An Ideal Mother

Maggie Smith as Betsy Trotwood

Maggie Smith as Betsy Trotwood

My college’s second semester starts late this year—the day after Martin Luther King day—so I am able to spend more time with my mother during this first Christmas holiday after my father’s death. My wife has already headed home (by way of Pittsburgh, to see our granddaughter, and Washington, to see our grandson) so it’s just the two of us for the first time in… well, the first time ever.

Although I aspired to be like my father when I was growing up, my mother may be a deeper part of me. Her poet-professor husband knew that he had the freedom to follow his wild ideas wherever they led because there was always a solid framework to which he could return. In providing this foundation for the family, my mother showed her four sons what it took to create a solid family and a solid community. While my father’s death upended me (the French would say “boulversé”), in some ways he was always somewhat ethereal so death doesn’t seem entirely foreign to him. I can’t, however, imagine the world without my mother in it.

Various mother-son dramas come to mind as I look for the one that best gets at our relationship. Luckily, the many dysfunctional ones don’t fit our case. Of those, Oedipus of course is the most famous, it being the story where (as Freud points out) we encounter our deepest and most taboo desire: to be rid of our father so we can have our mother to ourselves. In other messed up relationships, the sons feel suffocated by their mothers in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (Portnoy’s mom is his “complaint”), while the son in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge” has an attraction/repulsion relationship with his mother. In the latter story, Julian, who is still living at home, is constantly irritated and embarrassed by his mother but then is thrown into emptiness when she unexpectedly dies.

There was a time in my life when I idealized Mrs. Ramsay of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and, as I look back, what stood out to me was her relationship with her young son James. She offsets James’ father, who is an emotionally distant intellectual, by listening to her son and honoring his feelings. But she dies while he is still a child and so the reader doesn’t see the relationship evolve.

The mother-son relationship that comes closest to my own may be Betsy Trotwood and David Copperfield. I revisited the novel last summer and, looking back, I now think this was no accident. Often a book will step into our lives just when we need it, and it was important for me to see this mother-son bond when my mother and I were about to lose my father.

Technically speaking, Betsy is not David’s actual mother as Clara Copperfield is there first. Clara, although kind and sweet, is not an ideal mother because she cannot protect her son—or for that matter, herself–against Mr. Murdstone, David’s abusive stepfather. Dickens’ depiction of Clara captures some of his resentment against his own mother, who wanted him to continue working at the boot blacking establishment—the most traumatic event of the author’s childhood—even after Dickens’ father emerged from debtors prison.

Betsy Trotwood essentially becomes David’s mother after Clara dies and David runs away from the wine import business where Murdstone has placed him, even though he is only ten. Betsy is fierce in her defense of young David, standing up to Murdstone and his sister when they come to reclaim the boy. Betsy is a woman of upright principles who demands that David live a life of integrity, and he repays her with lifelong loyalty, love, and support. She will come to require this support because, strong and self-sufficient though she is, she is also endearingly vulnerable at times, especially with regard to her ex-husband. I love the scenes where David takes care of Betsy when she finds herself penniless.

If David becomes an exemplary man, it is in large part because of Betsy. Many of my own best qualities can be traced to my mother.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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