“Behind every great man there’s a great woman.”
When Pablo Casals first heard the cello played at age 11, he told his father it was the most wonderful thing he had ever heard. “That’s what I want to play!” Pablo exclaimed, and thereon, insisted on holding his violin like a cello when practicing at home.
“My mother understood,” Casals recounts in his Memoir.
‘Pablo shows such enthusiasm for the cello that he must study it,’ she told my father. ‘We must arrange for him to go to the School of Music in Barcelona.’
“My father was astonished. ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ he asked. ‘How can Pablo possibly go to Barcelona? We simply do not have the money.’
‘We will find the way,’ my mother said. ‘I will take him there. Pablo is a musician. This is his nature. This is what he was meant to do. There is no other choice.’
“My father was not convinced. In fact, he was already thinking about my following the trade of a carpenter in order to earn a living. ‘You have delusions of grandeur,’ he told my mother.”
Were it not for Pilar Casals’ keen understanding of her son’s nature, her undaunting spirit and “delusions of grandeur,” the world would have been deprived of her son’s musical genius.
After Barcelona, courtesy of a pension granted by the Queen of Spain, Pilar and her three sons traveled to Brussels to enroll Pablo at the Conservatory of Music. After a humiliating spat with his professor, the family abruptly left for Paris which triggered the end of the queen’s generosity.
“Those were trying days in Paris!” Casals remembers. “We had counted on the pension, and without it, we were virtually stranded — my mother, my two younger brothers, and I. We had no means of support. My father — who now worried more than ever about us — could afford to send us practically nothing.
Poverty was all about us. It was a bitterly cold winter. My mother began going out every day to earn some money. She sewed late into the nights. She was always cheerful and did everything to keep up my spirits. Then, one day, when she came home and I was lying sick in bed, I hardly recognized her. I realized something extraordinary had happened. I saw she no longer had her beautiful, long, black hair. Her hair was now ragged and short. She had sold it to get a few francs for us.
She laughed about it. ‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘Don’t think about it. It is only hair, and hair grows back.’”
We owe this guy, Dmitri Mendeleev, for the periodic table of elements.
For many, this might conjure high school nightmares or sound like, ‘whatever,’ but it won’t sound trivial the day your doctor prescribes Calcium for your crumbling bones and Iron supplements for anemia.
Before Mendeleev’s extraordinary achievement, scientists were in the dark, unable to predict the chemical and physical properties of elements. Dmitri’s elegant solution went as far as allowing today’s scientists to predict the properties of elements which have yet to be discovered!
Had it not been for Dmitri’s mother… who knows? We might still be in the dark, propping our anemic, moldering skeletons with broomsticks.
Mendeleev was the youngest of 17 siblings born in Tobolsk, Siberia, smack in the middle of Russia. His family’s financial wellbeing suffered a heavy blow when his father became blind and lost his teaching position which forced his mother to restart her family’s abandoned glass factory.
At the age of 13, Mendeleev’s father died, and a fire destroyed his mother’s factory. Three of Mendeleev’s siblings had also died. Maria Dmitrievna Mendeleeva was now solely responsible for 14 children.
Maria sensed something special in her youngest child. In the winter of 1849, she set out with 15 year-old Dmitri on a 1500-mile trip by horse-drawn sleigh in search of a school that would accept him. Like most students from the provinces, Dmitri was turned away in Moscow, but, finally, in St. Petersburg, he landed a spot in the teacher-training school his father had attended.
Exhausted by the journey, Maria died a few months later.
Mendeleev’s recounts: “She took me out of Siberia and sacrificed what remained of her money… her life, so I could get an education.
If you’re reading this at night, you can thank Nancy Elliott Edison for the light emanating from the lightbulbs around you.
You can also thank her for the telephone receiver, the microphone, the stock ticker, motion pictures and office copiers among the 1093 patents her son filed during his illustrious career.
Born in poverty, Thomas was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison Jr. and Nancy Elliott Edison. Only four survived to adulthood.
When Thomas was seven years old, his teacher told him he was incompetent and wouldn’t be allowed in school anymore. The young boy stormed out of the classroom and returned the next day with his mother. Frustrated by the teacher’s intransigence, Nancy Edison took it upon herself to educate her dyslexic son at home.
“She avoided forcing or prodding,” writes Edison’s biographer Matthew Josephson, “and [she] made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history.” Before he was 12, Thomas had read works by Shakespeare and Dickens, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and David Hume’s History of England among other classics.
Because Nancy Edison was devoted and observant, she discovered simple ways to nurture her son’s enthusiasm. She bought him a book on the physical sciences — R. G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy, which explained how to perform chemistry experiments at home. Then, Nancy Edison brought him The Dictionary of Science which further spurred his interest. Young Thomas became passionate, spending all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacist, collecting bottles, wires, and other items for experiments. He built his first laboratory in the cellar of the family’s Port Huron house.
“His mother,” Josephson notes, “had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils: she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to follow his path. It was the very best thing she could have done for this singular boy.”
As Edison himself put it: “My mother was the making of me. She understood me; she let me follow my bent.”
However exceptional and inspiring, Pilar Casals, Maria Mendeleeva and Nancy Edison are but exemplars of the millions of unsung heroines in our midst today.
In every farm, village, neighborhood, town and city across the world you will encounter fierce and undaunting women who sacrifice everything to nurture tomorrow’s great men and women. In the United States, for instance, there are over 20 million children being raised by single mothers, many living in poverty. Their sacrifice and dedication makes me scoff at the phrase “the weaker sex.”
In ‘The Hero in You,’ my book for boys, I urge them to think of their mothers whenever someone tells them to be strong.