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A Woman I Admire Writing Competition Spring 2018

Maria Mendeleeva — Exceptional Mother
Gill Guest
Highly Commended

There are no awards for exceptional mothers. No Nobels or knighthoods, no Oscars, Orders of Merit or medals for outstanding performance. But if there were, Maria Dmitrievna Mendeleeva would be right up there at the top of my nominations list.

No matter how many times life knocked her down, she got right back up again. She never gave in and had the most extraordinary, life-long drive to be the very best mother she could be. This reached its peak with her last and youngest child, Dmitri.

No one knows exactly how many children she had. Somewhere between twelve and seventeen. What we do know is that she was born in 1793 and lived in one of the harshest environments on earth: Siberia.

Stretching from the Artic Ocean all the way to China, Siberia is a huge slab of Russia notorious for bone cold winters and its use by Russian and Soviet regimes as a place of prisons, labour camps and exile. Even today, it remains one of the most sparsely populated areas on earth.

Maria lived with her husband Ivan in the Siberian town of Tobolsk, where Ivan was the headmaster of the local gymnasium. But not long after Dmitri's birth Ivan went blind. He lost his teaching post and, with a large family to support, Maria's situation was grave. She responded with some ingenuity — when her brother wrote to ask if she could recommend someone to manage a glass factory he was planning nearby, she promptly recommended herself.

The factory did reasonably well. Maria built a church for the workers and set up a school to educate their children. Some of Dmitri's earliest memories were of the red glow of his mother's glass furnaces lighting up the night sky above the endless darkness of the Siberian woods. Sadly these memories were soon overshadowed by an even more fiery spectacle. The factory burned down. And not long after that, Ivan died.

Dmitri was still at school. He excelled in natural sciences and mathematics and graduated a year early, aged 15, in 1849. Maria was convinced he had potential, so she came up with her most radical mothering plan yet, taking him on an epic 1,500 mile journey across Siberia. They travelled by horse sled, pack mule, Trantass carriage or whatever other forms of transport existed before the advent of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The journey must have been arduous. It took weeks. Maria's goal? Moscow, and a higher education for Dmitri at the university there. Unfortunately, when they finally arrived, the university would not take him.

By now Maria was used to knock backs. With the family finances dwindling, she and her son continued on another 450 bone-shaking miles to St. Petersburg, where Ivan had been educated. Dmitri was accepted. A year later Maria was dead, her monumental mothering task complete. Against overwhelming odds, she had raised one of the greatest chemists of all time: Dmitri Mendeleev, inventor of the Periodic Table.

Gill Guest © 2018