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04/30/2021 ● By Rick Epstein
I'm reading a great book, “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt. It's a 784-pager about a 13-year-old boy, Theo, whose mother's death launches him on a life of danger and intrigue. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.

Is it a coincidence that Theo's adventures begin when Mom dies? And that his partner in crime is another motherless boy? Not hardly.

Remember Harry Potter’s mom? She was zapped by You-Know-Who almost 10 years before Book One.

And how about Mrs. Sawyer and Mrs. Finn? They’re so long-gone that Tom and Huck couldn’t even pick them out of a lineup. Also missing or short-lived are the mothers of Cinderella, Snow White, Dorothy of Oz, the Baudelaire children in Lemony Snicket’s books, Nemo the fish, Bambi, Hamlet’s Ophelia, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Babar the Elephant, Anne of Green Gables, Lolita, Luke Skywalker, Orphan Annie (duh), Pinocchio, Frankenstein’s monster, Nancy Drew, Jem and Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Opie Taylor of Mayberry, Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden,” the singing Von Trapp children, Pippi Longstocking, the Prodigal Son in the Bible, Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” the Boxcar Children, the Little Mermaid, Heathcliff (not the cat, the “Wuthering Heights” guy), Peter Pan, Pocahontas, Tolkein’s Frodo, Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” Hansel & Gretel, and Adam & Eve. 

When I’d borrow old Shirley Temple DVDs from the library to show my kids, you couldn’t help but notice that Shirley’s moms had the life expectancy of a quart of milk.

In “Stowaway” her mother had been killed by Chinese rebels, in “Susannah of the Mounties” there had been a misunderstanding with Indians, in “Bright Eyes” she is hit by a truck, and in “Captain January” she had drowned in a shipwreck. In “Heidi,” “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “The Little Princess” no cause is specified; being Shirley Temple’s mom was apparently a cause of death all by itself.

So why all the missing moms in books and movies?  Because ever since time began, good mothers have been conscientiously keeping things from happening. So the best storytellers, from the Brothers Grimm to Mark Twain, know that if you want excitement, just subtract the mom.  

Do you think the Cat in the Hat could have pulled off the most notorious home invasion in children’s literature with Mom on duty? Dr. Seuss sent her out shopping because he knew if Mom got hold of the Cat, she would have marched him straight to the vet to be “fixed” – hat or no hat.

There’s one author who had to keep yanking moms out of his stories like a gardener pulling weeds. I’m talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the 22-book Tarzan series. First he has Lord and Lady Greystoke killed in Africa, leaving a baby son. A female ape adopts Tarzan, but once she has taught him basic apemanship, she is fatally speared. Then Tarzan meets Jane, who starts off as Miss Excitement, but by Book 4, she has become a wet-blanket mom. She has Tarzan wearing a tie and living in London so Sonny can grow up civilized. So the author has the boy stolen away to Africa where he unwittingly picks up where his dad left off. But Mom catches up with Tarzan Jr. and makes him put his pants back on. The author has to intervene again and again; for the rest of the series, Jane barely has time to unpack between abductions. She’s missing for whole books at a time so Tarzan can have adventures while pretending to look for her. (“Nope, not here; maybe the beautiful priestesses of Opar have seen her.”)      

What about fathers? Generally they aren’t the bulwark against disaster that mothers are. In fact, a widowed dad, left alone with a couple of kids, can be counted upon to remarry recklessly. That’s the turn my own life story took when I was 14. My stepmother was smart, scrappy and a little irrational. She hadn’t been confused by years of parenthood, so she brought a new perspective to our family circle. Her observations were sharp as cat claws and she couldn’t resist the occasional slash at her rude, arrogant, lazy, hypocritical stepsons. (We had good qualities, too, but you really had to look for them.) Ambush and embarrassment became everyday things for us. I had to grow up and find a woman who could restore my tranquility.

So, kids and Dad, when Mother’s Day rolls around, give Mom plenty of encouragement. And don’t limit it to one day, either. That lovely woman who’ll be getting breakfast in bed might be all that’s keeping your story from becoming way more exciting than you’d be comfortable with.       

Rick can be reached at [email protected]

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