Monday, May 30, 2016

Memories of Dad

John Colman Mott, my father, was born 100 years ago, on May 29, 1916.  During his 88 years, his actions demonstrated his passion for ethical principles, interest in world events, and commitment to family. 

Some of this found early expression when he was the editor of the editorial page of his university daily newspaper, the Crimson.  Although authorship is not attributed, I can guess some of the editorials he wrote by his big-picture, philosophical style, advocating for peace and good governance. 

An example of his early pacifism can be found in a 1936 editorial: .  Despite not being a member of one of the historic peace churches, he was a pacifist even during WWII. (His local draft board granted him conscientious objector status but quickly changed this to a health deferment as soon as a hospitalization with ulcers gave them an excuse.)  He later served as a draft counsellor starting with the Korean War to help men consider their options.  During the Vietnam War he anchored one end of the weekly peace vigil in our village downtown park dressed in his business suit and fedora, alongside a line of motley teenagers in tie-dye.    

He also had concerns about maintaining the separation of federal powers as a 1937 editorial illustrates.
In addition, he was dedicated to improving civil rights and race relations.  He helped residents in Ridgewood NJ found the Broad Ridge Housing Corporation, which raised funds throughout the community to rehabilitate three dilapidated buildings and allow minority families to purchase their own apartments.  He took me to hear Martin Luther King’s speech at Riverside Church in NY on April 4, 1967.  He went to the Poor Peoples Campaign March on the Mall on April 22, 1968 (again dressed in his business attire complete with fedora). 

His Wall Street profession was not necessarily typical for a Quaker activist.  For much of his work-life, Dad managed portfolios of investments, many of which were pension funds for labor unions and companies.  I took some pleasure in responding to declarations on the evils of Wall Street by asking proponents whether workers should have reliable retirement income.  In any case one couldn't find a more sober, responsible investment manager than my Dad.  He did not approve of speculation or investment decisions through quantitative formulas, although he had a healthy and knowledgeable respect for the cyclical history of stock prices – include a huge chart on his office wall.   His approach to investment decisions drew on investigative journalism skills – taking into account a broad range of qualitative and quantitative factors that affect long-term growth and income.

It was in the spring of 1944 that he met my mother, a fellow pacifist.  After my brother was born their search for a church led them to become convinced “Friends” and members of Ridgewood Friends Meeting.  During my childhood this meeting became the center of their social life, with its membership serving as part of our extended family. 

Outside interests and work notwithstanding, he always let us know that family was the most important part of his life, and his proudest accomplishment.  He was dedicated to his parenting role.  No Saturday morning cartoons for us – that was the time to work on household chores with Dad.  His lessons on safety drew on actual real-life memories of people he knew and over fifty years later are still vivid for me -- e.g., lawn mowing (images of chopped fingers!), wood chopping (images of chopped toes!), starting bonfires of brush (images burned hair and skin!).  He also (very) patiently gave me batting practice so I wouldn’t be the last team member picked for baseball during 6th grade gym.   

Daddy was affectionate and expressive.  At bedtime he rubbed our backs and told us stories of his childhood.  I remember the quiet of Sunday evening summer Quaker meetings for worship, lying with my head on his lap, listening to chirping birds through the open windows.  His bear hug greetings were famous across the extended family.  One of our favorite games was “monster”, when my two sisters and I would try to pin him down from his hands and knees on the living room floor, but usually he was able to hold all of us down instead.  He always had high praise for whatever we did – music, dance, etc.  -- but if I wanted a more dispassionate appraisal I turned to my mother. During my teen years I called him “mushy” and sometimes squirmed under his attention. 

He often had a relaxed approach to schedules and other details.  He generally relied on my mother to keep him organized and on-time, and this was sometimes a source of tension.  We kids noted with amusement that mom could never send him to the grocery store with explicit instructions, without his returning with other items not on the list, in spite of the scolding he would receive.   From time to time he could get very angry, but with the help of family counseling my parents learned to not bottle-up their disputes until they exploded, but instead affectionately bicker on an ongoing, but much less frightening basis.

Gardening was a life-long passion.  Each of my siblings and I, at the age of about five years, was in turn assigned the task of planting the carrots, subsequently graduating to harvesting the green beans.  In Dad’s opinion, nothing beat a juicy red tomato fresh out the garden.  He shared his love of gardening with my mother, and this continued until the end of his life.  I continue to appreciate a photo of the two of them in their garden plot, which is still posted in the entrance of their retirement community.

He loved socializing.  My early memories include tugging on his coat jacket seeking to end his conversations at the rise of Meeting for Worship.  He loved to wax on ideas, history and current events.  My Dad tended to pause only in the middle of the sentence, leaving my poor husband at a complete loss on how to politely interject or draw a conversation to a close – those of us in his immediate family tended to just interrupt or even walk out of the room.  Mealtimes were always a favorite time for both conversation and the food. 

His final decade of life was difficult.  He was physically uncomfortable – his internal thermometer didn’t work properly so he often felt chilled even in summer.  His hands and chin shook with his “familial” tremor.  He had little stamina due to congestive heart failure.  And he had a series of mini-strokes, one of which led to temporary period of aphasia and several of which undermined his memory and cognition.   Worst of all he was fully aware of his diminished mental capacity.  But he always knew who we were, bravely tried to be cheerful, looked forward to meals and visits, and expressed appreciation for assistance and attention.   He died in May 2004.   I regret that I did not spend more time with him during his final years, nor be more patient when I was with him. 

Overall, I am grateful to have had him as my father, and for the contributions he made to the world at large.