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by William H. Benson

May 9, 2002

     Last month Master of the Senate, Robert Caro’s third volume in his series Years of Lyndon Johnson, arrived at bookstores, exactly twenty years after he published his first volume The Path to Power.  In that first biography Caro told of LBJ’s mother–Rebekah Baines Johnson.

     Rebekah adored her father, an attorney and farmer in Blanco, Texas, who taught her the importance of the cultured life: books, reading, and the beautiful things in life, and so she grew up a romantic and an idealist, perpetually dreaming of the better life.

     After graduating from Baylor College, she took a job teaching public speaking in Fredericksburg, and there she met a young Texas legislator, Sam Johnson.  After a whirlwind courtship, they married in 1907, and he moved her to his ranch on the Pedernales River deep in the Hill Country of central Texas.  Nothing in her prior life prepared her for life on that ranch, for suddenly she found herself transplanted into a world where women were expected to work very hard–cooking bread over a wood burning stove, doing without running water, without electricity.

     Without a neighbor’s light visible in any direction, the loneliness at night bore down hard upon her, especially when her husband was gone much of the time to the Texas legislature in Austin and elsewhere.  Years later she told her eldest son, Lyndon,  “I never liked country life, and its inconveniences.”

     After three kids Sam moved the family into Johnson City, which in 1913 was a primitive and backward town without roads in or out, a bare island in an ocean of land, without books or a library.  And she was the only woman in the entire county with a college degree.  She understood that the schools were terribly inadequate.  “I don’t want to bring up my children in Johnson City!” she wailed desperately, and yet she did. 

     After two difficult deliveries with her fourth and fifth children, she quit doing the housework; she was simply tired and almost broken with all that work and child bearing.  Sam was forced to hire girls to come in and do the cooking and cleaning, and what they did not do, did not get done.

     Rebekah then persuaded the school board to set up a “literary society” where she could teach public speaking, poetry, dancing, debate, and theatre to the country girls and boys who were given their first chance to stand up in front of an audience and speak.  To complement those public lessons, she also gave private ones where she encouraged and stroked their tender egos, and in so doing, Robert Caro wrote, she “changed those young people’s lives” who saw distant horizons way beyond the shabby fringes of a Hill Country town.

     To her students and children Rebekah frequently quoted Robert Browning.

     “The common problem, yours and mine, everyone’s

     Is not to fancy what were fair in life

     Provided it could be — but finding first

     What may be and how to make it fair up to our means.”

     In a memoir Rebekah wrote of her first year on the ranch.  “Recently my early experiences on the farm were relived when I saw the movie The Egg and I;  again I shuddered over the chickens, and wrestled with a mammoth iron stove.  However, I was determined to overcome circumstances instead of letting them overwhelm me.  At last I realized that life is real and earnest and not the charming fairy tale of which I had so long dreamed.

     Motherhood, no matter how you look at it, it is self-sacrifice, time devoted to others rather than to yourself; it can be creating opportunity where none exists.  Sunday is Mother’s Day.