Here, then, are five stories of ordinary mothers who went to extraordinary lengths to raise remarkable kids and who in the process gave us Google and Apple, the Marx Brothers, the fastest woman in the world, and victory in World War II.
Think your family’s a handful? Try being the mother of the Marx Brothers, telling Groucho to finish his dinner or Harpo to do his homework. It takes a special kind of resolve, and Minnie Marx had it. Born to a yodeling harpist mother and a ventriloquist father, Minnie left Germany for New York as a young woman, married a tailor named Sam, and, tragically, lost her first baby at seven months to influenza. Rather than break down, she resolved to carry on and see the best in life, having five more boys and teaching them each how to sing, dance, and entertain.
Her investment paid off: when the boys were still very young it was clear that their talents were considerable. Presenting herself as Minnie Palmer so as not to appear to be a relative, she became their agent and started promoting her boys. From that moment on, she displayed a particular genius for understanding what her sons truly loved to do.
Singing one night in Texas, the five Marx Brothers were dismayed when their audience ran outside to see a runaway mule kicking and neighing. Groucho, upset, quipped, “the jackass is the flower of Tex-ass,” which made the audience laugh. Minnie spotted the opportunity right away, helping her boys to transform from singers to comedians and pushing them onto the Broadway stage despite their protestations. Just before opening night, she fell while being fitted for a dress and broke her leg. She vowed not to miss the show, and they carried her to the theater on a stretcher.
Ida Stover Eisenhower
Growing up on a farm in Virginia, Ida Stover was constantly told that girls shouldn’t have any formal education. If she wanted knowledge, her family told her, she should read the Bible. Stover did, winning a prize for memorizing 1,365 verses. But the Good Book wasn’t good enough for her: she eventually ran away from home and enrolled herself in a local high school even though she was years older than the other students. From there, it was off to a small college in Kansas after saving for years in order to afford the tuition.
She met her future husband, David, in college, and soon gave birth to seven boys. Although the family was impoverished, Ida made sure the fundamentals were never neglected, reading the Bible to her family every morning and evening and making sure each child did household chores so they could learn the meaning of personal responsibility.
She also made a point never to impose her own will on her children: a lifelong pacifist who always spoke of war as a “rather wicked” pursuit, she encouraged her third son, Dwight, to enter West Point and supported him as he went on to become the U.S. Army’s chief of staff and one of the leaders of the Allied victory in World War II.
Genia and Michael Brin were as fortunate as middle-class people could be in Soviet-era Moscow. They both had good jobs in prestigious research institutions, lived in relative comfort, and suffered no particular discrimination. But they had a small boy named Sergey, and they knew that in Russia, the child’s affinity for math would never translate into anything more than another safe and flightless job. In America, people were free to pursue their passions and go as far as their talent would take them. After much hesitation, the Brins decided to leave.
“It was 80/20 about Sergey,” Genia told an American magazine years later. As soon as they applied for a visa, Michael lost his job and Genia was forced to quit hers. While waiting for their immigration papers to arrive, they barely made a living by translating technical manuals into English, a language they barely spoke.
When Sergey was six they were finally allowed to leave and settled into a small cinder-block house in Maryland in 1979. Genia had her own struggles—like learning how to drive a car or navigate the abundance of an American supermarket—but she focused much of her energy on her son, encouraging him to pursue his love of computers. Needless to say, it paid off. Sergey went on to be a co-founder of Google.
When Abdulfattah Jandali and Joanne Schieble were looking for a couple to adopt their newly born baby boy—Joanne’s fundamentalist father refused to allow his 19-year-old daughter to marry the young Syrian émigré—they had one requirement: whoever raised the child had to be college-educated. Paul and Clara Jobs were not their idea candidates, he a mechanic and a carpenter with a high school diploma, and she an accountant who’d attended some college courses but never graduated. The adoption nearly fell through, and was approved only after Paul and Clara promised to do everything in their power to make sure the boy, who they named Steve, got a good education.
They were true to their word. At home, Paul taught his son the principles of electronics, and Clara showed him how businesses worked and how money was handled, skills that would prove highly pertinent in Steve’s future career. When Steve was accepted at Reed College, Clara and Paul could barely afford the tuition. Other parents in their position might’ve gotten angry when Steve decided to drop out in less than a semester, but Paul and Clara remained supportive, encouraging their prodigal son even as he spent a year and a half milling about, dabbling in calligraphy and making his money returning used bottles for the recycling money. They continued to support Steve as he teamed up with his friend Steve Wozniak and became interested in computers and founded Apple.
A maid in Bethlehem, Tennessee, Blanche Rudolph and her husband Ed had eight children. The fifth, Wilma, seemed cursed from the get-go: she was born prematurely, weighing less than five pounds, and contracted infantile paralysis at age four. She recovered, but her left leg and foot had to be put into a cast. She could barely walk, and bouts of scarlet fever and polio made things even worse.
But Blanche believed in her daughter, assuring her that there was no end to what she could do if she set her mind to it. Wilma’s dream was to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and become an athlete. Encouraged by her mother, Wilma worked hard and became a basketball star, then a champion runner, then a member of the U.S. Olympic teams in 1956 and 1960. Competing in the latter Olympics, she won three gold medals and was dubbed the fastest woman on earth. “My doctors told me I would never walk again,” she said in press interviews. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”