My mother’s love, her service and sacrifice, her canned peaches that were better than candy — all of these deserve their own essays. But today I’ve been thinking about her mind.
She grew up in Lost River, a tight-knit farming community nestled in a valley just beyond Arco, Idaho. Her dad survived one of the grimmest episodes of World War I, before returning home to start a family and to raise sheep, cattle, and grain. Her mother served an LDS mission to the Southern States, but not before setting an example of sacrifice in pursuit of education.
So my tale begins with Grandma, since it must begin somewhere.
At age fifteen my mother’s mother, Bertha Artelle Noble (later Babcock) graduated eighth grade in a one-room schoolhouse. She was the only graduate that year, since her two classmates failed the graduation exam. She was valedictorian by default.
They held a full-blown graduation ceremony just for her, with family, friends, and local dignitaries, and she gave her valedictory speech. Later she recalled:
I had a white cotton graduation dress, black shoes, and long black stockings. Mother made my corsage of geraniums.
After the program there were refreshments served by the seventh-grade girls. Everybody brought whatever they had, or pleased to bring. Mrs. Lizzie Nichols brought lemon pies in a bucket. The next day at school (Cleanup Day), an old stove in the girls’ cloakroom was found to be full of pie. (All quotations are from her Personal Histories and Essays, 2nd ed., 2012.)
That fall, her parents sent her to Kaysville, Utah, to live with her grandparents, so she could attend high school. She wrote, “I did not go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but stayed until school was out in June before returning home.”
The following year, she attended high school in St. Anthony, Idaho, this time living with an uncle and working for her board. St. Anthony was much closer to home than Kaysville, but still far enough away that she didn’t return home for holidays. In the spring her uncle moved his family to another city, and she lived with a different family for the rest of the year, still working for room and board.
“This was the end of my education,” she wrote. “I was always interested in my studies at school and received good grades.”
I remember Grandma reading, encouraging her grandchildren to read, and rejoicing over our academic accomplishments, even the small ones.
Mom, the Next Generation
My mother, Elizabeth Noble Babcock (later Rodeback) graduated Arco High School, then got her bachelor’s degree from Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), which was a four-year school before becoming a two-year school. (Now it’s four again.) One of her favorite political science professors there was a Dr. Keith Melville, whom I enjoyed decades later at BYU in Provo.
She went to Salt Lake City to get a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Utah. By her account, the department didn’t want her there. Each master’s candidate was required to complete one of three tracks for the degree; they made her do all three.
When I was a youth, there was a rumor in our community that Mom was a Rhodes Scholar. She was not, but she was the next best thing, a Fulbright Scholar. A year of her graduate work was at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world. It was founded in 1413 — 79 years before Columbus — and is even now a highly-respected, world-class institution.
She told us stories of eating oatmeal for breakfast every morning, the utter absence of central heating, and learning government from Fabian socialists. She showed us slides of a beautiful land I still haven’t seen with my own eyes.
She specialized in Latin American governments, so she studied for a year at the University of Mexico, perhaps the leading university in the Spanish-speaking world. She also learned from her native roommate to prepare the local cuisine. Years later, she told us of oversized cockroaches, scorpions, and tarantulas.
She came home to the U, wrote her master’s thesis on Juan Peron’s regime in Argentina, became the first woman to graduate the U with a master’s degree in Political Science — and turned down an invitation to stay there and pursue a PhD.
She turned down the CIA too, when they recruited her. She later told us about that as well.
She taught school in her hometown for a while. I’ve seen old newspaper articles about her taking her high school government students on an educational trip to Washington, DC. She also taught Latin dance.
Then she taught at a junior high in Salt Lake City, where she met another teacher. She was nearly 30, and he was nearly 31, when they married. I came along three years later — not their first child or their last, but so far the offspring most prone to blog.
There was a shameful time — brief and long ago — when I thought her education had been wasted. That was idiocy, yes — but I wasn’t enough of a moron to say it aloud.
Time has corrected my view.
Here’s a partial list of what she did with her education.
She taught schoolchildren, which is a fine and honorable thing. Later she taught groups of neighbors how government works, both in theory and in practice.
She raised children to be interested in and curious about many things, and to be attentive to and involved in government.
I remember countless long conversations, often while she washed dishes and I dried them, or while we worked together at weeding the garden or processing its fruits. We talked about politics, history, geography, religion, and other things. She was a fount of knowledge — this was so obvious that I grasped it even as a teenage know-it-all — and I don’t remember her ever tiring of my questions or belittling my views, even when we disagreed, or when she knew something I didn’t. These conversations — and her respect — continued well into my adulthood, until she left this life in May 2004.
When I was a child in Colorado (before we moved to Idaho when I was ten), she lobbied the Colorado legislature relentlessly on matters about which she cared deeply. She was undeterred by small children at home, significant leadership assignments at church, and the occasional death threat.
When a centralized sewer system was proposed in our unincorporated Idaho town, to replace all the septic tanks, she held local elected officials accountable for providing accurate and thorough information, especially about the real costs. Then she went on what started as a one-woman crusade to defeat the proposal. She won many allies, and together they won the day. When a similar proposal arose years later, it failed again, largely due to her efforts. I guess you could say she was a community organizer before it was fashionable.
I could go either way on the sewer question, but I did enjoy watching her master the technical and political issues, dig in her heels, and rally the neighbors.
Wanted in the Room
Now that both my parents have passed on, I’ve been going through Mom’s papers. (Dad didn’t have as many.) As I’ve done so, I’ve remembered and learned more about some things she did after I left home. In the matter of what she did with all that education, this next thing looms increasingly large for me.
If you were a public official, and you needed someone to approach some sort of policy rationally, studiously, intelligently, and persuasively; if you needed someone who played well with others, even when they disagreed; and if it was controversial and public and something you had to get right, and you felt personally and professionally exposed . . . you wanted Mom in the room.
The local school district turned to her for help in drafting the district’s first HIV/AIDS policy. They and some higher officials turned to her again in an attempt to regulate home schooling reasonably, without undermining it (as such policies often do).
Maybe she never ran for Congress or any other political office. But she was influential behind the scenes.
One of the things she taught, by precept and example, is that a lot of the governance that matters is local, not national. Happily, it’s easier for one person to make a difference locally.
Especially, I’m thinking today, if that person is Mom.
At Church Too
In truth, her work, her passion, and the force of her intellect were not always well received. I mentioned the death threats. But there’s a less ominous story I remember more clearly, because I was older when it unfolded.
Our LDS congregation (ward) was split into two congregations, to accommodate the rapid growth in our town. Mom was assigned (we say “called”) to serve as President of the Relief Society, the women’s organization. Its responsibilities and activities at the ward level run broad and deep, and leading it is maybe the second most challenging and influential assignment in a ward, after bishop (pastor).
Mom’s good and like-minded friend Susan was called on the same day to the same position in the other ward that emerged from the split.
They put their heads together and also talked to their respective assistants (“counselors”), then announced to their groups that there would be some changes in the way things had been done for years. They would turn their attention in many of their activities away from crafts — “making doodads” was Mom’s term — and focus on more basic, practical skills that people needed more, such as living within a budget, planning healthy meals, and other skills which attend an economically, physically, socially, culturally, and spiritually healthy lifestyle.
Many of the women (we call them sisters) complained about the change. Mom and Susan were unfazed — as were their bishops, when some of the sisters complained to them.
They kept teaching and explaining, and eventually the sisters in general embraced the new, more practical norm. Those two leaders served for several years in that role.
Mother Knows Best — But Also Learns
Mom had a happy combination of stubbornness and eagerness to learn.
She didn’t want her children involved in organized sports. It was practically begging for injury. By the time I was old enough to play football, which started in ninth grade, I knew better than to ask about it. That was okay, because by then I knew I didn’t have the knees for it.
Mom and Dad let me join the wrestling team in seventh grade. They weren’t thrilled about it. I did that team no good, and the only good it did me was fitness. They were supportive when I made the basketball team in eighth grade, then ninth grade, then high school. Mom never attended one of my games, but somehow that was okay.
I think they saw that sports did me good beyond what my ambitious studies and my forays into vocal and instrumental music were doing. (They attended virtually all of my concerts.)
What I saw was that Mom was not so certain she was already right about everything that she left no room to learn.
Near the end of her life — we didn’t know it was near the end — we finally persuaded my parents to get connected to the Internet. Mom had been a skeptic for years — stubbornly, I thought. That skepticism, sprinkled with gentle derision, lasted only until she discovered the wealth of information that was at her fingertips — at home, not in a distant library. She forgot her skepticism and embraced the new resource with enthusiasm.
Apparently, the best minds are flexible too.
It Went Without Saying
I don’t remember Mom ever saying a self-serving word on the subject, but I couldn’t possibly have grown up with such a mother and come away thinking that women are not as smart as men, or that women are inherently less effective leaders than men. I couldn’t have learned that from Dad either, by the way, and he was plenty smart.
If I haven’t always acted perfectly on my conviction that men and women are intellectual equals — as my academic, professional, church, and marital experience also affirm — it wasn’t because I thought being male made me smarter. My arrogance was indiscriminate. I just thought I was smarter than you, no matter your gender.
Mom wasn’t like that at all, by the way, at least not when I knew her. I’d like to think that I eventually learned from her example of intellectual humility.
So . . .
Mom, I was thinking today that it’s been almost thirteen years, and I still miss your mind. I think I’m not the only one. But I can safely say that your influence lingers.
And we’ll carry on as best we can.