May 12th, 2019

On Mother’s Day, a Tribute to a Mother Who Doesn’t Celebrate Mother’s Day

My siblings and I are pretty lucky, because our mother may be the smartest person in the world.

Let me reassure you that this is not just our biased opinion. Everyone who knows her well thinks the same thing — including my wife, who told me today, on Mother’s Day, that my Mom’s remarkable brainpower should be the focus of this profile.

(Not that my mother has any time for Mother’s Day. Unsentimental in the extreme, she disparages such holidays as manipulative.)

I first had an inkling of her intellectual superpower when, after underperforming on an important test in middle school due to numerous trivial distractions (baseball, model rockets, general silliness), I received some stern comments of disapproval from my father.

When my mother rushed to my defense, he countered as follows:

Look, no one is as smart as your mother. Most people have to study to do well in school.

I assure you this was said without the slightest exaggeration.

The first person in her family to attend college, she graduated early then followed the path of many women of her generation — married at 21, done having three children by 26 (!), she could have continued down this path of domesticity without anyone even noticing. 

That’s what most women did. 

But she went back to get a graduate degree (abandoning little me at home, sob), then started a successful career as a food writer, continuing to work as a journalist (Newsday, New York Daily News, Bon Appetit) for many years. In 2000, as the internet took off, she won a James Beard award for Best Internet Writing.

As this point, I know what you’re thinking — how could a food writer be the smartest person in the world? Surely that honor must go to a neuroscientist, a mathematician, a scholar of ancient histories, some super-linguist who speaks 20 languages.

Well, here are a few examples:

  • Technology. Most people my mother’s age really don’t do well with new technology — remember the flashing clock on the VCR? But my mother was an early adopter of computers, owner of one of the first word processors — does this Wang 2200 look familiar to anyone? Although she’s not writing code or macros, she effortlessly uses computers and cell phones as tools to get things done — which is probably what most of us should do rather than obsess over the latest gadget.
  • Breadth. My mother’s expertise extends way beyond food — literature, art, music, movies, theater, current events, all seem to be in her domain. My daughter is constantly amazed at how her grandmother — my mother — gets most pop culture references. During a video interview I did with many family members at the turn of the century, I asked her what she believed to be the greatest unheralded work of art. She paused briefly and said:  “Eugene Onegin — and that’s because I just read the novel, saw the opera, and rented the movie.”
  • Math and science. Though she has degrees in art history and English literature, I can talk to her about advances in medicine and science without the slightest need to bring down the level. It’s particularly remarkable how quickly she grasps key principles of clinical research and epidemiology, concepts that many of us spend years mastering — examples include confounding, sensitivity and specificity, lead-time bias, the potential harms of excessive screening. Explain these principles once, she gets them forever.

Not included in the above Mother’s Day (sorry Mom!) tribute is that she’s been consistently supportive of my brother, sister, and me in all our life and career decisions. When I ditched a cardiology fellowship for the much less remunerative — and even stigmatized — specialty of infectious diseases, she never once even hinted at displeasure. 

So thank you, Dad, for choosing this very smart and wonderful person to be our mother.

She’s so special that I can even forgive her these two transgressions, both of which stem from this aforementioned lack of sentimentality:

  • She threw away my baseball cards when I went to college. Why should anyone save these boring pieces of cardboard?
  • She doesn’t get this whole dog thing. After all, they’re just animals.

Hey Mom, Louie forgives you, too.

6 Responses to “On Mother’s Day, a Tribute to a Mother Who Doesn’t Celebrate Mother’s Day”

  1. Deborah Cotton says:

    Such a lovely tribute to your Mother, Paul. I was lucky to meet her some years ago and only wish I had known then that she does not get “the dog thing”. I would have been delighted to have found a kindred spirit!

    Tired of my children’s constant requests for pets, I once considered getting two cats and naming them Toxo and Plasma. I resisted the impulse though…

    • Mimi Breed says:

      Paul, I wish I’d known your mother, too. She must have been okay, judging from the little Paul she raised. Love your tribute to your Mama…And I’m afraid I don’t get the whole PET thing. Give me another baby any time. Fortunately, my youngest daughter has done just that — Rowan, born July 4, 2018. Grandchild #7, and he lives in the same house as me (along with Grandchildren #3 and #6). I’m the luckiest grandma in the world.

  2. Mimi Breed says:

    Love your glamorous beach outfit, too!

  3. Stuart McCalley MD says:

    Thanks for this very well written tribute to you rmom.
    But what is it about baseball cards? My mom threw mine away also when I went off to college!!

  4. This is the best non-mother’s day tribute I’ve ever read. Clearly, she is a beloved force of nature and a woman to emulate.

  5. Beth Cookson MD says:

    thank you so much for the reference to the Wang 2200; I had been unable to identify that computer my dad brought home when I was in high school. All the best to you and all of your family!

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

Learn more about HIV and ID Observations.