Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Who is your ideal mother? Perhaps she is your own or some idealized version. Four generations of Americans have looked for inspiration to Mama’s Bank Account, a collection of short stories published in 1943, while the United States fought World War II. This tender-hearted little book was so popular that it was made into the movie, I Remember Mama (1948); and then a long-running television show, Mama, from 1949-1957. Later, it was turned into two-stage musicals; the most popular also titled I Remember Mama, had a Broadway debut in 1979 with music by Richard Rodgers. Whatever the version, “Mama” embodied everything that made a mother loving and strong—the kind that kept a family together, and the source of happiness.
The first thing that stands out about the American-as-apple-pie Mama is that she isn’t American! She’s Norwegian, just like her husband, siblings, and uncle, she speaks with a strong Norwegian accent. Her origins are indeed a source of her strength, as she relies on Old World folkways to enlighten her parenthood, from her stories to her food, to her endurance, and strength born of the peasant stock from which she came. Mama’s roots inspire her–and the family’s–sense of solidarity with immigrants from Italy, Poland, and China living in their early 1900s California community. And although they face discrimination in their everyday lives, Mama is exceptionally proud for each of her five children to be born in San Francisco, the city they have made their home.
Mama’s strength begins with her frugality. “Mama’s Bank Account,” the leading short story, describes two bank accounts, one small and one large. The small account is comprised of the modest family income that she carefully counts out to cover every family expense, large and small, routine and emergency. The rule to which everyone adheres is that this account must always suffice, lest Mama must go downtown to the bank and draw money from the big account. Katrin, Mama’s daughter and the narrator of these stories, only learns the secret after she grows up: there never was any big account, only the little one that barely covered their needs. “It is not good for little ones to be afraid,” Mama explains; “to not feel secure.”
Mama’s inner resources ultimately meet every contingency. When her husband invests in a failing goat farm; when he incurs a severe head injury that requires hospitalization; she comes up with solutions. She ensures her children receive good educations, and that they learn to get along with peers who—at first– look down on them because they are immigrants. She stands firm through Katryn’s missteps as she grows up—investing in a correspondence course that she cannot afford; stealing candy from her employer, and succumbing to peer pressure—helping her daughter out of predicaments while also teaching her solid values essential to growing up. She even miraculously heals her youngest daughter’s troublesome cat—by accident!
Even as Mama inspires her family, her family is also a source of strength. Her Uncle Chris, assumed by everyone (except Mama) to be a nettlesome drunk, turns out to be a secret philanthropist. Her sisters, often quarreling with her and each other, always come through in emotional or financial support at times of trial. Papa, while he doesn’t always make the right decisions, devotes everything to help his family. Even the children, while they often disagree with each other, always put family, and each other first.
Realistic? No. Mama’s Bank Account is a young adult work of the old school, meaning that its main priority is not to expose and denounce social ills, except in the gentlest possible way, but to inspire and uplift readers with a vision of how beautiful life can be with good people and uncompromising scruples.
Ed Lengel is the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum; Arlington, Texas.