Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother of Invention,
Far Ahead of Her Time

My sister and I were sharing some memories over the phone the other day. I started to tell her a story, when I realized I'd first have to give her a background explanation, because the incident had to do with a particular type of desk I use for my work. It seems my explanations always require a back story.

For several years now, I've preferred to work at a standing desk, not for any notions of revving my metabolism by standing for long periods of time, nor any historic nostalgia of emulating the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, or Winston Churchill. I decided to use a standing desk because I noticed my back hurt whenever I sat for long periods of time. Besides, it was far easier to "get up" and run into the other room to fetch anything if I was already standing.

In order to tell my sister that, I figured I'd have to explain just what a standing desk is, and how, in my poverty-stricken earlier years, I had to improvise to make my own, since custom-made standing desks (how else would you get one of these?) could be pretty pricey.

She saved me some breath, jumping right in to interrupt and ask if I didn't remember our mother doing that very thing, herself? Apparently, years ago, my mother had decided a standing desk was just what she needed—only back then, there was no such thing called a "standing desk." Dragging my teenaged sister along with her on a shopping expedition, my mother had tried to find a furniture store which would be willing to help her improvise her vision of how to write while standing up.

Result: sales personnel's weird looks, staring at my mother, were enough to make a teenager shrivel and wish she could evaporate into the cracks in the flooring.

Now, in retrospect, my sister reflects that our mother was "far ahead of her time."

Of course, she wasn't the only one. I can remember stories of her father embarrassing the family when, as a dad coming home from work each evening, he needed a way to burn off excess energy. He decided to take up running. Only problem: back then, nobody had heard of jogging. There were no running shoes, let alone gyms with membership plans for the working population. My grandfather took to exercising in his own style, improvising by running in the same wingtip shoes he had worn to the office. Turns out, it is better in the long run for people to exercise, but it was several decades before anyone came up with the idea of marketing shoes specifically for that purpose.

We all can think of ways our family members of past generations learned to improvise. Just the other day, I was researching one line of my mother's family when I realized something: bad things have happened to people all through history, including the more recent history of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The key is being able to come up with a timely and effective response.

I was working on my mom's Rainey ancestors, following their descendants in that typical migration pattern from the war-torn regions of the old south to Texas and beyond. I ended up following some of their children into other nearby states. Then, having gleaned the last available census report from 1940, where I left off with farmers in Oklahoma and Kansas, I was on my own to track them any further.

Suddenly, I was tracing their descendants in California, when I realized something: they weren't farmers any more. You can't be a farmer without a farm. And they had apparently lost their farm in the Dust Bowl years and had to reinvent themselves and start anew.

Throughout the timeline of human history, we've had to adjust to disasters, epidemics, and other aggressions by reinventing ourselves. I'm sure you've seen examples of that in your own family's history.

It's the "mother" in those vinegar moments in history which have enabled individuals and families to pivot and adapt. Henry Ford may have been credited with the best idea in a long time for going places, but it was certainly bad news for the town's blacksmith. Those blacksmiths who harnessed that necessity which drives the mother of invention were able to pull themselves out of their rut while others got run over by unstoppable progress.

Humanity may have been bowled over by massive problems time and time again, but it's been those mothers of invention which have brought us some of our most unexpected yet welcomed changes.

That's a thought we need to camp on, as we struggle with what we perceive as the down side of our current dilemma. I couldn't help but notice how many people were on the highways early this weekend, when I realized: they are all sneaking out to go spend Mother's Day with their family. We are all indefinitely being held hostage by a necessity which needs to become a mother of invention.

Instead of cowering in the face of this "invincible" foe, perhaps it would do us good to flip this situation on its head and be thankful for its impetus: the necessity of coming up with a solution. When pressed by a great need, somehow, in the collective, we eventually do seem to arrive at an answer. I credit that "mother," far ahead of her time, for making such inventions possible. Thank God for Mother's Day.


  1. Happy Mother's Day! I hope you have a wonderful day!

    1. How different this Mother's Day has been, but yes, it was sweet. I hope yours was, too!


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