Skip to content

Members Reflect on Mom

Born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr., Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has no memory of his mother, who died tragically when her son was just a baby. But he’s never questioned her abiding love for him or the profound influence she’s had on his life and successes.

“My own mother — whose early death during the great flu pandemic in 1918 meant that I would be raised by relatives — should have left no trace upon my character,” Byrd observed in a stirring floor speech two years ago.

“Yet her selflessness in thinking of me on her deathbed, and expressing the wish that I would be cared for by one of my father’s sisters, left me with the deep and abiding assurance of her love for me,” Byrd said.

Byrd never lets a Mother’s Day slip by without paying tribute on the floor of the Senate to Ada Mae Sale and mothers everywhere. And Byrd is not alone in recognizing the impact of one’s mother, in death or in life.

Throughout history, some of the world’s greatest leaders have reflected upon the unbreakable bond between mother and child, often crediting their success to the women who gave them unconditional love and comfort while setting an example for them in the world.

“All I am I owe to my mother,” George Washington once said. “I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education that I received from her.”

Napoleon Bonaparte declared that the “future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother.”

Velma Porter, the late mother of Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), remains a presence in Carson’s life and has “always been my inspiration.”

“She was my teacher, my defender and a continual source of strength and wisdom,” Carson said in a 2002 floor speech. “And although my mother and I were not blessed with material wealth, I attribute the happiness of my childhood to the enormous strength of my mother and the strength of the community where we live.”

Byrd credits his political rise to the final wish of his “angel mother.”

“But for her wish … I would not be here today,” Byrd said. “I would never have gone to West Virginia to be reared in the coal mining communities in the southern part of the state had it not been for that mother’s wish. I probably would have never sworn the oath in entering upon the office of U.S. Senator had it not been for that wish, my mother’s wish, that I, the baby, should be brought up in the home of Titus Dalton Byrd and Vlurma Byrd, the only child in that home.”

Other lawmakers have also been fortunate enough to watch their mothers lead by example.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) recently described how his mother, Carol Clay, stood by his father’s side “every step of the way” during more than 40 years of public service, from the elder Clay’s attempts to desegregate the public swimming pool at Fort McClellan, Ala., to his 32 years in Congress.

“On one occasion, my father spent 118 days in jail as a result of protesting injustice,” Clay recalled on his parents’ 50th anniversary last October. “During that period, my mother would take us regularly to the jail house to see him, so that we would understand what he was doing and why.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has said that one of his earliest memories is of his mother going off to meetings of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization. As a youngster, this fact made him somewhat resentful, but later, as an adult, Frank came to respect her dedication to her volunteer work.

Two years ago on Mother’s Day, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) celebrated her mother’s election day victory as an 80-year-old candidate for a seat on the Democratic state central committee for Ohio, calling her a “guiding light and beacon in the lives of” many.

To commemorate Mother’s Day, we have asked several Members of Congress and their mothers to share reflections on that special bond between mother and child — the love that is demonstrated, in Byrd’s words, “not only through hugs and praise, but in each meal they make, each load of laundry they fold, each toy they put away.”

The Members Speak …

What is the best advice your mother ever gave you?

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.): “Be positive, no matter what!”

Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.): “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.): “Manners. My mother [Emma B. Chambliss, 87] instilled in me that you should always be polite and nice to everyone. For instance, when we spoke to adults, she insisted we show respect by using ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ‘No, sir,’ and ‘No, ma’am’ in our speech.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.): “As long as I can remember, there has been a 3-by-5 card stuck to my mother’s refrigerator with the admonition, ‘Assume the Best, Look for the Good.’ This is a saying that my mother has lived by, and is a quality that she has attempted to instill in her 11 children.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.): “When I was 17, I had saved $2,500 to buy a car. Around that same time, I was invited to go on a trip to European class trip, which would cost $2,499. I asked my Mom [Maria Macias, 66] what to do. She said, ‘All my life I have wanted to travel and see places like Rome and Paris. I never got the chance because I married early and had 7 kids. Go and see the world before you settle down. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to buy a car.” That trip opened my eyes to a new world. It was the best advice she ever gave me.”

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.): “The most important thing my Mom ever taught me was to stand up for myself and be proud of my heritage. I remember, in particular, an incident with my mother that took place when I was in first grade. My mother went to ‘Back to School Night’ to meet my teacher. While there, my teacher asked me to explain to my mother a picture that I had painted. I started to describe it to my mother in Spanish, and my teacher said, ‘Oh no, Mrs. Sanchez, you must speak to your children in English, otherwise they will never learn.”’

“My mother straightened her posture and said, ‘My children come to school to learn English. They will learn it from you. I will speak to my children in Spanish, and when they grow up, they will know both.’

“At the time it was not a popular position for my mom to take. But, she knew the value of knowing two languages. In my life, knowing both English and Spanish has been invaluable.”

What’s your fondest memory of your mother?

Lott: “Watching her in the classroom.” (She is a retired school teacher.)

Menendez: “In eighth grade or so, I was struggling to learn to play the guitar. One day, my mother [Evangelina, 84] walked into my room, picked up the guitar, and started playing Spanish classical guitar, flawlessly and brilliantly. She had never before told me that she could play the guitar.”

Loretta Sanchez: “My fondest memory of my Mom was the day she called me at my home about 7 a.m. one Saturday told me to get ready because she would be by shortly to take me somewhere. Four hours later, my mom had driven my sister Linda and me to Sacramento to have lunch with Cesar Chavez. She was always doing things like that — teaching us directly to be involved in ‘the good fight.’”

Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.): “My Mom was the driving force in our family to open our doors to children who were displaced or living in challenging circumstances. Growing up, I was surrounded by my brothers, my sister and a number of foster children who temporarily called our house home. Being part of a family that provided care for foster children helped me to understand the challenges faced by children who are not so fortunate, and showed me simple things we can do to help all parents provide a safe and loving environment for their children.

“The world has certainly changed since I was young, but one constant is the hope our children bring for a better and brighter future. Because of my mother’s kind heart and open home, I am fortunate to have shared my life with so many wonderful children. Those experiences have made me even more sensitive as a person and as a lawmaker to the special needs of children from troubled homes and the support we can provide to ease their challenges and help them to go on to lead productive lives.”

How has your mother influenced you?

Lott: “Her inner spirit and determination are formidable forces.”

Loretta Sanchez: “The biggest influence from my mother is that she taught me to be compassionate to those who have less in the world — whether it be less money or less ability. She taught me that not everyone is capable of changing their circumstances.”

Chambliss: “My mother has always had a positive attitude about life. I cannot ever remember my mother being sick or even feeling bad. She went to work every day with a great outlook.”

Menendez: “By her incredible hard work and sacrifice in order to make sure that I would be the first in our family to go to college. She taught me about hard work and sacrifice, especially when it comes to your children.”

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.): “Growing up as I did around politics, campaigning wasn’t anything new when I first ran for Congress. I was only 5 when my dad ran for a seat on the Circuit Court in Alabama. Even back then, my mom was a great help to my dad’s race.

“However, my mom’s campaign skills really began to shine when I became the candidate. During my first campaign we printed lapel stickers with my name on it. We’d go to festivals and events all across the district and my Mom — some way — could get almost anybody there to wear one of my stickers. Some weekends there may have been two or three events and we’d have different people cover the events since I couldn’t be at all of them. I would make my way from event to event and I always knew what we’d find at the events my mom was working. As soon as my wife, Caroline, and I would arrive, almost everyone would be wearing a Robert Aderholt for Congress sticker. It was amazing.

“To this day, we don’t know how she was able to convince so many people to wear my sticker. Other people on the campaign — even my wife — would try, but no none could come close to my mom. I think it’s just a mom thing. She couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to support her son for Congress. My mom has always been there to support my endeavors and has always been there going beyond the call of duty.”

What would like to tell your mother this Mother’s Day?

Lott: “You made my career possible.”

Loretta Sanchez: “I love you, Mom!”

Menendez: “Because of her illness [advanced Alzheimers disease] I wish she could understand — that I could revert to a moment that she could understand — how much I admire the courage she exhibited in coming to a new country and fleeing her own, and how much I admire and love her.”

The Mothers Speak …

Was there a particular moment in your son or daughter’s childhood when you realized they might be a future leader, a prominent politician?

Iona Lott, 90, mother of Sen. Lott: “From the very beginning, he was effusive in expressing himself.”

Nerita Flake, 66, mother of Rep. Flake: “At 19, Jeff hadn’t seen much of the world when he was called to Africa as a Mormon missionary. He saw and learned a lot there including the language of Afrikaans and a little of the native dialects. On his return home, two years later, he was immediately put to work on the ranch, moving sprinkler pipe in the big hay field. His world had once again shrunk to small-town Arizona and manual labor.

“Instead of a suit, white shirt and tie, his uniform consisted of jeans, a T-shirt and irrigation boots, all of which were covered with mud every day. It was in this condition that Jeff happened to stop by the ranch office one afternoon, just as a group from the University of Arizona was about to leave. Officials from the university were escorting an agricultural tour of people — from, of all places, Zimbabwe — through rural Arizona.

“The day was hot; the group was tired and probably a little bored. Their English was adequate, but limited; their native dialect was Shona.

“The door opened and in came this mud-covered kid, who sized up the situation and began to speak to them in their native tongue, which they hadn’t heard in the month since they had left Africa.

“The office erupted! They wouldn’t let Jeff go. He joined the group as they toured the ranch, helping to explain and answer their questions. They parted reluctantly hours later.

“That evening at dinner, as we talked over the day’s events, I knew that we would never keep Jeff from the world, nor the world from Jeff.

Mary Frances Aderholt, 67, mother of Rep. Aderholt: “There was not so much a particular moment as there was a series of events that made me know that Robert might be a future leader.

“At the age of 11, Robert enjoyed campaigning for his dad when he was first elected circuit judge. In junior high, Robert would spend most of his summers as a page in the Alabama Legislature. If his Representative or Senator already had a page for the week, Robert would go down to Montgomery — 160 miles from home — and spend the week with friends or a legislator. On the day the legislature convened, he would go around talking to legislators until he found one that didn’t have a page for the week and talk them into letting him be their page. He just loved the legislative process.

What advice do you give your son or daughter now that they are grown and in Congress?

Lott: “Listen to your mother.”

Aderholt: “I don’t give Robert much advice anymore except to be sure to eat his veggies. Though he may not be seeking advice, I am proud to say that he calls his dad and me almost everyday.”

What has been your proudest moment as the mother of a famous politician?

Lott: “At his victory party in 1988, when he was first elected to the Senate.”

Aderholt: It is difficult to say that there was one particular moment that I was proudest. One was the night he was first elected in 1996. It had been a long, hard-fought campaign and the election was very close. When he was declared the winner would have to be the most exiting moment.

“There have been many proud moments. One was when he became the first freshman in either the House or the Senate to sponsor and get passed a piece of legislation in the 105th Congress. That was Resolution 31, which expressed the consensus of Congress that the displays of the 10 Commandments in public buildings was appropriate.

“Another was when he called me one day from Air Force One and said, ‘Mama, there is someone here who wants to talk to you.’ President Bush came on the line and said, ‘Robert tells me you are his number one campaigner.’ We talked for a minute about his mother campaigning for him. At the end of the conversation, the president, said, ‘Mrs. Aderholt, I just want you to know your boy is doing a good job.’”

June Langevin, 62, mother of Rep. Langevin: “While pursuing a college degree, a young woman approached me upon learning that Jim was my son. She wanted to let me know that she was attending college thanks to him.

“Jim had spoken at her high school, and she was so impressed by what he had to say and everything that he had accomplished despite the challenges he faces every day [from being a quadriplegic]. From that moment on, she replied, she could overcome any obstacle and find a way to attend college. She believed that if Jim could successfully conquer his challenges, then she could find the strength to do the same.

“That was the defining moment for me. I always knew Jim did a great job and that people respected him. But this encounter showed me just how inspirational Jim is to other people who have challenges in their lives. Each time he speaks before a group of people, I know that someone’s life will be changed forever.”

Recent Stories

Capitol Ink | Aerial assault

Auto parts suppliers fear a crash with shift to EVs

As summer interns descend on the Hill, this resource office is ready

Democrats add five candidates to Red to Blue program

Is Congress still ‘The Last Plantation’? It is for staffers, says James Jones

Staffers bear the brunt of threats aimed at district offices