On one occasion in the early 1960’s, I accompanied my mother to her evening class in public speaking. I don’t know if she thought it would be educational, or if she couldn’t arrange a baby-sitter. Class participants were given a topic and a few minutes to prepare and then had to make an extemporaneous speech. Her topic was “swimsuits” and she proceeded to give a rueful and very funny talk about her woes trying on a succession of swimsuits that either didn’t fit, or were ugly, or were far too revealing for her comfort.
She was taking the class for a reason that was typical of her life. She had a goal in mind, there was an obstacle in the way, and she needed to get past the obstacle. In this case, the obstacle was herself. She was very shy.
The goal she had in mind was to persuade one of the most conservative groups of people in the country, cattle ranchers, to embrace a new idea about cattle breeding. The idea had been my father’s. He wanted to systematically measure useful genetic traits and use the data to improve the cattle. At the time, this was a radical concept.
My father had died of cancer when I was a baby, leaving my mother with seven children, our ranch in Wyoming, and his idea. After his death, some of our relatives had urged her to sell the ranch and move back to Massachusetts, where she and my father grew up. My mother did not choose prudence. She liked Wyoming, and she was devoted to my father. She intended to carry out his plans. For the first years after his death, she was fully occupied just keeping the family and the ranch afloat, but by the time I was in school, her campaign to spread his idea was launched.
As a mother, she sometimes tried to teach me things, and one of the messages she often tried to convey to me was that men were fragile creatures who needed support, and the proper role of women was to defer to them and boost their confidence. At the same time, she was traveling the country giving speeches to large groups of men suggesting they needed to try something new. She managed this contradiction by viewing herself as a spokesperson for my father.
I barely heard the lesson she put into words. I saw her action, and what I saw was a determined and independent woman doing whatever she needed to do to pursue a goal. She recognized that her shyness was a barrier, so she sought out the best answer she could find, a Dale Carnegie class in public speaking. If it made her uncomfortable, that was beside the point. One of her favorite catch phrases became, “Stand up and make a fool of yourself until you get used to it.”
Thirty years later, the lesson of her actions would shape my own, as I describe in my memoir Tracking a Shadow. In the early 1990’s, I learned I had multiple sclerosis. At that time, there were no medical treatments, and the doctors said there was nothing to be done except wait and see what happened. In the case of multiple sclerosis, what might happen was unpredictable. It could be almost nothing at all, or it could be a range of disabilities that included blindness, spasticity, crippling fatigue, and the eventual need to use a wheelchair.
Thanks to my mother, I was not inclined to accept that there was “nothing to be done.” At the very least, I could seek out the best information I could find. I went to the medical library and started reading about multiple sclerosis. And here I was helped by a couple of lucky accidents.
The first bit of luck was that my background was in agriculture. When I looked at the epidemiological information about the distribution of MS, to me it looked a lot like the distribution of milk production. The second bit of luck was that my brother-in-law was a cancer researcher. When I mentioned this observation about milk production, he did a search of medical journals and found that French scientists had just published a study documenting a potential link between milk and MS.
So now I did have something I could do. I could stop consuming any milk products and see what happened.
This was a simple concept, but hard to implement. I was extremely fond of milk products and they are everywhere in the American diet. But here again, I was helped by my mother’s example. If she could steel herself to stand up and talk about swimsuits, then I could survive a life without cheese.
It has been twenty-seven years since I changed my diet. I have had only one mild flareup, in 2004, and no lasting symptoms except some slight numbness in my hands. I have never taken any MS medications.
As a study group of one, I don’t know whether this outcome is due to my actions or is simply chance. But if it is the result of my actions, then I owe thanks to my mother.
WRITTEN BYEdith Forbes