Mother's Day At the Office

BETWEEN the recent "daughters' day," when school-age daughters joined a parent for a day of role-modeling at the office, and Mother's Day this weekend, I happened on the folder of my mother's papers. We were preparing for a refresher course in parent/child bonding, doing our part in today's pattern of adult children stopping home during an employment gap.

The slim folder, with another for my father, was in a tan metal file box, assembled by my sister in closing my parents' affairs. There was a birth and baptism certificate, in Russian, with Cyrillic script, but with the German names in Roman letters, a practice for the German settlements in Russia. It bore an Evangelical Lutheran Church seal: Ries, Emma, born in Krasnyi Kut, near the Volga River, Nov. 17, 1905; baptized four days later by Pastor Allendorf in the town chapel.

An eighth-grade certificate from Victoria School, Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Aug. 26, 1921. Three certificates for shorthand proficiency from Detroit Commercial College, with the required grade of 95 percent, the last dated Oct. 10, 1924. A marriage license, husband Primo Cattani, Sept. 1, 1928; standing up were best friend Anita Perry and brother Ferdinand Ries.

Then three Detroit public high school report cards, dated 1948 and 1949, showing perfect attendance and honor grades, one with her husband's signature and the others signed by two of her daughters, who were in high school with her at the time.

This is about where my consciousness of my mother's attempts at a working career checks in.

After World War II the big issue in our neighborhood, as elsewhere, was not the nuclear threat from Soviet Russia; it was mothers learning to drive. Up and down our street, stick-shift autos bucked as wives who had helped keep the war effort running with factory and relief work demanded to keep their effectiveness going. Not yet for women fighter pilots.

It was unheard of then for a grown woman, mother of four, to return to public high school, to the chagrin of at least one of her daughters, to get her diploma. An added irony was that Mom became the president of the mothers' club as well, and she introduced me to the debate coach, who was to affect my own career in public affairs writing.

One last evening-school certificate was dated June 12, 1969.

The certificates show Mother's persistent effort to revalidate her skills for office work. Her first job, after her Detroit Commercial College training, was as secretary to a Chrysler Corporation executive. Then came a marriage, the stock market crash, children, the big war, and a new world to relate to.

She found other work at times, in sales and such. But opportunities, as the full sea of American womanhood can tell you, were few, mostly for those coming up, nearly never for those returning.

Should we have our mothers, not just our daughters, join us for a day at the office? How well are we doing, given our advantages as offspring? Are we living up to the aspirations and tenacity of our mothers' examples? Mother would see on the wall pictures of me with Nelson Mandela, Mario Cuomo, Ronald Reagan, each with a story to be told. The staff would say I don't let up.

We do the best we can, in each generation. In the 1980s graduating youths wanted to make megabucks right out of college; in the 1990s grown men and women are wanting to hold on to their jobs. For the poorest, education sputters out at the secondary level. Marriages come later, if at all. Children are born under generous pregnancy-leave policies, or under none at all.

Half the staff of this newspaper are women. Nine of the top 20 newsroom positions are held by women. But by other measures responsibilities are not yet equally divided. An unwelcome thought: With women's opportunities unachieved, the earnings expectations are starting to turn downward also for men.

What will be the redemption value of the certificates, educational, professional, and otherwise, that we, in the run of generations, collect?

Where in the great agricultural plain of the Volga did Emma's ambition take root? She worshiped her brilliant father and older brothers. But her ambition was of a feminine kind with its own strengths, a woman's model that needed no other validation.

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