Our Mothers Ourselves

Gloria Blythe's Invisible Love for Her Children, and Her Less Invisible Passion for the Tar Heels

July 26, 2020 Will Blythe Season 1 Episode 11
Our Mothers Ourselves
Gloria Blythe's Invisible Love for Her Children, and Her Less Invisible Passion for the Tar Heels
Chapters
Our Mothers Ourselves
Gloria Blythe's Invisible Love for Her Children, and Her Less Invisible Passion for the Tar Heels
Jul 26, 2020 Season 1 Episode 11
Will Blythe



What are you to make of it if your mother isn't demonstrative with her love? She doesn't hug you or kiss you or tell you she loves you. But still, you know at your core that she loves you truly, madly, deeply. But how do you know?

Katie explores the phenomenon of invisible love with the writer Will Blythe, whose mother was too shy and reserved to express her love for her four children in ways you might expect of a loving mom. She did other things instead to show her feelings. One of those ways was to take up a passion of her children's: Gloria Blythe became, like them, a hard-core fan of The Tar Heels, the University of North Carolina's legendary basketball team. She's also the hero of Will Blythe's book, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry.


Don't forget to visit us at ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.

Music composed and performed by
Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Intern: Rosie Manock (@RosieManock)


Show Notes Transcript



What are you to make of it if your mother isn't demonstrative with her love? She doesn't hug you or kiss you or tell you she loves you. But still, you know at your core that she loves you truly, madly, deeply. But how do you know?

Katie explores the phenomenon of invisible love with the writer Will Blythe, whose mother was too shy and reserved to express her love for her four children in ways you might expect of a loving mom. She did other things instead to show her feelings. One of those ways was to take up a passion of her children's: Gloria Blythe became, like them, a hard-core fan of The Tar Heels, the University of North Carolina's legendary basketball team. She's also the hero of Will Blythe's book, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry.


Don't forget to visit us at ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.

Music composed and performed by
Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Intern: Rosie Manock (@RosieManock)


Intro :

My mother was a woman of tremendous integrity. My mother was curious, sensitive, compassionate, honest, always there for us, unflappable, loyal, complicated, she is devoted, resilient, dazzling, giving, vivacious, extraordinary.

Will Blythe :

It is the only memory I have of my mother actually exercising a really loving physicality towards me. And my head and a few hairs can actually still feel that.

Katie Hafner :

Hello! And welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves, a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. This week, I'm doing a deep dive into this idea of how a mother expresses her love for her children, and how those children perceive that love. The writer Will Blythe is here to talk with me about his mother Gloria, who loved her kids like crazy, but she was very shy. And her way of showing that love was different. I'll be talking to Will about how he knew, without any doubt at all, that his mother loved him. Will Blythe, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast to talk to me about your mom.

Will Blythe :

Thank you, Katie. I'm glad to be here.

Katie Hafner :

I'm excited to do this interview with you. Partly because, when I had the idea to do Our Mothers Ourselves, it was going to be daughters. Then I thought, you know, men have mothers too.

Will Blythe :

Apparently.

Katie Hafner :

Apparently. And it's an entirely different set of emotions and trajectories that men often have when it comes to their relationships with their mothers. That's what I thought would be really interesting to explore with you. And one of the things that I start most of the podcasts with is, if you were to choose one word to describe your mother, what would that word be?

Will Blythe :

Oh, that's tough. I mean, I, can I give two words? Because I, I really think my mother was gifted at what I'm going to call "invisible love." Which is to say that she was a very shy person, and very, I think, reticent person. And never in my entire life, or in my siblings' lives, I just talked to my brother, one of my brothers about this the other day. We don't recall her ever having said directly to us, "I love you." And we don't recall her ever having come up to us and initiated a hug. So I, I think that I gotta use those two words.

Katie Hafner :

Invisible love.

Will Blythe :

Invisible love, yeah. Something that was somehow still perceptible. Still, we could still feel it. And even though many of the things that are probably traditionally said perhaps on this podcast were not the nature of the relationship that we all had with my mother, which was still a very loving relationship.

Katie Hafner :

Let's, ah, I'd like to chart the evolution of the invisible love. You know, what you're implying, at least what I'm taking from it, is that it, the love, was invisible. But it was also perceptible.

Will Blythe :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And I guess what I'm wondering is whether it grew over time, or whether her, her way of loving- Do you know what I'm asking?

Will Blythe :

Yes. I think there was a great evolution, both, both for me, in my perception of my mother, in the way she loved me and my siblings. But also a great evolution in my mother's life. She lived to be eighty five. And she was basically a first generation American. And I think that she always felt like an immigrant in her life. I mean that in many ways, not just in regard to nationality. You know, she grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. And her mother was an immigrant from Scotland, and her father came from a Lebanese family. And, but he and my grandmother divorced when my mother was an infant. So that my mother grew up living with her mother and brother at a time when she thought that divorce was considered shameful. So she, you know, later she went to, eventually she went to college at Mount Holyoke, and she studied chemistry.

Katie Hafner :

And do you know why she gravitated to chemistry?

Will Blythe :

Um, I think she was just good at it. She was really good at science. And she was also really good at art, at drawing and at music. She was a great, terrific piano player. She played the accordion. And she really-

Katie Hafner :

The accordion? Really?

Will Blythe :

Yeah, she, she played the accordion. She also had a beautiful voice. But eventually she ended up moving down south. And she became a laboratory technician for a doctor who moved from New Haven to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is where I grew up, and where she met my father. And I've always thought that, you know, as the years have gone by, I've realized she really, it took a lot of bravery in my opinion for a shy person back in the early 50's to travel by herself, and start a new life herself. You know, she, she went to a region which she had absolutely no knowledge or experience of, you know, the American South back in the 50's. And you know, when she first arrived, I remember her telling me how she, she tried grits at the Carolina Inn. And to the shock of her brother, who was, you know, inveterate New Englander, she loved them. And he can never I understand that.

Katie Hafner :

So she gets to Chapel Hill by way of New Haven, is what you said?

Will Blythe :

Yeah. She worked with a doctor in New Haven, guy named Dr. Welt, and he went down to Chapel Hill to join up with the med school there.

Katie Hafner :

And he took her with him?

Will Blythe :

And, yes. And so, and it was there actually, in the cafeteria of what was then called the North Carolina Memorial Hospital, that she met my father. And, where he was a young doctor. And he was a real Southern charmer. He was deeply in love with the state of North Carolina, and he always would be. And in his view, she was this exotic Yankee.

Katie Hafner :

Mhm.

Will Blythe :

But he charmed her sufficiently that they got married. And I was the first of an eventual four children. And in fact, my first memory, one of the first memories I have of my mother, actually, is I was in my crib one night. So I had to have been very, very young. And I could hear her talking in the kitchen or the living room. And I was in a different room. And I stood up in the crib, and I could see this really beautiful strip of light under the closed door to the to the kitchen. And it was like this ecstatic light, you know, that suggested joy and love on the other side of the door. I got very excited, and I stood up in the crib and started calling out. I was eager for her to come into the room and haul me out of the crib, and carry me into all that light and conversation. And then lo and behold the door opened, and I was thrilled. But into the room came not my mother but my father, who stared really angrily at me and said, "Hush!" It was the first word I ever learned. So I sank back down into the mattress, you know, the crib and I was just constantly missing my mother very much. Finally fell asleep, alone.

Katie Hafner :

What a story.

Will Blythe :

That's my very first memory. I was, it was like longing. I could hear her, you know, in the other room. And I was, I saw this beautiful light. And I was just longing, you know, to join her and my father, you know, in whenever they were up to. And, uh-

Katie Hafner :

Oh my gosh.

Will Blythe :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

You know, it might have been your first experience of disappointment. Hope.

Will Blythe :

Absolute ecstasy and hope. And then it was absolute disappointment and despair. And then I went to sleep, and the next morning everything was fine.

Katie Hafner :

Well, I want to, I want to drill down into that just a tiny bit because obviously, as a, as a baby, something was set up in you to know that the light, to associate the light with your mother.

Will Blythe :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And with love, and with comfort.

Will Blythe :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And so, you know, as we sort of play with this idea of invisible love. Clearly there was something big that she gave you really early.

Will Blythe :

Definitely something that came off of her that was this very palpable love And that was despite her being a quiet and shy person. I do remember, when I was around nine or ten, I remember standing in the kitchen with my mother. And she began putting her fingers through my what was then abundant hair. She was saying, and it's, this still astonishes me and my siblings. She said to me, "Someday, some girl is going to love running her fingers through your hair." And I, at the time, I had no idea what that meant. But it is the only memory I have, you know, of my mother actually exercising a really loving physicality towards me. And my head and a few hairs can actually still feel that. You know, but there were things about her that she had a different way of saying, "I love you." For instance, every minor holiday. On St. Patrick's Day, for instance, she would always put some green treat on all our chairs, me and my three siblings, before we sat down for supper. And it might have been a pack of Wrigley's doublemint gum, you know, or a little book with a green cover, it might have been a tiny little potted plant. But she would always do something like that. And for instance, when I was six, I fell in love with rock and roll. My mother, of course, was a classical music fan. But she would go to the local record store in Chapel Hill, which is called The Record Bar, and she would buy me rock records. And she had no idea who The Doors were, for instance. But she went, I'll never forget, she went and purchased Strange Days.

Katie Hafner :

Hm!

Will Blythe :

And she would let me listen to it on the family record player in the living room. Despite my father's horror. There were just these different ways where she seemed, again, very attentive to us. She li-, she was a listener, and she watched. And that is one of the ways which I've learned, that is a profound expression of love. But there was something else that we became very, we became partners at. Which was we loved, we developed a passion for North Carolina basketball in Chapel Hill. And she became, over time, as ardent fan as I was. And when we watched games at home as a family, she tran-, was transformed suddenly from the quiet, shy woman I've been mentioning into a woman who would leap off the sofa when a player hit some big shot. Or, you know, she would crunch her hands together and fist when she was nervous about, you know, a particular game. And she was so passionate about that. I actually think it made my father a little jealous. Yeah, when I moved to New York, you know, as a young guy, I would call home after a game. And my father would answer the phone sometimes, and he would immediately pass the phone to my mother and say, "Here's the coach." I wrote this book that's kind of a hybrid memoir, account of a basketball season and so on. And I was doing readings, back in the days when publishing houses actually would send you out to do readings. And then, down south, my mother would come to all of them. And I described her as such. She's kind of the hero of the book. She-

Katie Hafner :

Really!

Will Blythe :

She was, yes, she's the hero of the book. It's really about her becoming this passionate fan and how much it meant to her. And so, you know, when she was at these readings, I would always point her out. And, and people, some people had already read the book, and they would applaud her. So she got a couple standing ovations, and she was delighted. And again, we're talking about a person I had always thought was shy, suddenly, you know, bowing her head and you know, expressing gratitude in a standing ovation.

Katie Hafner :

Is there a little bit of the book you could read to me?

Will Blythe :

Uh, yes. Sure.

Katie Hafner :

With her, that, do you want to take a little bit to find it?

Will Blythe :

I'd have to go get the book. But I-

Katie Hafner :

Sure, yeah. Go ahead and get it. Okay,T Will went off to find a copy of his book about the Tar Heels. Ok, so you've got the book.

Will Blythe :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

What- What's the title of the book again?

Will Blythe :

The book is called, ahem, "To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry."

Katie Hafner :

And is there a passage with her jumping up and down at a Tar Heel game?

Will Blythe :

Yes. Let me find it. There's probably a few, let me see. Okay, well, here's one. I think this is, yeah. All right: Tonight, we are watching Duke play Clemson. We are monitoring our adversary for cracks, structural defects. We want to know who mopes, who snaps under pressure, who misses. We are scholars of the slippery slope, the January weaknesses that portend doom in March. The point guard who can't shoot, the two guard who can't defend, the center who clanks free throws. The new year has arrived. But when it comes to hatred, the beast is already in midseason form. He lives not just in me, his favorite host, but in my mother and my sister. "How can anyone stand to look at him," my mother asked, staring at the Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "It's a mystery to me," my sister says. "My friend Nina Wallace can read lips," my mother says. "She says you ought to see the kinds of things he says." The game is ugly too. At one point the commentator compares it to a root canal. The second half is more of the same. Turnovers, fouls, neither team shooting over 35%. "Sit down!" my mother instructs Mike Krzyzewski. "Miss!" I shout at Lee Melchionni. My mother appears to suppress a smile after I say, "Whip their sorry asses!" She doesn't ordinarily like that kind of language. But there is a time and a place for everything.

Katie Hafner :

Hahaha!

Will Blythe :

There's more, but-

Katie Hafner :

That's great.

Will Blythe :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah, that's wonderful. So how, how old was she when this took place?

Will Blythe :

She would have been, um, let's see. She would have been in her, yeah, she was 77.

Katie Hafner :

Mhm. So no spring chicken.

Will Blythe :

No, no.

Katie Hafner :

And it was after your dad had died.

Will Blythe :

Yes. It was five years after my father died.

Katie Hafner :

So this gave her great joy.

Will Blythe :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

Being with you, watching a game, that you were watching this on TV?

Will Blythe :

Yes!

Katie Hafner :

Got it. So she totally got into yelling at the TV.

Will Blythe :

Yes! Yeah, she would jump up, you know, and jump off the sofa. And she would, if the game was going poorly, which it rarely did. But if it was, she actually was so upset, she'd go into the kitchen and just start washing dishes. Even if they were already clean. And so those, watching games together, actually allowed all of us this view and into a sort of improbably wild and passionate side in her.

Katie Hafner :

Because you loved that basketball team so much.

Will Blythe :

Yes. Yeah, I think it was a way of actually sharing excitement, sharing pleasure. And that's another great attribute of, a gift that a parent can give you.

Katie Hafner :

Mhm.

Will Blythe :

You know, is to love something you love.

Katie Hafner :

Are your siblings, are you split girls and boys?

Will Blythe :

I have a sister and I have two brothers.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm.

Will Blythe :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

So she had three boys.

Will Blythe :

That's right.

Katie Hafner :

And had she, do you think when she had boys, she knew how to raise boys?

Will Blythe :

Um, ha ha. No, I think she was sort of learning as she went. And, and, you know, but she was she was open to us playing sports, but also, you know, to reading. I remember she had this deal with us, even as children, where I remember her telling me once when we were driving somewhere, she'd say, "You know," we didn't, she said, "If, one thing I'll always buy you, if you want, is a book." That didn't mean that there was necessarily anything else that she would just buy. But about books, she had this generosity where if you wanted to read something, and you couldn't find it at the library, she'd buy it for you. She just felt books were this incredible other world that you could go into. And she was, in fact, a big reader her entire life. She would read these, you know, long biographies of like, some princess or a queen. Or she would read fiction. And she just would read all sorts of books. And she didn't, again, say to us, "You need to read." She was just an example. And I think that's one of the reasons I, I fell in love with reading.

Katie Hafner :

Ah, one of the things that interests me in talking to sons is not just how a mother expresses love to a son, but how a mother comes to understand that her son has a tender heart.

Will Blythe :

You know, I'll tell you something that, really- One of the great things that happened, an evolution that I was originally mentioned to you about not just my evolution, but my mother's is that my father died unexpectedly. You know, in the year 2000 died of a heart attack.

Katie Hafner :

I'm sorry.

Will Blythe :

He, and he collapsed right in front of my mother. And, but she tried to revive him, right there on the floor, by mouth to mouth resuscitation. And she remembered that the ambulance arrived late. And so my father was taken to the hospital, in a coma already. And he died in coma, eight days later. And that started a new relationship with my mother and me, and with my siblings. We all began to call her every single day. And originally the conversations were just, you know, sort of, "How are you doing?" "How are you feeling?" And, but the talks continued over the next thirteen years until she died. And in that time, she and I became friends. Not just you know, it wasn't just, it was no longer just a mother and son. You know, it was, we became friends. And so, you know, first off, I would, I somehow felt liberated to tell her about all the dimensions of my life. Like various romantic catastrophes or intrigues I would tell her, and she, as always, would listen, without any apparent judgment. That's another important thing to say about my mother is she never seemed to express judgment. She never, in fact, gave us advice. I don't remember her ever giving me any advice. She just listened. While the her mere listening was a gift, the greater gift came as she began to confess to me some of her own uncertainties and disappointments. And her fears and sorrows, which had never happened before. And I've remember how every single December, at the anniversary of my father's death, she would tell me, you know, oftentimes crying on the phone, how she was anxious and depressed. And I mean, while there's of course sorrow in that, it was also a revelation. You know, that here was her inner life, she was actually expressing her inner life. And, and that was a gift. But I remember when I was four or five, I walked into my parents' bedroom one afternoon, and my mother was in there, alone, lying on the bed, and she was looking very sad. And there may have even been tears in her eyes. And, and I was young, but I could tell that something was wrong. So I said, I remember this. I said, "What's wrong mama?" And she said, "Nothing." And I knew that wasn't true. And I wanted at the time to make her feel better. Probably the first time but not the last time I wanted to try to be a parent to a parent. But now, you know, she would share different forms of unease with me. She told me about one time she drove her car by accident into a lamppost. And she told me how it embarrassed her.

Katie Hafner :

How did she-

Will Blythe :

It made her, it made her wonder whether she was too old to drive.

Katie Hafner :

Oh, so she was, it was when she was older?

Will Blythe :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

Mm.

Will Blythe :

And, and just those conversations, you know, we became collegial about our respective failures in life.

Katie Hafner :

But don't you think that that's pretty common? When you become more of a friend with your parent, then the child of your parent?

Will Blythe :

That, well, for me, that was just one of the greatest gifts ever. Was, yes, I think that probably is the case. But that it happened. The evolution I'm talking about is she became more openly who she probably was inside all her life. But there was one other amazing thing that happened in those last years. Once she came to visit me in New York, and I was friends with this homeless guy who lived on my block. A guy named Cadillac. So we were walking around one day on the block, and there he was so I introduced my mother to him. And at that time, Cadillac was probably in his 60's.

Katie Hafner :

Which part of New York?

Will Blythe :

In Queens.

Katie Hafner :

Oh, uh huh.

Will Blythe :

And so, and my mother that time is probably in her mid, mid to late 70's. And I introduced them. And Cadillac immediately saw something in my mother's eyes that made him feel as loved in a way that he had never felt loved before. And so right then and there, you know, at their first meeting, he asked her if she would adopt him. And without an instant of hesitation or contemplation, she simply said, "Yes, of course." So they shook hands, I think they might have hugged, and Cadillac began to cry. And for the rest of her life, Cadillac called her Mother Blythe. And they had, they would talk sometimes on the phone and see each other. And she stayed in his life until she died in 2013. And to, and now every year on her birthday, he sends me a card in her honor. And to me, that all speaks to something that I was trying to get at here, which is that there's something about love, and there was something about her love that isn't just verbal, and it isn't just physical. And you know, it's that love can somehow be invisible and still be there and still be felt. And I think that, you know, my mother is proof of that.

Katie Hafner :

Hm. Sounds like she had a really rich inner life.

Will Blythe :

I think it was. And, and you know, there were times when I was young when I wondered about her inner life. And, you know, there was another time where I remember I found drawings that she had done when I was a child that were, she had somehow- She never thought of herself as a great artist, I think she was. But she had hidden them in a, in a linen closet. And I remember looking at those drawings, and seeing, again, another aspect of her inner life in her life that I think you've sensed. Which was this sort of exquisite sensibility. And, and this, just the drawings themselves were very loving and gentle.

Katie Hafner :

What were they drawings of?

Will Blythe :

They were drawings of us, her children.

Katie Hafner :

Oh, really?

Will Blythe :

Yeah. Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

Ohh, and you didn't know she had done that.

Will Blythe :

I honestly didn't remember it until I found the drawings just sort of hidden away. As if, because she was also a very modest person. She was not, in any way, shape or form, an egotistical person.

Katie Hafner :

Do you think that her reservations about expressing love physically and verbally had anything to do with her parents?

Will Blythe :

Yes. I do. I think my grandmother, her mother, was a kind person. But she was also not a, she was also a very reticent and shy person. And so I don't think my, and I think her father, you know, had left her family when she was very young. And so she didn't get to spend nearly as much time with him. And I think that as a result, she didn't really have examples. She didn't grow up with strong examples of being open. You know, I think-

Katie Hafner :

And demonstrative, yeah.

Will Blythe :

Demonstrative. I think that she grew up believing that politeness was a virtue. And that politeness meant that, you know, you listened, you didn't speak.

Katie Hafner :

But if you ran up to her as a little kid and hugged her, would she hug you back?

Will Blythe :

Uh, probably. I don't remember, actually-

Katie Hafner :

You don't.

Will Blythe :

Running up and hugging her like that, because I don't think we got that as an example. But I know that later in life she loved it.

Katie Hafner :

Mm.

Will Blythe :

When I would come into the house and hug her. And, and then when I would leave the house, say, in North Carolina to go back to New York. She loved being hugged, and she would cry. And that, she would stand, you know, waving in the driveway. Waving goodbye, crying.

Katie Hafner :

And did she ever say, "I love you?"

Will Blythe :

Honestly, I was just asking my brother David that, several days ago when I knew I was going to talk to you. We don't remember her having said that to us. It, it could be that later in life, she she may have said it, again, in response to our having said that to her. But it's one of the things I'm, I'm trying to say is that her inability or her shyness to say those things directly didn't mean we didn't feel them. It's a kind of miraculous thing in some ways.

Katie Hafner :

Thank you so much. That was really a pleasure.

Will Blythe :

Thank you, Katie. I enjoyed that very much.

Katie Hafner :

And that's it this week for Our Mothers Ourselves. Our theme song was composed and performed by Andrea Perry. Paula Mangin is our artist in residence. Elizabeth Kaye is the show's producer. Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios. This one's for you, Jeremy. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. Have a great week everyone, and stay safe.