(My mom was a runner without ever knowing it. I often wonder what would have happened if she had grown up at a time when girls were encouraged to run, not teased for being tomboys. I have no doubt that my lifelong love of running owes almost everything to the encouragement I received form her when I was a kid. I originally wrote this for my mom — and for all the moms who stand out there in all weather to watch their children run — on Mother’s Day, 2007.)
Martha’s father was a man with a slight physique but a larger-than-life personality. He was a Presbyterian minister with a Ph.D. in Divinity, who loved literature and drama. He led a theater group at a local university and quoted Shakespeare whenever he got the chance. He was physically restless and boasted that he walked a brisk four miles every day and chopped his own wood, habits he would continue into his mid-eighties.
Martha’s mother had quieter talents. She had studied and taught piano and voice, and she preferred to get her exercise by keeping an immaculate house and by taking care of her two children: Martha and Martha’s older brother, Ralph.
As a young girl, Martha took after her father in being always active, always moving. She would run to and from school for the sheer fun of it, and after school she would play stickball with the boys on her street. Her father didn’t think was proper for a young lady, and teased her about being a tomboy. If he saw her running, he would tell her to stop, but she ran anyway. His lukewarm support for her athletic interests didn’t stop her from going out for school sports. In field hockey she turned out to be pretty good. In her senior year, she was good enough to make the New Jersey All-State field hockey team. She also played basketball (“But it wasn’t really basketball, not the way we played it in those days…,” she says) and softball.
When the time came to think about college, Martha (an excellent student) applied to and attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a prestigious all-women’s school. Her father would have preferred something closer to home, something that would prepare her for teaching, if she was so inclined. She surprised him again when, after earning a Bachelor’s degree, she went on to graduate school, eventually earning a master’s degree in Zoology, fairly rare for a young woman growing up in the 1940’s.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Martha married Paul, a man she had met on a trip to Maine several summers earlier. Paul loved the outdoors, loved to sail, and played the piano quite well. He had played in the USO during the war. Together, they settled in Amherst, Massachusetts. In 1951, their first child, Robin, was born. Two years later Karen was born. Then Timothy, and then two more boys. As the mother of five young kids, Martha didn’t have the time to pursue her own athletic interests, but she loved to watch her children play, and she played with them when she could.
Both girls loved sports, and Martha would spend time tossing them softballs in the backyard. Both girls would play sports in high school. One of them would be a field hockey all-star, following after her mom.
All of her sons liked playing backyard games, but her fourth child was the one who was crazy about sports. Like his grandfather and his mother, he couldn’t keep still, and was happiest when he was in motion. As soon as he was old enough, he started playing t-ball, and then little league. He played basketball, too, and flag football. There was no youth soccer for young kids in those days, but he would have played that, too, if he could have. Martha’s fourth child wasn’t especially fast, but he could run and play all day, and often did. When he was ten years old, Martha found him running around and around the house. He claimed he had measured the distance with a wooden yard stick and he had figured out it was 16 laps around the house to make a mile, so he was running the mile.
A lot of parents would have told him to stop or would have at least warned him not to tire himself out by running in circles. But for whatever reason, maybe because she recognized that urge to run and run, Martha let him keep going — and had a glass of ice water for him when he finished.
In junior high school, and then high school, her son ran track in the spring and cross-country in the fall. In the winter, he played basketball (there was no indoor track). He started running all over the place — on weekends, he would sometimes disappear for an hour or more, returning with stories of all the places he had been. Sometimes he would ask her to drive with him along the same route where he had just run, to measure it. None of her other kids had ever done anything like this, but he was so serious about it, so she went along. In fact, she did a lot more than go along. As he got older, she listened to him talk about his meets, about his times, about the places he had run, about what the coach had the kids do that day, about how many miles he wanted to run that summer. Sometimes when they were driving home from some place, he would ask to be dropped off so he could run the rest of the way home. She never told him he was crazy or foolish, never made him stay in the car if he wanted to go on foot. She was always there to give him a ride, but never insisted on it. She was happy to have this window onto her son’s world.
She would attend his meets, standing around with the other parents watching their kids run. Sometimes the other parents would joke with each other… “What are we doing here?” and she always knew the answer, “If it’s important to our kids, then it’s important to me!” One day, she was walking and she saw her son jogging with some other boys. For a moment, she wasn’t sure what to do. Her son was shy, and she guessed that her son wouldn’t want to be seen talking with his mother in front of the other boys, but she was surprised and touched when he jogged up, smiled, and yelled out “Hi, Mom!” She loved to tell that story.
One thing Martha never could or would do was judge her son’s efforts. No matter how her son ran, whether the time was fast or slow, she always said the same thing: “Wow, that’s really good! Good for you!” At times like these, her son would grow impatient with her, and say, that no it was NOT very good. Didn’t she know the difference between a four-minute mile and a five-minute mile? “Come ON, Mom!” But that distinction never seemed to matter to her, and she never learned to be critical, but instead, continue to give him complete, unconditional encouragement. It took him a long time, but eventually, he learned to accept it.
After high school, her son stopped running for several years, at least competitively. He went to college, graduated, got a job, got married, and then, all of a sudden started running again. In his mid-twenties, and about to start a family of his own, it somehow came back into his life, and it was a gift to be able to enjoy again what had brought so much happiness as a kid. And when he would call to tell her that he had finished a marathon in this or that time, that he had won some race (or failed to win), that he had struggled or suffered in some event that seemed very important at the time, she would still say the same things she had always said: “Wow. That’s awfully fast. Good for you!”
One day, Martha got a call from her son. He had won an important race, and he said that as soon as he had finished, he had been overwhelmed with a desire to share the victory and the experience with her and with Paul. He said he couldn’t have done it without them, and that he just wanted her to know how much her support had meant to him over all these years, and how much it still meant to him. He said…
“…Thank you, Mom, for letting me run around the house, for standing out in the rain at my meets, for driving me all over the county to measure my runs, for supporting me in a hundred ways that I didn’t notice at the time but I understand now that I have kids of my own, and for believing that if it was important to me and if it made me happy, then it was important to you, too.”
And she replied that she still remembered how he ran around the house that day when he was ten, sixteen times — a full mile.