Under sunny, seventy-degree skies, 18-year-old Mary Anne Smith MacLeod, the future mother of President Donald J. Trump, stepped off the steamship Transylvania onto Ellis Island and into a future that would exceed her wildest dreams.
It was 90 years ago, Sunday, May 11, 1930 – Mother’s Day – that Mary MacLeod completed a 9-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean from the small Hebridean Island of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland. With $50 in her pocket, she would settle with family in the New York City borough of Queens.
For 6 years, Mary worked as a nanny before meeting and marrying Frederick Trump – a scrappy developer who began his career in high school building garages to house people’s new automobiles.
As the nation pauses to celebrate its mothers this year in the midst of a global pandemic, what can we learn from the life of the mother of our nation’s chief executive?
In a Mother’s Day address back in 2018, President Trump referred to his late mom as “warm, loving and really smart.” He alluded to picking up from her such traits as feistiness and resiliency. He then added, “I miss her a lot.”
So, who was Mary MacLeod and what shaped her?
Every life is a tapestry of connections with consequences, weaved and woven down through the years. It’s often only after the fact that we realize the ordinary meeting or moment was actually extraordinary. Decisions made by relatives long before our time shape and mold us in ways and means unseen.
As Mary began her new life in America as a wife and mother of a growing family, including the birth of her son Donald in 1946, two of her elderly aunts back in Scotland – Peggy and Christine Smith – were praying for a spiritual revival. When Donald was just a toddler, his great aunts were 84 and 82, respectively. Peggy was blind, and Christine was crippled with arthritis.
God would eventually answer their prayers in what would become known as the “Hebrides Revival”– a 4-year run of dynamic messages that would lead to countless conversions to Christianity throughout Scotland.
Back home in Queens, Mary Trump made sure faith was part of everyday life, with the family attending services and Sunday school at the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica.
Prior to winning the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump would write, “My religious values were instilled in me by my mother” – but later acknowledging in an interview, “The values she gave to me were strong values. I wish I could have picked up all of them, but I didn’t, obviously.”
According to conversations over the years with friends of the family, Mary was kind and friendly – but quiet. President Trump’s childhood friends remember her being in the background, but always playing a supportive role. No job was beneath her, even collecting coins from the laundry machines in the apartment buildings owned and operated by the vast family enterprise.
Mary Trump was tough and resilient, surviving a vicious mugging while walking to a bakery to buy crumb cake in Queens at the age of 79. She was beaten, bruised and suffered several broken ribs. The attack left her with permanent sight and hearing damage. Her attacker was 16 years old and made away with $14. A passing truck driver saw the assault and stopped to help, rescuing the wounded woman from her assailant.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, President Trump declared, “Greatest person ever my mother. Believe me, the greatest” – adding she was “One of the most honest and charitable people I have ever known.”
Mary Trump never lived to see her son’s rocky and unlikely rise to the presidency. But like almost every mother, I think it’s safe to suggest she would have been one proud parent. Only in America does an immigrant with little means grow up to be the mother of a multi-millionaire and president of the United States.
When she died in August of 2000 at the age of 88, Mary Trump was remembered as a philanthropist who, despite her advanced age, continued volunteering late in life with the Women’s Auxiliary of Jamaica Hospital and the Jamaica Day Nursery.
Whether a painter or a president, the influence of our mothers has an oversized role in our lives. Few of us will ever rise to such prominence as leader of the free world – but all of us have or had a mother – and on their special day, let us give thanks for her.