I am spending this Mothers Day in mourning, as today is the first time I have had to experience the holiday without a mother. My mom died earlier this year, as I mentioned here at the time, and she has been buried for less than a month. My mother used to be a regular feature of my ethics seminars, as I would reference her whenever I talked about the so-called “Mom Test,” one of the three famous ethics tests that are useful to set off sluggish ethics alarms, the other two being the Gut Test (“Does this feel wrong?”) and the New York Times Test (“Would I be willing to see my conduct on the front page of the New York Times?”). The “Mom Test” is whether you could tell your mother about your ethically-dubious conduct without hesitation or shame, and I often told my classes that with some mothers, like my own, this test didn’t work very well. “My mother,” I would explain, “has the ethics of Ma Barker.” I was only partially kidding.
Unlike my father, whom I could honestly eulogize by celebrating his exemplary courage and ethical values, my mother’s ethics were nothing of the kind. As the child of a struggling ten member immigrant family struggling to survive during the depression, the young Eleanor Coulouris developed a personal ethics code that could most charitably be called “eccentric.” Assorted tragedies, including the death of a beloved younger brother who died of a ruptured appendix because the first hospital he was taken to refused to treat him, taught her that life was seldom just, and her conduct was guided by the corollary principle that an individual is responsible for making her own justice. Bad luck was lurking and ready to make you undeservedly miserable, and if it took a lie or a swindle or an act of revenge to balance the scales of fate, my mother didn’t hesitate to employ them.
Those were her rules were for dealings with most of the world, however; for family, the ethical rules were very different. You always were loyal and loving to family, no matter what a family member might have done to you or anyone else. You were willing to sacrifice anything for your children, because that is the duty of parents, their obligation for bringing children into the world. You offered unequivocal and unconditional love, without exception.
My father’s solid ethical values always seemed both an odd and fortuitous match for my mother’s peculiar ones. His were the ethics that were inculcated into my sister and me: one family legend was made the night my mother proclaimed, after futilely trying to convince my sister that she had been wrong to give back the $200 erroneously handed to her by a careless bank teller, “I don’t know where all this ethics stuff came from, but it sure wasn’t from my side of the family!”
Yet my mother, even more than my father, came to embody for me the epitome of parental love, care, devotion and concern. As a mother, she could not have been more virtuous. As a mother, she could not have been better. She became, I think, the best person she could be in the context of her own experience, and in matters that were most important to her, those involving her family, she excelled: call her an expert in maternal ethics. I will not use the Mom Test, which for me will always be the Dad Test, but I will strive to meet her high ethical standards in parenting, and also try to remember her example when I am tempted, as I often am, to conclude that ethical failings in one aspect of life are automatically carried into all others. I still think this is usually true, but in the case of my unique, devoted, loving, loyal, and ethically-challenged mother, it definitely was not.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.