The Irreverent Economist

A Tribute to My Mother

She was Diane Morrow Cooper, Diane Cooper Parker, DCP, Dinah Girl, Grandma D, Mom, and Mommy. She was a daughter, sister, wife, lover, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother extraordinaire. There was so much to love about my mother, but I believe the most appealing thing about her is that she lived life on her own terms, and always abided by her two Golden Rules:  Treat Others as You Wish to be Treated, and Live and Let Live.

Diane was Independent

My mother belonged to no one—not to her parents, not to her husbands, not even to her children—so much was she her own person. Diane was remarkably independent, and wanted the same for us—she often described it as a principal goal of her child-rearing strategy. When we graduated from high school she gave us each a very sentimental gift:  a set of luggage!  She worried about us, of course. It must sometimes have been hard for her—especially after my sister Jenny died—to allow us as much freedom as she did. But she did it anyway—she gave us the freedom she had always wanted for herself. She treated us as she wanted to be treated.

That was a huge gift, especially for one like me, who was as independent as she. I blessed her a dozen times over for letting me travel to Nigeria—despite having almost died in Chile a year earlier, and considering Nigeria was in the midst of a military coup. “You go, she said.” On the eve of my departure, a visiting scholar at Princeton said that if I were HIS wife or daughter he wouldn't let me go there on my own. Thank goodness, I said, that I am not your wife or daughter! Thank goodness, indeed, that I am Diane's daughter.

An important source of Diane's autonomy was her financial independence, which was rare for women of her generation. Mom was frugal and careful; she knew that financial freedom was a key to calling the shots, which is what she wanted to do. Mom didn't lecture us. She simply set clear and firm limits. She let us learn by example…and by our mistakes. She conserved her resources for our future, leaving her children and grandchildren vastly more secure than we would otherwise have been. I admired her independence and her acumen—and appreciated all that she gave to us.

Diane was Defiant

My mom wasn't just independent, she was downright rebellious. Rules did not apply to her; they were made to be broken.  In an effort to tame her, Diane's parents sent her away to a boarding school for girls, which, as my Aunt Karen or Penny will tell you, was more like a prison or convent. Mom learned a lot there...all the tricks of clandestine resistance. After she met my Dad and saw her ticket to freedom, her parents sent her on a grand tour of Europe to try to make her forget about him. But she told THEM that if they didn't let her marry him, she would elope.  Guess who won?  Here we are, 60 years and 22 people later...!

While mom was in the hospital giving birth to me, dad went out and bought an airplane—with her money, but without her permission. She wasn’t too thrilled about that, as you can imagine. But rather than send it back, she decided to learn how to fly. She said that if dad was going to take her and the kids up in that thing, she damned well better know how to land it! She became the only Ohio mom of 7 to earn a private pilot’s license, and ended up doing most of the flying, from the sounds of it. There are some wonderful stories of her time in the air.

You knew that Diane was a pilot and master of her own destiny. What you might not have known is that she was also a trailblazer of social media. After she and Dad split, mom advertised in a local newspaper to recruit members for a new singles club that she had formed. Diane was NOT constrained by social norms; if she wanted something, she went for it!

Mom broke quite a few rules with Bill Bell, her favorite partner in crime. The most hilarious was when each of them used fake IDs, pretending to be me, in order to take advantage of some cheap student tickets to fly to Europe (this was long before there were integrated databases for airline check-in). Mom used her (very) old Case Western Reserve ID and Bill doctored his Fraternal Order of Police badge! Despite the patent absurdity of the situation, Mom actually kept a straight face while Bill glowered at the attendant questioning his gender, as he retorted, "does it LOOK like I had a sex-change operation?!"

Diane was Fun

Mom's mischievousness was on display on a cruise Lisa and I took with her to the Caribbean as girls. Every evening, as we departed the formal dining room, I scooped some after-dinner mints into my palm and offered these to my mother and sister. After four or five nights of this elegant ritual, mom couldn’t resist flinging my palm into the air, letting the mints fly! I was mortified, and delighted.

As you can imagine, Diane didn’t care too much for political correctness. She knew full well that smoking was bad for her, but did it anyway. I asked her once why she hadn’t used the patch to quit smoking. She said that, oh yes, she had tried it, and the patch had worked. In fact, she had quit "successfully" many times, and really didn't need those cigarettes. Not physically, anyway. Their main appeal, I'm convinced, lay in the rule-breaking they entailed, which became more delicious as cigarettes became less and less acceptable in polite society. With 9 lives ahead of her, Diane figured she might as well have fun.

Mom did have fun, and she was lot of fun. She was funny too—very funny.  Diane wasn’t a jokester like Bill, but she was sharp, and she appreciated the irony in many life situations. She was tickled that I dedicated my Ph.D. dissertation to her, and went to tell all her friends about it. “I want you to know that I understood every word,” she told them...”It was only when I tried putting the words together that I got confused!” In a household with seven children, the conversations flew fast and furious. When she needed to be heard, mom was fond of saying, “EXCUSE ME for speaking while you’re interrupting me!” She quoted Churchill, who said, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!” If we made an excuse that we hadn’t gotten around to it—the “it” being a household chore she’d asked us to do—she would hand us one of those little cardboard circles that had the phrase “TUITT” printed on it. “Here’s your round tuitt,” she’d say.

My mom relied on just a few simple rules. The reason they were few is that she didn't much like rules herself, and she wasn't a hypocrite. I loved that about her.

Diane was Strong

Mom knew she had to live with the consequences of her actions—although she didn't like to admit it, rule breaker that she was. Still, she made her choices and let the chips fall where they may. She didn't like excuses, and didn't make them.

Diane was a survivor, and a fighter—right to the end. She withstood terrible disappointments and losses in her lifetime: her brother's early death, her mother's coldness, the heart-wrenching loss of her baby daughter, the untimely demise of her beloved son. She soldiered through it all. She conquered lung cancer—which is almost unheard of—and then came back strong from a fracture to her hip. She rebounded from a brush with death from dehydration, and even as she lay silent last week, it was easy to imagine that her eyes might pop open at any minute, demanding to know why everyone was staring at her. She was a “Tough Old Bird” as we affectionately called her. She liked that nickname.

My mom never complained, or even asked for sympathy. She nursed her wounds in silence—with a little help from Mr. Beam. She seemed almost incapable of self-pity, and didn't like seeing it in others. She personified Benjamin Disraeli's admonition to "never complain and never explain." I always loved that bit of advice, although I never could follow it as well as mom did. Diane was a stoic, and raised us to be so. Let’s admit it, she was a bit too stoical for her own good—and for ours, at times. But I admired her strength all the same.

We noticed over the years how much Mom expressed with her eyebrows. While she often held her tongue, she let her brows do a lot of the talking. In her final days, she communicated much that way—to the delight of us all. That's how she let us know that everything was going to be ok.

Diane was Tolerant

Not only was Diane ahead of her time in terms of social media, she was an avatar of the civil rights movement. When she was young—in the fourth or fifth grade perhaps—she brought a black girl home to play, a nonchalant vote for equality that was unheard of in her parents' social circle. Years later, she told me of a garden club lunch in Cleveland, to which she suggested inviting a colored lady. The organizer rebuked her, saying, “A black woman is NOT a lady,” to which mom replied, “You, ma’am, are NOT a lady.” In the early 1970s, Mom thought nothing of leaving Lisa and me at the home of Anne Roberts, our beloved housekeeper. Anne lived in a tough neighborhood in Cleveland, where we spent the afternoon with other kids—generally older, all black, and mostly strangers to us. They were perfectly suitable as friends, mom thought, and we had a grand time dancing in celebration of the birthday of Vanessa, Anne’s daughter. Let me tell you, it was unheard of for a woman in mom’s circumstances to do such a thing—but it seemed perfectly, and wonderfully, natural to us. Diane treated every person she met as her equal. She was well liked by nannies, housekeepers, nurses, aides, service staff and teachers…for she treated them all with kindness and respect. She had her opinions, but when it came to other people, my mother was slow to judge, and quick to forgive. Rarely did she speak an unkind word of anyone—except those who were unkind.

Diane acted with a sense of restraint and fairness even when it was painfully hard for her to do so. When Jenny died, she voluntarily relinquished her right to sue the driver of the car that killed her daughter. She knew that wouldn’t bring Jenny back, but would only bring greater suffering to an innocent man. I deeply admired her decision—and her many other acts of kindness and tolerance.

Diane was Our Quirky Valentine

The night before mom underwent surgery to treat her aneurysm, I called to wish her a happy Valentine’s Day. “You were my first Valentine,” I said, “my first love.” I told her I thought there is no love greater than that between a mother and her children.” “I’m not so sure about that, mom remarked drily.” She was never terribly effusive or sentimental with us. She had a pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude toward the challenges of motherhood, as well as the accomplishments of her children. But there was no question that she loved us. She wanted each and every one of us. We turned out pretty well. She knew she'd done a good job. She was proud of us, and proud of herself.

I, for one, am immensely proud of her. After I had kids of my own, I understood how much my mom taught me. I had waited a long time to marry and have children; I worried about losing one of them, as she had. But from the moment I held Lisa in my arms, I never doubted that I would be a good mother. I asked myself where in the world such misplaced confidence could have come from. There is only one possible source: my own mother. She got it right—in all the ways that mattered—and showed me the way.

I adored her. She may not have been a perfect mother, but she was perfect for me.


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