My Mother’s Gifts

My mother, Kathleen (Townsend) (Harty) Davison. Photo by Callen Harty.

As we arrive at Mother’s Day, 2012 I think of my mother, Kathleen, and I see her in some kind of in-between place in her life.  I have come to realize that she is no longer getting old.  She is old.  It is her being now.  Her hair, never once dyed in her life, is still fairly dark, though grey and thinning.  Her face is wrinkled, her hands and arms small, almost tiny.  At around 100 pounds she is physically frail.  Mentally she comes and goes, sometimes sharp as can be, other times struggling to remember things she should know.  Her spirit remains strong.  It has always been strong.  Her smile and her laughter still make me laugh or smile along with her.  She has survived a great deal in her 87 years.

There was a time when her hair was jet black, when she looked healthy, when she could move freely.  I remember Mom as young and vibrant, though that seems so long ago now,  hazy memories even for me.  I remember telling my grade school classmates how beautiful she was.  I remember how hard she worked to keep up the house and to take care of things for us, and to take care of us.  I recall the whole family, including our Aunt Avene, gathered in our basement as my Great Aunt Leona banged away at the piano, pounding out “Turkey in the Straw” without sheet music and my mother kicking her legs up in dance, not for the joy of the dance, but for the joy of bringing smiles to the faces of her children.  Everything she did in her life was about her children.

This is not to say she was a perfect mother.  But I wouldn’t say that I was ever a perfect son either.  The ways in which she failed as a mother were never the result of meanness, selfishness, or anything else bad, but because she wasn’t equipped to deal with what she was facing at the moment.  When my father died of a heart attack at the age of 41 my mother was left with four children between the ages of two and eight to raise by herself.  Her parents and grandparents were already all gone by then, as well as her oldest son who had died as a baby.  Because of her strong Catholic faith she could handle the sorrow, but she wasn’t really equipped for single parenting, especially at a time when there were very few single parents.  During my entire grade school and high school career in our small town I was the only one in my class from a single-parent household.  She did her best without any preparation and very little support for such a task.

We didn’t have much when I was a kid, but we had what we needed.  We were fed, we were clothed, we were housed, and we were given love, maybe not as much of any of it as we might have wanted, but as much as she could or knew how to give.  My mother grew up with an alcoholic father and it took me years to understand that some of her emotional distance most likely came from that.  She was kind, generous, friendly, but didn’t always know how to show the love I know she held deep inside her.  I had to learn to hug from a friend of mine when I was in my early 20’s and brought it back to our family where we learned it as adults.

This is not to say that my mother was an imperfect person either.  She was perfect in living her life as well as she knew how.  She gave us so much from so little.  She instilled in me–in all four of us, I think–a sense of right and wrong, a sense of justice, and a conscience that could guide us throughout our lives if we only listened to it as well as she listened to hers.

I see her in my mind’s eye now, sitting on the chair in the living room, rosary in hand, silently praying a Novena for God knows what sins.  She always saw herself as imperfect, lacking in grace and sophistication, short in intellect, failing in spiritual perfection.  This was what was in her mind, not in others who knew her.  She doubted herself the way that Doubting Thomas doubted Jesus.  She doubted her abilities as a mother mostly, I think, because none of her children followed the Catholic faith once we became adults.  In her mind this was her biggest failure.  Perhaps what she didn’t understand is that we were fallen away Catholics because the Catholic Church had fallen so far away from the teachings of Jesus.  What she didn’t realize was that the morals she taught, the respect she taught, the lessons that we learned from her stayed with us even though the trappings of the church dropped away.

Like my mother I doubt myself.  I question my morality and my spiritual fullness.  I question my worthiness.  I try to do right and I try to do good in this world, to make it a better place, and even without the faith in which I was raised I try to honor the ethical and moral upbringing that was given to me.  I question my role as a son, often thinking myself more prodigal than the Prodigal Son of the Bible.

On Mother’s Day I will make the drive to my home county, the land where my family has lived for generations, and I know that like the father in that story in the Bible my aging mother will welcome me there with open arms and love, no matter how long it’s been since my last phone call or visit.  She will make me feel wanted and loved, because I am her child and her children still are the sum of her purpose in life.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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