George Washington’s first great battle was with his own mother.
[***UPDATE 2021: Recent scholarship has made me realize that much of what I shared about Mary Ball Washington in this early blog post from 2014, based on the work of James Thomas Flexner, is inaccurate or unfairly biased. I dive into that in this podcast episode The Mythology of Mary Ball Washington.***]
After reading about George Washington and the rocky relationship he had with his mother, I realized how lucky I was to have a mother whose maddening guilt trips were at least the normal kind of batshit crazy.
When it came to humiliating and tormenting her son, Mary Ball Washington was in a class by herself.
I don’t mean embarrassing in normal mom ways like showing naked baby paintings of him to his girlfriends or (like my mother) acting bewildered and insulted if a waiter offered her Diet Coke instead of Diet Pepsi like they were out to bamboozle her.
No, Mary Ball’s embarrassments were epic, growing greater in excess as her son rose higher in success.
Do Me a Favor
No matter how old you are, you’ll always be your parents’ child. That’s just how the English language works, impressing on offspring a sense of hierarchy and duty inherent in its monarchical culture. This was even truer in Washington’s time when being a dutiful son was compulsory, even if those duties were stupid.
In the wilderness of the Ohio Country at war with the French and Indians, Washington received a letter from his dear old mum. Did she write to express her love and concern, or to tell him how proud she was of his bravery? No. She wanted him to pick up some butter.
He was off in the middle of nowhere where roads didn’t even exist, and she asked if he could please send her butter. Oh, and a Dutchman, too – she wondered if he could find her a literal human being from Holland to be her indentured servant.
When he read her letter, presumably with muskets firing and tomahawks flying all around him, it was the first time in history someone said “Are you fucking kidding me?” 
I’m tempted to cut her some slack because butter is awesome, but there had to be an easier way for her to get her hands on some. Or maybe there wasn’t – this was 1755 and she should’ve been happy it was even discovered. The worst part is that her request was not only selfish, but it totally trivialized his war efforts. “You’re obviously not doing anything important, George, so can you stop by the Piggly-Wiggly for some butter and a slave?”
Many of my requests from my mom came in the form of voicemails listing which Janet Evanovich or Jonathan Kellerman books to order her from Amazon, since her experiences with computers and the internet only ended in screaming and tears (usually mine). That was probably for the best, since it shielded her from reams of emails in her inbox claiming Obama wanted to use her railroad retirement to fund Michelle’s lavish vacations. I say “reams” because that’s what old people do with emails, they print them out. Most conversations with my mother when she had the internet went like this:
MOM: I can’t get this email to print.
ME: Why? Why do you need this to happen?
MOM: Oh, just forget it.
For her, the internet was a big scary box where for every exciting new pot roast recipe there was a frightening secret threatening to destroy the country.
If I were away at war like Washington was, my mom would probably have wanted a magnet shaped like the country I was in and a mug with the name of the war on it. She was convinced the best way to show off your son’s devotion is with souvenirs you can put on the fridge and drink tea from. Not having these tchotchkes would only vindicate her fears that she was utterly unloved.
On one hand I would have moved mountains for my mother. On the other, I could barely muster lifting a finger. I was endowed upon birth with an extremely low tolerance for her lesser needs. My brain was hard-wired to find nothing more annoying and less of a priority than the random tasks she assigned me.
It’s a coping mechanism to be annoyed at the drop of a hat by your mother. I believe nature ensured a balance to counteract a child’s overwhelming love and indebtedness, because otherwise there would just be an unhealthy amount of hugging and crying and no one would ever leave home.
I imagine it’s the same way for new parents with babies. I would dote myself silly over my kid and live in a state of constant paralyzing fear for its safety…but nature will make sure I’m far too tired keeping the little shit alive for any of that. See? Balance.
Mary raised George alone after his father died when he was 11. My dad died when I was 7, so I get what it’s like to grow up with an anxious, protective mother. I never went off to lead any dangerous wars or become president of a fledgling republic, but I did something almost as daunting for a kid from the Midwest – I moved to California.
Living clear across the country meant I could only afford to visit once a year. She struggled with depression anyway, and having her youngest son so far away didn’t make it any easier. Even though she couldn’t help making me feel guilty for not writing or visiting enough, she never made me feel guilty for moving to The Golden State. She always supported me. One thing she was truly excited about was how close I would be to where they made Days of Our Lives and Wheel of Fortune.
There was no maternal support from Mary Ball Washington when George wanted to leave home and join the military. On the day he was to meet with General Braddock about joining the French and Indian War, she showed up at his door warning him it would be dangerous and (more importantly) that she would be neglected if he left. He dutifully listened to every word until she wore herself out, and he missed his appointment with the General. Her concerns for his safety may have been valid, but that wouldn’t stop him from pursuing his dreams. In his career as a military hero, she was his first battle.
Only one letter from Mary to her son still exists. It’s a little burned around the edges and some words are missing, but enough remains to remind me of the complicated feelings my mom could bring out in me with only a few words:
“I was truly un[ea]sy my not being at [home] when you went throu Fredericksburg. It was an unlucky thing for me now I am afraid I never shall have that pleasure agin[.] I am soe very unwell & this trip over the mountins has almost kill’d me[.] I got the 20 five ginnes you was soe kind to send me & am greatly abliged to you for it…”
Washington saw his mother even less than once a year, and the thought that she missed his visit kills me. The thought of any lonely older woman’s sadness…I can’t take it. Just imagining a random lady dropping her groceries or not knowing how to restart her cable box in time to watch her “stories” is enough to make my eyes swell with tears like a Budweiser Clydesdale commercial on the Super Bowl. Somehow Mary’s spelling makes it even sadder.
That letter reminds me of my own visits home, arguing with my mom about how she thought nobody cared enough to visit her. My very presence in her kitchen wasn’t enough to convince her otherwise, and she insisted I was only there because I had to be. I yelled about how stupid that was and how I was there because I loved her. Why couldn’t she understand that obligation and love co-exist?
She’d inevitably calm down after her daily cry and a Xanax nap and she’d bring me a ham sandwich and we would watch Game Show Network together. In those moments I saw she was so happy to have me home with her, but already dreading being alone again when I left.
But like a mother, Mary Ball had to ruin a perfectly heartfelt moment with a reminder that she has unrealistic needs. Later in that same letter, right after saying how much she loves George, misses him, and appreciates the money he sent, she passive-aggressively mentions how nice it would be to have a house on the other side of the mountains, if he could arrange that, “some little hous of my one if it is only twelve foot squar.”
Even if it were only 12 square feet? Like…the exact size of a coffin? Yikes. I thought only my mother could mix love with not-so-subtle sides of guilt and fatalistic woe.
I learned long ago that families are supposed to fight about politics. Family Ties taught me that it’s normal for hippie parents to beget a Reagan-loving Alex P. Keaton.
My first political disagreement with my mom was purely generational. I was 12 and she was somehow involved in Iowa senator Tom Harkin’s 1992 presidential campaign. I think she made buttons or sewed stuff – let’s just assume she was his personal Betsy Ross. Her heart belonged to Harkin but I was casting my (mock election) vote for Bill Clinton because he could play the saxophone and was just plain cool. I won that round.
I’ll never forget how my mother revealed her own Washingtonian isolationist policies to me in high school. I told her I was writing a paper on euthanasia and she responded, “Why can’t you write about youth in America?” I explained the definition and she nodded knowingly, like she’d had to mercy kill a lot of people in her day.
In later years, she became susceptible to fear campaigns and I realized that sometimes you just have to accept that your Thanksgiving turkey comes with a side of Obama being a Muslim.
But those differences were nothing compared to Washington and his mother. How opposed were their beliefs? Even though her own son was commanding the American forces in The Revolutionary War, she rooted for the British. The great American leader’s mother was a straight-up Loyalist who must have thought George and his buddies were traitors. Her Tory beliefs would have gotten her run out of the country or imprisoned if her son wasn’t so damn beloved.
It’s not hard to imagine why he visited her so rarely.
The Ultimate Embarrassment
Even though George bought his mother a house and did everything he could to make sure she was provided for – without actually having to see her much – she still felt destitute. He was busy commanding the American forces, so she decided to take her case to the public.
She petitioned the Virginia legislature to make it a law that the mother of the commander in chief of the armed forces be provided for financially. She might as well have announced to the world, “Your fearless leader is a heartless scoundrel who won’t take care of his own mother!”
Washington’s friend in the Virginia House of Delegates, Benjamin Harrison, let him know about his mother’s actions. George responded by saying, “Thank ye, Ben, for bringing this distressing news to my attention! Rest assured I shall make sure your son serves as president someday…shortly.” 
Washington put a stop to his mother’s extortion attempts right away, either by paying her more guineas, reminding her she was only avoiding jail or deportation because of him, or – God forbid – by visiting her.
My mom never called my boss to complain about how I was treating her. She would never. Except maybe if I went on a business trip and came back without any mugs or magnets.
At 80 years old, Mary Ball Washington died just a few months after her son was inaugurated the first president of the United States of America. Washington said there was consolation in knowing she lived to “an age beyond which few attain.” My mom only made it to 70 after a painful six month descent the doctors never figured out. Her diagnosis would have been perfect for Mary Ball’s perpetual feelings of neglect – broken heart syndrome. A heart problem that’s usually treatable, it can be brought on by great feelings of depression or trauma.
I flew home to visit her in the hospital a week before she passed, and even in her fragile state she was able to trigger all those complicated feelings. I felt guilt for not living nearby. I felt outpourings of love as we watched Wheel of Fortune and she told me how much it meant when I took her to a taping of the show. And I felt angry and worthless when she kept taking off her oxygen mask because it was uncomfortable or refused to eat because it hurt – I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t doing everything she could to live for us. No one knew exactly what was happening or how far it would go. It’s a shame, really. One of her tiny pleasures was dishing out guilt and pity, and she never got to do that with the extra oomph of knowing she was dying.
Following Mary Ball’s death, Washington said, “When I was last at Fredericksburg, I took a final leave of my Mother, never expecting to see her more” indicating he knew it was the last time he would ever see her. That must have been heartbreaking for him, even if she did root for his defeat and publicly accuse him of being a terrible son. She still had an untold effect on him becoming the man he did and he knew it, referring to her as “my reverend mother, by whose maternal hand, early deprived of a father, I was led to manhood.”
Maybe the maternal instinct isn’t just about birthing and nurturing. Maybe there’s also an element of being a pain in the ass that’s necessary to propel a child into adulthood, or at least teach them survival instincts like coping and avoidance. And Mary Ball was such an epic pain in the ass that the British army was child’s play compared to her.
I’m glad I visited my mother a week before she died, and I’m glad I didn’t know it was the last time I would see her. It would have been too painful to say goodbye, and I probably would have made promises I could never keep about cleaning my boxes out of the garage.
|My mom at Santa Monica Beach, 2009|
Sources: Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, american-presidents.org
Painting at the top: “Mary Ball Washington at the age of about Four Score” attributed to Robert Edge Pine, circa 1786
As much as I have read on Washington and his life, this brings a whole new level of knowledge! Poor Washington!!! P.S. you were right in one thing, your mom supported you! She truly was so proud of you and talking about you!
Howard I have been following this blog since you started it. I liked this one a lot. I laughed until I cried. I loved your mom, she was great. She kept in touch with Mom which meant a lot to her. It was great when she would visit us or we would go to the pond and visit, something interesting always happened,(usually a tornado).I wonder if Washington's Mom was as good to her friends as your Mom was. Rose
Thank you for the comments, Jenna and Rose! Rose — your mom's visits and talks meant a lot to my mom. I bet Mary Ball Washington was close with a few friends, if only so she'd have someone to brag/complain about her son to.
Howard your mom was my favorite aunt and I always loved visiting with your mom. My mom always had fun when we were around to visit. I know she was very proud of you and all her kids. I miss her and all of you kids. I know from my mom dad was very protective over your mom. Nice to see what you wrote David Little ps. keep in touch and congratulations for your marriage.
That was absolutely beautiful Howard
Wonderful post, Howard. Funny and touchingly honest at the same time. I had a kind of idyllic relationship with my mom-no one was ever less of a nag or pain in the ass-but I've seen this sort of lunacy play out with many of my friends. Keep writing; you're good at it.
Thank you for the encouraging words, NP!
Great post. So sorry about your mother. I love how you intertwined Washington's experience with his mother with your own and the touches of humor and irony throughout.
Thank you, Helena. I'm glad you enjoyed it!
You are truly an exceptional writer. Relating history to your own life makes it so much more relevant for people today. I can relate to your discussion of moving away from family and the guilt associated with it (and never wanting to go through stuff I stored in my childhood home). Thank you for sharing this story.
Thank you so much, it means a lot to hear that this resonated with you.
I can’t belive she was so mean