And why we still miss her so much, even after 46 years.
My mother was an adult, in the traditional sense of the word, with four children to care for, a husband, a home, and myriad volunteer activities. But it was her sense of play, of joyfulness, of truly loving life, that set her apart.
And that’s what makes us miss her so much, even today, 46 years after her passing. She died at 54, much too young (I was only 18), but she packed so much living into her short life.
All we knew is that the neighborhood kids loved to gather at our house, just to see what Mom was up to. She used to stand outside our Palo Alto home, blowing bubbles, and once famously rode a bike down our street with a pot on her head. There was always an art project in process, an unfinished piece on her sewing machine, and a pot of coffee brewing on the stove.
One year she secretly trick-or-treated with the neighborhood elementary school principal, carrying a pillow case as her treat bag. I remember that she was dressed as Abraham Lincoln, wearing a long trench coat, tall hat, and my flowery headband as a beard. Why? “Lord only knows,” as she would say.
Halloween was always a grand production at our house, complete with handmade tombstones in the front lawn and “ghosts” (white sheets draped over umbrellas), rigged to swoop across the yard on a system of ropes and pulleys. Before we went out treat-or-treating, Mom would serve as an all-orange Halloween meal of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
With 99 kids on our street, trick-or-treating was a neighborhood spook-tacular, with treats (and tricks) that were famously competitive. We could expect homemade caramel apples (Mom’s specialty, so popular that she had to limit them to just the neighborhood kids), hot mulled apple cider (at the Masons), and full-size Hershey’s chocolate bars (at the Damons).
For more than 50 years, play has also been the subject of serious academic and scientific research. In their new documentary film, Playing for Keeps, director James Redford and producer Karen Pritzer examine the importance of play and downtime for all of us — children, adults, seniors, and animals.
The film includes interviews with play advocate Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute for Play, a California-based nonprofit organization. I was struck by how he came to study play from a very different perspective. Following a mass murder in Austin, TX (Charles Whitman, 1966), Brown, a former physician in the US Navy, was assigned to examine the histories of 26 young male murderers housed in Texas prisons.
What Dr. Brown found in the Texas prison surprised him. Every one of the inmates lacked typical play experiences. Growing up, they hadn’t participated in any rough-and-tumble play, so they missed out on learning how to make friends and develop relationships. Many had been lonely or abused as children, struggled to controlling their impulses, and tended to be bullies. His research led Dr. Brown to the conclusion that play is not only important but integral to the normal development of children.
Here Brown comments on the universality of play as part of the human condition:
“Play behavior is one of the most important parts of being human. It is also part of the natural instincts that children possess. There are certain components of the environment that seem to evoke natural glee, and parents, caregivers, or teachers can observe what naturally and spontaneously evokes that natural reaction in children.” — Dr. Stuart Brown
Some people experience play through animals, particularly dogs, who play throughout their lifetimes. Adults who feel that they don’t know how to play may be inspired by a pet — whether a dog, cat, or cockatoo. Pets relieve stress, and they provide affection and connection, things that many people are missing in their day-to-day lives, especially during Covid-19.
Many people play through sports — running, swimming, a game of pick-up basketball— although parents should be careful not to force kids into organized team sports that can take the fun out of physical activity, a natural form of play. Other people “play” in nature, whether by hiking, walking, or just being outdoors. Some enjoy more cerebral forms of play, such as working puzzles, doing a crossword, or reading. Making art, tinkering at your workbench, or practicing the piano are all forms of play — the list is endless!
Play comes from the area of the brain that controls our most basic functions like heart rate and breathing. In fact, the play urge is part of our survival drive, and humans are the most playful of all social mammals, according to Stuart Brown. Humans who are deprived of play exhibit negative behaviors like lack of empathy, joylessness, depression, and a predilection to addiction.
“Play helps give us a sense of self,” says Brown. “Play is an essential part of ourselves. We need play to connect, to heal ourselves, to develop empathy, and to feel part of the human condition.”
Which brings me back to my mother, Virginia Scholtes, a grown-up who loved to play. Mom was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada, a nation famous for its sense of humor. In fact, humor is such an essential part of the Canadian identity that “Canadian humour” has its own Wikipedia page. If you’ve ever watched the Emmy Award-winning TV show Schitt’s Creek, created by Eugene Levy and Daniel Levy, you will recognize their distinctly Canadian love of irony, parody, and satire.
My mother loved word play, poetry, and clever rhymes. When we missed school, the principal was likely receive a poem instead of a note. When Mom once discovered a spider in a can of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo soup, she sent a letter to the company, along with the spider in a plastic baggie: “I don’t think this is a chicken, or even a gumbo.” (We got a free case of soup in return.)
“When in trouble, or in doubt,
Run in circles, scream and shout!”
— Virginia Scholtes
Most of all, Mom showed us that she loved being a mother. Was she a perfect parent? Not by a long shot…she had a fiery temper and a sharp tongue. We knew that things were okay when we heard her singing again (the Kennedy-era Camelot soundtrack was a favorite).
But she showed us, by her actions, that parenting was joyful, and that she loved her children unequivocally and unconditionally. No child can ask for more, and I wish that kind of love for every child. She made it look easy, but now — two young adult children later — I know that happy kids, a clean house, a wide circle of friends, and a love of community do not come without effort.
Growing up, we Scholtes kids somehow knew that Mom was on loan (not someone we would have for long). She would never grow old, she would not have to give up her high heels, and she would always appear at breakfast with her hair and make-up done, wearing a satin robe — forever frozen in our memories as a beautiful, vibrant, and vivacious woman. Even the last week of her life, Mom greeted us at the door, wearing a wide, brilliant smile, welcoming us home.
Play, as my Mom taught us, is not just for children. So, are you ready to play?