Mothers and Arts make a Symphony of Family Life

Posted by Dorothy McSweeny, May 04, 2018 0 comments

How lucky I was to grow up in San Antonio, Texas, surrounded by its wonderful mixed culture, Texan and Mexican.

My dear mother, Mary Dorothy, a war widow in 1942, brought my brother George and me back to her home and made certain that the arts and culture of our Texas and Mexican heritage was an integral part of our lives, education, and development.

It didn’t hurt that she was part of the Maverick clan, one of the founding families of the city and also one of the most liberal. Their love of the arts also was shared with their love of politics, and I learned at an early age how to blend the two into resources for museums, educational arts projects, theaters, and, of course, our great annual Fiesta San Jacinto, when we all dressed girls as Mexican and Texas señoritas, chaperoned by our dueñas (mothers), who made sure our thrilling introductions into society remained firmly on the pathways above the banks of the San Antonio river.

Fiesta San Jacinto celebration.

My great aunt, a concert pianist, provided piano lessons and our theatrical cousins brought us backstage to smell and feel the romance of the theatre; but our wonderfully rich Hispanic culture was a great attraction for me, and after six years in ballet I switched to Mexican dance and stamping feet and clicking castanets.

Mother sparked my curiosity, drove me everywhere, dear thing, and even put up with one period where I added the viola to my repertoire. My poor mother!

From such a broad, artful background, my classes at Brown University naturally led to a major in English Literature and all the other art, music, philosophy, and social and political science courses I could fit in.

It all carried over into the Washington, DC, of the John F. Kennedy years with an administration so committed to the arts. When I left it to go to Vietnam as an officer for the State Department in AID at the United States Operation Mission (USOM), I often found that my very real interest in Asian culture and its arts helped break down barriers as we united forces with the Vietnamese, a very old and artistic culture.

The arts transformed my life in 1964 when I met a dashing war correspondent, a writer of some import about those who were really fighting the war. I learned about writing, daily writing, and deadlines in those months. When our tour was up and we returned to Washington, and suddenly found ourselves both part of President Lyndon Johnson’s White House, we started our long love affair with the arts and education here in the great city of Washington, DC.

I am pleased to say that we were part of the enormous progress that we have seen, both in blending our cultures, helping create new theaters and schools and over many years as Chairman of the DC Arts Commission, using the old political acumen and philosophies learned from my Texas Mavericks to make the arts a successful, well-funded and greatly appreciated part of our scene.

Most of all, it was such a great pleasure to have my mother visit regularly and let her influence her grandchildren in the same quiet, but stirring direction. Our son, Ethan, and daughter, Terrell, experienced it all.

The grandkids’ first National Symphony Orchestra concert. Photo courtesy of Dorothy McSweeny. Ethan was only 5 when he sat with grandmother watching the Bolshoi Opera’s visiting performance of Boris Godunov at the Kennedy Center, part of the first art exchange between Cold War foes which my husband helped arrange.

At the end of 4 hours, a large white horse marched across the Opera House stage.

“Nana … I can do that,” said Ethan.

“You mean ride the horse like you do in Texas?”

“No, Nana … I mean I want to make a play with Horse in it.”

Well, guess what? It became his career, worldwide, Broadway and all, but best news yet: next year he returns to direct Tosca on that same Kennedy Center stage for the Washington National Opera.

And the little girl? Nana brought her to the ballet and she loved it so much that she danced for Mary Day and the Washington Ballet in Nutcrackers galore right until graduation. (You can imagine the gratification I took from seeing my daughter in love with ballet.) Then it was a choice between a dance career or academics. She opted for a slightly different cast of characters and moved onto the world stage in major assistant roles for a Vice President, a President and now as a Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission—but with the discipline and commitment of a trained dancer.

Madeleine at the National Building Museum. Photo courtesy of Dorothy McSweeny.

She and her wonderful husband gave us the joy of two grandchildren, Warren (10) and Madeleine (7) and, as you would expect, they are both already seasoned in the world of art … and, oh yes, politics, for we all discovered that arts and politicians can flower together, a message so successfully proclaimed by the advocacy of Americans for the Arts.

So thanks, Mary Dorothy Pierce, my beloved mother, for putting my tiny hand in hers and leading me into the world of arts and education that has provided a symphony in my life.

Happy Mother’s / Nana’s Day.


This Mother’s Day, say thanks to a woman in your life who encourages your love for the arts and give a gift to Americans for the Arts in her honor.

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