Magic of Mothers

The Marion Chronicles – Chapter 2

Six months have gone by since I last wrote about living in our tree house. Marion’s birthday went by a few weeks ago. She would have attained the ripe old age of 150 on Valentine’s day had she managed, in some magical combination of obstinacy and vegetarianism, to defy death. There are some noises being made out there about “celebrating” her life. So far nothing has even come close to revealing the Marion I have come to know. I had better get on with this.

In addition to the usual excuses — the pandemic, a broken wrist, too much chocolate — I blame my lack of progress on a mental block concerning the topic that is up next. I cannot go any further in telling you about Marion’s life until we talk about her mother, and mothers in general. Mothers. I am still not certain I understand the concept, even though I had one and I am one.

So. It’s the one thing we all have in common, this experience of having been part of someone else. Unless we’re living in the Matrix, every single person in this world, even the Son of God Himself, got here thanks to the body, blood, sweat and toil of a woman. A child, who begins in a blending of bodies, finally leaves the body of the mother and becomes other. There is something that happens there, some imprint, some connection that is unique in all the world. Your mother shapes you in so many more ways than just your body growing in her womb. Your mother leaves a psychic imprint on you, a special kind of birthmark, so to speak, that has the power to shape your whole life.

And Marion had an extraordinary mother. It’s really not possible to understand what kind of person she was without a glimpse into this relationship. Although she adored her father, Jeremiah, he died when she was just eleven. (More on him later, because it’s an interesting story.) But the upshot was this: Marion’s development as an artist and a human being took place in an environment saturated with strong, progressive, intellectual women.

This is what Marion has to say about her mother, Clara Mahony, writing, as she often did, in the third person about herself:

“Her father was an Irish poet, journalist and educator; her mother the most democratic of human beings, a mother who never dreamed of dictating to her children and a rambunctious five they were.” (MoA IV, p. 130a)

In fact, Marion turned over some 13 pages of The Magic of America (MoA) to “notes jotted down by my mother – Clara Hamilton Mahony.” So let’s take a look into Clara, and what made her the kind of mother who would never dream of dictating to her children.

Clara’s father Augustus Perkins and his bride Mary Lovejoy migrated to Tremont, Illinois, from regions eastward, and there Augustus set up a practice as a country doctor. Illinois, then, was still the frontier west (think Little House on the Prairie), but Clara‘s world was far from a gun-slinging, rough, hardscrabble existence spent dodging Indians and fighting off wolves and bears. It was full of interesting characters, progressive politics, community building and mutual support. In her words:

“Tremont became the county seat so the brilliant men of the county, like our great [Abraham] Lincoln, Judge [David] Davis, [Stephen A.] Douglas and others were often entertained by our good people though they could not claim them as residents. My Mother told me that when the court was in session she often from our house on the hill could hear the men in the court house roar with laughter at the stories they were telling at two or three o’clock in the morning. All know of Lincoln’s gift of storytelling and my father could almost match him.

The ladies were noted for their refinement, intellect and good cooking. Folks from the neighboring cities flocked to our town when an entertainment was given for they gave us credit for knowing how to entertain after the grand manner. Let me describe one of the banquets: Daniel Webster was reported on his way West and that he would stop in Tremont. All went to work. The Town Hall must be decorated. One of the residents was an East Indian sea captain. He had silks and tapestries that he kindly lent and the ladies used them in the decorating. All who had cut glass or silver lent it. … The ladies saw to it that the tables were loaded with tempting food and they were dressed in silks and satins that they had brought to the wilderness in their chests.

[…] Mr. Lincoln was a frequent visitor at our house and my mother he admired and honored. When he was made president he remembered his friends of old Tremont; Mr. Davis of Bloomington he made a judge of the Supreme Bench. John Albert Jones, who used to walk five or ten miles before breakfast and drank from ten to fifteen cups of tea at the parties, he made judge of the Court of Claims, and my father, Brigade Surgeon in the Civil War.” (MoA IV, p. 91-3)

Clara’s father traveled far and wide, up to 70 miles on horseback, to see his patients, and would be gone for days at a time. “In his thirty or more years he never lost a mother or a child,” Clara recounts. He was somtimes paid in produce, which was a bit awkward when it came time for him to pay his own bills.

He was the life of every gathering and the amusement of the young folks when he danced, as he kept perfect time and danced on his toes. His horse he always petted and would talk to it. If he fell asleep the horse would always stop when it came to the gate of a place where somebody had been sick, and father would open his eyes, look, and say “Nobody sick here now, Pomp, go along,” and the horse would move on. I used to love to drive over the country with him, and sometimes he would say, “Daughter we shall probably take dinner here and they will possibly have a simple meal, just bacon swimming in potatoes, but eat as though you enjoyed it.” (MoA IV, p. 95)

“Many tied their wagons around father’s yard, went to church and knew they would be invited to dinner. Father was a fine provider and mother a tip top cook. ‘I would drive 15 miles to get a piece of your lemon pie,’ was heard and I myself still think they were the best I ever tasted.” (MoA IV, p. 100)

Several in the community could act well, and they had “a fine Lyceum.” The Lyceum movement flourished before the Civil war, involving lectures, debates, discussions, and talent productions. I find it fascinating that the ideal community Marion and Walter were creating in Castlecrag echoes so faithfully the ethos of the Lyceum movement, which she would surely have heard about from her parents and grandparents.

Clara’s sister, Myra, was a very fine performer on the piano, and “added to her lovely self, that attracted the young people.” She gave piano lessons her whole life, and Marion adored her. Apparently, everyone adored her. I have wondered mightily why she never married, but MoA doesn’t divulge.

There was much good cheer and good feeling but much work, but no one of us ever heard our mother speak angrily or even impatiently, and we were no models. […] Mother was called Queen of the West and when she was arrayed in her yellow satin which set off her marble white skin, black hair and stately figure she looked it every inch. (MoA IV, p. 100)

So Clara was raised by an extraordinary, intelligent, charming woman and a kind, intelligent, entertaining and generous father.

When the Civil War broke out, Augustus went to Virginia to serve as a Brigade Surgeon, and Clara applied for and was assigned as a teacher in one of Chicago’s public schools. That’s presumably where she ran into Jeremiah, who no doubt through the force of his personality and his outstanding wordsmithing abilities swept this bright young lady right off her feet.

Clara and Jeremiah (aka Jere) had five children, of which Marion was number two. The year Marion was born, 1871, was the year of the great Chicago Fire. They fled with Marion and big brother Jerome out of the city, eventually setting up house in “the loveliest spot you could imagine, beyond suburbia — four houses and no others within a mile in any direction.” This was Hubbard Woods:

Such a wonderful place for children to develop, God’s university. All the wonders of the wilderness and yet so convenient to the city that both father and mother slipped into the city for their daily work. […] We children were safeguarded by a grand Irish housekeeper, and educated by that greatest of teachers — Mother Nature — and in her loveliest mood. (MoA IV, p. 131)

On the weekends, Clara and Jere’s legions of friends would take the train out to the house in Hubbard woods for gatherings – this was when Marion was called upon to exhibit her barefooted tree climbing skills. Again, this was definitely no Little House on the Prairie. I imagine these parties, as the French so aptly describe, would have been bien arrosées.

Katy Tully, the Irish housekeeper, was far from a stodgy governess. She took the children outdoors on “adventure after adventure.” Upon reaching school age, the Mahony kids would troup a mile up the road to the Winnetka schoolhouse. All was paradise until an accidental fire burned the house to the ground. They lost everything and had to move back into the city. Things took a downhill turn at that point, it seems.

It’s not clear from MoA, but Jeremiah, true to his Irish roots, did like his drink and the fire undoubtedly put them into financial difficulties. Perhaps managing five children, a husband teetering on the brink, and suddenly changed circumstances precipitated it, or perhaps it was with Grandfather Augustus on his deathbed and Grandmother Mary and aunt Myra needing help, but Marion was bundled up and sent to Tremont for a year.

There while Aunt Myra went to the surrounding districts on her horse Lucy, and to the neighboring towns giving piano lessons, the wee girl went to school and managed so to ingratiate herself to her teacher that they became lifelong correspondents in spite of the fact that she told a lie to her when asked if she was chewing gum. I had the habit that year of telling lies — when Aunt Myra asked me if I had brushed my teeth or Grandma asked it I had been sliding on the ice – wearing out my shoes and so forbidden. […] My present philosophical analysis is that I was quite consciously rebellious of this to my mind quite unwarranted assumption of authority on their part, especially in things that Mother would never have dreamed of opposing — but mostly just a general stand against authority. (MoA IV, p 133)

And then Augustus died, and Marion was sent back home again, to where the only playground was the streets and a “pocket handkerchief” back yard. She was of course no girly-girl, mentioning a penchant for hitching her sled to passing wagons in the winter. When Clara took her aside at one point, gently suggesting she stop being such a tomboy, Marion was crushed but did her best to comply. Not long thereafter, Jere died. In MoA Marion says “Angina Pectoris” but it was likely a laudanum overdose, or maybe a combination of alcohol and laudanum. I suppose that will stop one’s heart. We will never know. Like I said, I will write more about Jere later. So with five children, the youngest Leslie only four years old, Clara was suddenly a single mom.

The whole responsibility in every field on her alone, economic, domestic, educational, social — and how she filled them all, and her loneliness without her beloved only on the rarest of occasions becoming visible to the rest of us.

[…] for some time [Father] was principal of one of Chicago’s schools. His teachers adored him. one night not long after his death, Mrs. Young came in with a box which she handed to Mother. Mother said, “It feels as if it were filled with gold,” took it to the mahogany table, opened it and in truth it was filled with gold – a shining thousand dollars to give all the thrills of a miser to one who was furthest possible from being one, collected by the teachers who knew and loved them both, as an expression of their affection. (MoA IV, p. 136)

This Mrs. Young was the principal of the school attended by all the Mahony children at the time — Jerome, Marion, Gerald, Georgine and Leslie — and she expected her teachers to “make all Jere’s children shine.” She also coached Clara for the principal’s exam, and this is how Clara ended up principal of the Komensky School, an elementary school in one of Chicago’s tougher, working class neighborhoods, a job she held until she was 76.

In a letter from 1917, Marion broaches the topic of Clara’s retirement with her. (Clara, born in 1841, would have been 76):

I do think you should resign and see no reason why life shouldn’t be just as full of interest and enjoyment out of school as in it. I certainly could keep you busy if you were over here, and know the thousand things you will be interested in if you stay where you are. (MoA II, p. 196)

In a birthday letter to her sister Georgine in February 1917, Marion writes:

As I have been thinking back we must be just about the age of Mother when she was plugging for the principal’s exam with Mrs. Young at which time a new career began for her and for Chicago schools under her influence, with her whole school as an art gallery and the music unbelievable to the Superintendents and her continued courses with her teachers, initiating what afterward became University Extension courses. She certainly has done a splendid life’s work since then so after I get a good rest I am going to start to emulate her. (MoA II, p. 194)

(Fun story about Ella Young, as an aside … “Mrs. Young, interestingly enough, when thrown out of her position (as Superintendent of Schools) by a political mayor catering to job seekers who resented a woman’s holding so remunerative a position, was reinstated through the uproar of “public opinion,” this time the women of Chicago who in the midst of the turmoil had received the franchise.” (MoA IV, p. 136) (NB: Illinois ratified the 19th amendement in 1989, and the League of Women Voters was announced in Chicago on Marion’s birthday in 1920))

The year after Jere died, Aunt Myra and Grandmother Mary came to live with them, “and from that time formed an integral part of the family.”

The fact that Aunt Myra lived with us during the years after Father’s death meant we all had a second mother and a wonderful bosom friend. A pianist and teacher, she too was a natural educator and took lessons of all the great pianists who came to Chicago in those days. (MoA IV, p. 145)

These were also the early years of Hull House, and both Clara and Ella Young were connected to this influential and progressive network of women. Hull House, for those of you who, like me, are ignorant of important American social movements, was co-founded in 1889 by Jane Addams (the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of Social Work movement in the US, among other things) and her college friend and paramour Ellen Gates Starr. I could tell you more but Wikipedia does it very well so here you go:

In the 19th century a women’s movement began to promote education and autonomy, and to break into traditionally male-dominated occupations for women. Organizations led by women, bonded by sisterhood, were formed for social reform, including settlement houses such as Hull House, situated in working class and poor neighborhoods. To develop “new roles for women, the first generation of New Women wove the traditional ways of their mothers into the heart of their brave new world. The social activists, often single, were led by educated New Women.[12]

Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, “a community of university women” whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working class people (many of them recent European immigrants) in the surrounding neighborhood. The “residents” (volunteers at Hull were given this title) held classes in literature, history, art, domestic activities (such as sewing), and many other subjects. Hull House also held concerts that were free to everyone, offered free lectures on current issues, and operated clubs for both children and adults.

Clara almost certainly offered art classes at Hull House, as she also did in her own home on the weekends. Many of Chicago’s wealthy, progressive women donated funds and volunteered there, including Clara’s friend Mary Wilmarth, a reformer and suffragist whose daughter, Anna, became Marion’s lifelong friend. Anna funded Marion’s university education at MIT, and Mary coached her in French for the entrance exams. (Another remarkable resident of Hull House was Frances Perkins, appointed in 1932 by FDR as Secretary of Labor, the first female cabinet member in the US.)

(Fun story about Anna Wilmarth, as an aside: she married a University instructor in 1897, and then divorced him twelve years and two children later. In 1911 she married attorney Harold Ickes, who later served for 13 years as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, responsible for implementing the New Deal. Anna herself served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1929-1935. She was a passionate advocate for Native Americans, and was killed in a car accident in Velarde New Mexico in 1935, on a research trip studying the Navajo and Pueblo. Marion writes: “She didn’t do her work from the outside but became an intimate friend of the Indians and was admitted to their very secret ceremonies. She learned to know their reality of their different way of thinking and never spoke of them in the light manner so customary with the rational thinkers.” New Mexico? Whoa. By the way, Harold remarried at 64, to a 25-year old. One of their children, Harold M. Ickes, became Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff.)

I hope you are beginning to see how dialled in Clara, and by extension Marion, were to the progressive, feminist cirles of pre-war Chicago. Both Marion’s mother and her Aunt Myra were single professionals. Most, if not all, of the people they hung out with were advocating for the franchise, for women to attend university and have careers, for women’s and immigrants’ rights, for peace and equity. Marion would have been encouraged to stand up for what she wanted, to go after a university education, to develop herself as an intellectual — without any need for a man.

In fact there is exactly zero mention, anywhere in Marion’s writings, that she had any interest whatsoever in boys. She had some intense female “crushes,” but I’ll save that for another post.

Carl Jung once wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” Clara lived life to the full, and spared Marion the burden of her unfulfilled dreams. She was free her to follow her own, and she did, halfway around the world. What better gift can a parent bestow upon a child?

One last anecdote, before I close this very long chapter, that reveals what an exceptional soul Clara Mahony was for the time and era:

After the baby period passed, Mother took her roistering family [including Myra and Grandma] back to Hubbard Woods for each summer long vacation. […] Mr. Merriles had started building houses west of the tracks and then, I suppose in the pinch of some depression (such an absurdity these depressions) had left them all in their various stages of completion. For years we just chose the best one of them still left and camped therein for the two months. They were gradually disposed of the best one each year being occupied the next year, so we passed down the line, but always so long as there was a roof, a floor and a few walls, it suited us perfectly. We bothered with no furniture. Mattresses on the floor were luxury enough and when extra guests arrived a blanket on the floor was perfectly satisfactory. There must have been some sort of cooking arrangement though I have no recollection of it, so little was cooking a part of our life, except that when we went out early in the morning for the day’s adventure Mother always had one cooked dish.

No one ever had more wonderful holidays than we. As we started on the trail, sometimes we would be joined by neighbors or sometimes by city folk who came out for a lark. (MoA IV p 148-9)

The whole area, to Marion’s extreme chagrin, was eventually sold up and public access lost. Later, in the ideal Sydney suburb she and Walter designed and built in Castlecrag, they made sure that the lower levels of the valleys and ravines remained public property, a kind of park system, giving everyone accessibility to “all its pristine grace and majesty.” That ethos can be traced directly back to these fabulous summers and to the gift of having had a mother like Clara.

Also worth noting is the familial lack of interest in cooking. It was later remarked that Marion’s idea of cooking was slicing up some potatoes, covering them with milk, and putting the dish in the oven. That awesome lemon pie? Not going to happen. The myriad intellectual, artistic and community-building gifts Mary Perkins passed along to Clara and then to Marion apparently did not include a taste for domestic and culinary skills.

There is no mention in MoA, as far as I can find, of Clara’s death. The notes she wrote for Marion were done in her 84th year. The public record lists her date of death as April 21, 1927, at the age of 85. (The same year our house was under construction). The correspondence back and forth across the Pacific must have been copious, but Marion includes very little of it in MoA. Her death would have hit Marion like a ton of bricks. She had moved to Castlecrag two years earlier, alone, in 1925, after enduring years of frustration, loneliness and heartbreak over the Canberra project with Walter. She had just been introduced to the writings of Rudolph Steiner and her life was starting to shift from architecture into education and theatre. I cannot help but believe that Clara’s death and the years of separation from her family were contributing factors to the split she made with Walter in 1930, when she hightailed it back to Chicago and her sister, Georgine. Of course, more on that later, too.

This passage in a letter to her niece ten years earlier, during the war when no one could travel by ship because it was too dangerous, really tugged at my heartstrings, especially now, during this COVID pandemic, when I am also stuck down here in Australia, homesick and unable to see any of my own family:

December 20, 1917 – Dearest Clarmyra, […] I have had an attack of the collywobbles and Walt has been away for ten days and won’t be back for four more and I want my mama and my sister and my baby child. However I don’t want them enough to risk their being mined, so we’ll have to make the best of it. But the days don’t go swiftly when one has been sick and is alone and has been terribly disappointed. My what a lugubrious letter I am writing. […] (MoA II, p. 203b)

As far as I know, Marion never did see her mother again.

Images copyright New York Historical Society

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