My Mother, Margaret Lucile Burnett, was the first-born child to a wealthy couple in Denver, Colorado, in 1911. She was her father’s dream come true, but not so much so to her mother, Lucile, since Margaret was an unattractive child. Lucile much preferred her next child, Chuck, a handsome boy, and her beautiful baby, Jean.
Mother grew up feeling ugly, especially as she moved into her teens. When she was 13, she sprang into her full 5’8” height, with much extra weight to boot. She often told us of the time that her parents invited a German couple to visit. As Mother descended the stairs to greet them, Mrs. Higgenbottom exclaimed, “Oh what a backfisch!” which Mother interpreted as a devastating put-down.
Later that evening at dinner, Mother, who had been given the job of washing the raspberries but had not done so, watched as a little worm appeared out of Mrs. Higgenbottom’s raspberry heading for her mouth. Mother said nothing.
Mother met my father, Robert (Bob) Strozier, at the University of Chicago in 1935 where they were both studying for graduate degrees – my mother in Social Work and my father in French. They became engaged. Mother took him home to meet her parents in December of 1935. The story goes that after my father met his terrifically uptight future mother-in-law, he fled. He took the train to his hometown in Georgia, and never wrote to, or replied to letters from Mother in the ensuing two years.
Mother, a determined young woman, spent two years teaching High School English in Denver to save up enough money to go back to the University of Chicago where she planned to find again and ‘get’ Bob Strozier. The story goes that Bob ran into Margaret at the university and told his roommate that “I’m going to have one more date with that damned Margaret Burnett.” They were married on December 27, 1937.
Though she married the man she adored, she continued to feel uncomfortable with her body. According to Mother, she would only change clothes in the closet. Dad tried to get Mother to dress in front of him, but she refused for many years. She was also self-conscious about the large nose she had inherited from her father. She insisted on posing in pictures so her nose could not be seen in profile.
Years went by, and Mother gradually lessened in her dislike of her body. When she was 59, she had a radical mastectomy because of breast cancer. Later, in her ‘70’s and 80’s, she had two open-heart surgeries – the old-fashioned kind where they saw your chest open. As she said, “My body looks like a war zone.”
When Mother was in her ‘80’s, she broke her hip. I visited her often and, much to my surprise, Mother asked me to help wash her in the bathtub, and then afterwards she asked me to rub cream on her body. As I did so, she sat on a stool happily and un-self-consciously. She certainly changed in her lifetime!
Another change was her openness about talking about love and sex. In her ‘80’s she was widowed for the second time. She was living in a retirement center in Philadelphia where she had many friends. One night she called me to let me know that her friend Wayne’s wife had died. A few months later, she called to tell me, “all the women are after Wayne.” She indicated she was interested too, so I told her to hang in there and go after him.
A couple of weeks later she phoned to say, “Wayne walked me home from dinner.” Two weeks later, she told me, “Anne, it got physical.”
Mother and Wayne dated until he also died. He would spend the night at Mother’s apartment on Sunday evenings. I asked once when ending my visit if I should make up the extra bed for him. She said, “No, he sleeps with me. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Mother died when she was 97. My two brothers and I came to visit her on the morning that she died. She was in a morphine-induced coma. My brothers decided to go get some breakfast, so I was alone with Mother. A nurse asked if I was okay with that, and I said, yes, definitely. I crawled up into bed with Mother, hugged her and cried, telling her that she could go if she was ready. Five minutes later, she stopped breathing. Later, the whole family and friends came to Mother’s room. Her body was still in the room with the curtain pulled. Nurses came into wash Mother’s body. They asked if anyone wanted to help them; my brothers both said, “No, no.” I did. It was my last opportunity to know and love my Mother’s beautiful body.
Anne Strozier is a Professor Emerita from the University of South Florida, and a licensed psychologist. While at USF as an Associate Professor of Social Work, Anne created the Florida Kinship Center to provide resources, research, and government liaison for grandparents and other relatives responsible for raising children. Anne is an active fundraiser for local and international charities as well.
30 Replies to “My Mother: Ugly Duckling”
What a remarkably candid and insightful article! I’m so pleased that your mother was eventually able to be comfortable with herself. What a loving tribute.
This is a reply to all of you wonderful people who have responded to my blog. First, I learned from fellow OLLI member Sara Zimmerman, 3 years ago that backfisch doesn’t mean anything negative. It just describes an adolescent. Mother never knew that though!
Secondly, I send my love to readers who did not have wonderful relationships with their mothers. I would imagine that reading this piece would cause a great deal of pain for women and men with fraught relationships with their mothers. For them I feel very badly.
I learned from fellow OLLI member Sara Zimmerman 3 years ago that backfisch is not a negative German term — it just means “adolescent.” Mother never knew that so continued to feel
persecuted by the term all her life.
I also realized that my piece must cause pain for women and men who have not had close or meaningful relationships with thier mothers. For this I apologize, I want to cause no pain to others. I am very lucky that Mother moved from a cold and distant mother to a tremendously accessibly mother in her old age. I wish everyone your resolution re: our parents
Wonderful story, thank you.
Thank you for this, Anne! What a lovely story accompanied by such beautiful photographs.
What a fascinating story, dear Anne!! Sometimes I wonder how long it will take for us, as a society, to get to your mom’s level of evolution. It breaks my heart to look around and see that, as a whole, very little real progress was made. Men and women are constantly judged (and valued) by their looks. Thanks for sharing it!!
Thank you for sharing such a loving story.
Very touching. So glad she eventually liberated herself!
What a lovely story and tribute to your mother. Often we don’t stop and appreciate the
gifts we have been given to us by our mothers. Gone but never forgotten. Thanks, Anne.
So touching. Thanks for writing, Maw.
What a beautiful story! She was such a classy lady. Quite an insight into the lasting effect of early messages from our mothers.
Lovely story by a warm and wise storyteller about a wonderful woman and the close and rare relationship they came to share. I felt privileged to read it.
Anne, that was such a poignant story – especially since I think your mother was beautiful! As someone who always compared myself to my two sisters, I could really relate. Thank you!
Being Anne’s brother, I may be a bit biased, but no matter this is really a moving piece.
Thanks Anne for telling Margaret’s story. She was a lovely and remarkable woman.
How I loved hearing the new as well as old stories of Margaret’s life. The theme of body challenge is brand new to me. Thanks for sharing the loving transition for her.
we love it
What a lovely story. I knew you always had a special bond with your mother. How fortunate you were.
Such a moving story. I so admired your mother and found her always to be so self-confident, but as women we constantly feel insecure due to the body perfect. Thank you, sweet sister-in-law❣️
Anne, your lovely story brought me to tears. Thank you. Love you, Cathryn
Beautifully written lesson about embracing self, acceptance and personal growth. Tenderly written and appreciated. Thanks dear Anne❤️
A lovely story. My mother was a very remote woman and I always regret not having had a closer and loving relationship with her.
Lovely story Ann. Thank you for letting me get to know your Mother.
What a lovely story of relationships, with ourselves and our mothers….gaining & accepting who we are. You had a very special relationship with an exceptional woman. I certainly know what that’s like. You write with such love.
Sara, I remember telling your mother about the Wayne part when Mother said, “it got physical.” She laughed hysterically!
I can’t wait to read some OLLIConnects stories about your wonderful mom, Sylva!
What a loving story of your Mother, Anne. Thanks for sharing her with us. Why do we have to wear a beauty suit? Who are our judges? She is still within your heart, Hugs.
You poured your heart out toward your Mom in this piece and throughout your life. God bless you!
You are a wonderful, insightful writer, and I love you for your warm soul and compassion.
That was a lovely, in so many ways, and touching story, Anne. I look forward to reading more.
Beautiful story, Anne! Wonderful to have had such a great mother who was able to teach you so much through her personal growth. Well done!
Evelyn Ann Romano
Thank you, Anne, for a very moving story told so lovingly. Though I, the oldest of three girls, did not have a warm relationship with my mother, it always does my heart good to hear or read of a supportive relationship between mother and daughter. …Jay Cortright