarah, which also followed her to the George Reeves television series of the same name. (The Adventures of Superman, Episode 1, “Superman on Earth,” written by Richard Fielding). Mort Weisinger finally settled on “Martha” sometime in the 1950s and since then, every variation of Superman’s mom on the page and on television and in the movies has been known by that name.

Several actresses have played Ma Kent on the big and small screens. Virginia Carroll was the first to play her in the 1948 movie serial that starred Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, in which her name was Martha. Francis Morris played Sarah Kent in the aforementioned The Adventures of Superman. Phyliss Thaxter was the perfect Martha to Christopher Reeve’s Superman in the one and only Richard Donner film – and if you haven’t seen Donner’s version of Superman II, get on it, guys!!!!!  The venerable actress Eva Marie Saint played her in Superman Returns, and Diane Lane is the most recent Martha, doing an admirable job in Man of Steel, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and is about to return as Martha Kent in Justice League.

Television Marthas have been portrayed as younger and hipper. K Callan’s version, in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures, was a sixties-something woman whom you could easily imagine having burned her bra and marched with Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and other women during the social upheaval of the ‘60s.  And I have a special fondness for Annette O’Toole, who played Martha on Smallville for the show’s entire run. This was Ms. O’Toole’s second time around in the DC universe; she played Lana Lang in Superman III.

I think her Martha was innately every bit a feminist as K Callan’s, but, im-not-so-ho, I don’t think she ever needed her consciousness “raised” – she just instinctively understood that she was as equal and capable as her husband and any other man, and her choice to be a “stay-at-home” mom was just that – her choice. In later seasons, Senator Martha Kent went to Washington, representing the state of Kansas, although her political party was never stated; my own political leanings make her a Democrat, although in reality I think she would most likely be what in today’s political climate is called a RINO, which is pronounced like the animal and stands for Republican In Name Only – a pejorative for someone who is not considered conservative enough in their beliefs.

I also want to take some space here to give a shout-out to two very important moms in my life: Loretta Yontef Newell, my mom, and her granddaughter (and my daughter), Alixandra.

I haven’t all that often talked about my mom here – I’m really not sure why. She and my late dad were married for 69 years – they almost made it to 70 years, as their anniversary is coming up this June – and I know she was the linchpin for their relationship, for my dad adored her. I remember when we celebrated their 60th year of marriage; I said, “y’know, I gotta tell ya, there were times I was sure you two were headed towards divorce.” My father scoffed and said, “You’re nuts!” My mother wouldn’t even deign to answer.

She was a woman who was “feminist” in the same way that Annette O’Toole’s Martha was – raised to be able to stand on her own two feet in a time when most women were raised to become wives only, she first worked as a telephone operator before entering the U.S. Army Nurse Cadet Corps during WW II, and was stationed in Washington, D.C. as the war drew to a close.

After the war she worked as a labor and delivery nurse at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital – she commuted every day from Bayonne, taking bus, ferry, and subways! – where, she told me, she and her friends, after a long night delivering babies, went to the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn to see a certain young singer from Hoboken whose first name was Frank and whose last name was Sinatra. (I could never get her to admit to being one of the “bobby-soxers” who screamed his name earlier in the decade.) She was a school nurse, a medical-surgical nurse, one of the very first nurses to work with dialysis patients back in the day when the dialysis machines looked like giant rotors with a netting strung across their innards.

She also worked for the U.S. Public Health Service at a hospital on Staten Island, where one of her jobs was to ride a jetty out to the ships moored in Lower New York Harbor and give physicals to the merchant marine crewmen, clearing them for entrance into the States. She was a school nurse, a sleep-away camp nurse, and an ER nurse. And she did all this while being an involved wife and mother. My dad was always proud of his wife being a professional woman and she was, for the longest time, the only one of their circle of friends who worked “outside the home.”

She made time for me and my brother as well. She encouraged us to read – leading her own two plus their reprobate friends to the public library – and took us into New York City to Broadway shows and museums. I think our elementary school teachers were afraid of her, because if she thought one of us had been treated unfairly, she didn’t sit on her hands.

When I was in second grade I went to my school’s library and wanted to take out “The Black Stallion,” by Walter Farley. The librarian would not allow it, saying that it was a book for the older grades. When my mother heard about this, she went up to the school and demanded that I be allowed to read whatever I wanted to read. Of course, I wasn’t present for this showdown, but I can only imagine what my mom said because from then on I never had a problem.

Another time, I think I was in third grade, the class was assigned to read a biography and then write a book report about the subject. My mom took me to the public library, and I chose the story of Y.A. Tittle, the N.Y. Giants quarterback. When I handed in my report, the teacher gave it back to me, saying, “Little girls do not read biographies about football players.” Up went my mother, back to P.S. 29. Again, I don’t know what she said to the teacher, but I got an A+ on that book report – I’ve always wondered whether it was because it was an early example of my writing ability or because, simply put, the teacher was scared shitless of my mother.

My mother never told me what she said, and now it is too late – right before my dad died, maybe two weeks prior, my mom had a stroke, and though she is not physically disabled, her cognitive abilities are, to put it sadly and simply, pretty much shot to hell. She now lives in the same nursing home, and on the same floor, where my father spent the last years of his life. Sometimes she is more “cognitive” than at other times – sometimes when I speak to her on the phone, she is almost my mother; and other times, most times, she simply cries and says she wants to go “home.”

The other mom I want to talk about is my daughter, Alixandra. She and her wonderful husband Jeffrey, my son-in-law the doctor – he is a Ph.D and a professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey – have a son, named after both grandfathers: Meyer Manuel. He is loving and beautiful and the light of my life. He is also autistic.

When Meyer was definitively diagnosed at 18 months – the earliest age at which autism can be definitively diagnosed – Alix was working full-time and applying for a second Master’s program in Public Health and Policy at New York University. She didn’t quit her job. She didn’t quit her education, she delayed her entry into the program for a semester and started researching autism and the education of autistic children.

Alix found Meyer the best school in her area, Caldwell University, enrolling her son in the Applied Behavior Analysis program there. It was incredibly expensive, and when the insurance company lagged in its responsibilities, she fought them. She has never, ever ceased fighting for her child, has never ceased to put him first; they sold their beloved first home and moved to a town with better, and more progressive, educational policies towards special needs kids, choosing to rent and investing the monies from the sale of their home in Meyer’s future. And meanwhile, she did go back to school for that second Masters and continues to work full-time, commuting to New York City and always bringing work home with her.

She is one hell of a mother.

In the abso-fucking-lutely very best way.