Monday, April 10, 2006

The Mother. mother. For Vera and all the mothers and daughters

You have to understand that my Mother is imaginary. That I’m telling the truth here, but the truth is that of a 13 year-old girl. The woman I am never knew her small “m” mother. Never knew the person.

And yet, she is the person whose undercurrents and attributes have ghosted my life.

I’m moved to write this entry by recent talk with other daughters, who, although their mothers are alive or not so long gone from the world, are also living out their mother’s unlived lives – consciously or not.

This is some of what I remember:

Walking in winter with my mother. Just the two of us with Mike, our dog, and the neighbor’s dog, Toby. Feet crunching over the snow that covered the golf course across the road from our house. It’s well below freezing and we are going to walk alongside the creek. The sky is unblemished winter blue.

At the creek, the dogs run out on the ice and Toby falls through. He’s scrambling not to be drawn under by the current, his front legs uselessly pawing at the ice. My mother doesn’t hesitate. She crashes through the thin ice, into the freezing water, up to her hips and pulls the dog out. “Go home,” she says to me. And she cradles Toby in her arms and heads home has fast as her frozen legs and feet will carry her.

Our neighbor suffers a stroke. My mother goes, every day to help her do her exercises, to clean her house, to cook.

When my father is out of work, my mother whispers, “Now try not to bother your father. He’s feeling bad. It’s hard on a man’s pride to be out of work.” My mother gets a job to help out. And I wonder (because I know that I am a bad, selfish girl)
why my father has to be so protected when my mother is doing everything.

My mother gives up things for us. My father tells us this. “Your mother didn’t get a new coat this year so you could have those music lessons.” My mother takes the smallest portion of the best treats at dinner.

When my mother is 12, her father dies. She leaves school and goes to work. She is the eldest, like me, and she has to take care of everyone. Someone has to earn.

Understand, my mother loved to laugh. She sang – in her beautiful voice. She dressed with all the style a small budget allowed and could cut a mean rug. She drew people to our house like a light draws moths.

And I remember her as being sad.

Perception is everything. It isn’t necessarily anywhere near the truth of another person, let alone a parent, but the perception is what shapes us.

I wanted to be like her. She was my hero, my role model. She was everything I could never be. She was the yard-stick by which I measured every step.

Before she died, only days before, her last words to me were, “Take care of your brother and father.” I’d have promised her anything. I was thirteen.

So my life, like the lives of so many women, became a contest between trying to be my mother, and trying not to be my mother.

To be the “good woman” or to be…your own woman. That is the question.

I would try to be both. I didn’t understand that I could be my own woman and good, in a different way. Saint or sinner was how I secretly thought of it – in spite of intellectual cover-ups of astonishing dexterity.

When I married in my thirties, I wanted to be safe. I wanted, this time, to be a good partner and not a selfish, neurotic, bitchy unpredictable girl. I found a good man who loved me for myself, with a minimum of adjustment. And we were happy for a long time.

That’s the cover version.

The other version is that I began to give parts of myself up – not that he necessarily asked me to. Nothing so big you’d notice outwardly and so slowly that I didn’t know it myself. People admired how much autonomy we had in our relationship. But little by little, when the choice was what I needed as opposed to what I thought the relationship needed, I started handing out pieces of myself. No matter how “different” I thought we were, my husband and me, the myth of my Mother, the Good Woman, was working it’s way in. I thought of my needs as “selfish.” I felt guilty if I gave in to them. My need for freedom, my need to connect intensely with other people, my need to alone, my need to work obsessively on what captured my attention. My need for change. I found middle-ground, but not enough. Finally, not enough.

As I was trying to be the person I’d mythologized, I missed my mother’s shadow. My mother had ambitions and one hell of a fighting spirit. After her first job, when she received a lukewarm reference – she charged into the office, pulled out letterhead and wrote the reference she deserved – slapped it down for the boss to sign. That was also my mother. Her sacrifices made her sad and deprived her of chances to do the other things she longed to do. I sensed in my mother a terrible yearning for freedom and growth beyond the domestic life. When I was little, and she told me about when she was a girl – how hard it was – I would ache with the weight of it. Some part of me thought, Not me. It isn’t going to be me.

Understand that my mother is a fiction. My fiction. My myth. But perception is what we grow on.

I wonder who she really was – Vera, my mother. I wonder what she thinks of her daughter’s life. And I think I’d be ready to meet her now. So I hope that it happens when the time comes. And that finally, now that the myths have dissolved, we might be able to talk. Woman to woman. Like friends.


phlegmfatale said...

I think your mother would be so proud of you. I think she would see a woman with real options and choices for her life, a woman who is not hemmed in by narrow obligations. Your mother would see that the best of her is alive in you.

Koru's Daughter said...

Beautiful and haunting. You are such a wonderful writer. This entry has such depth - I am going to read it many times to drink it all in.

zhoen said...

me too

Jess D'Zerts said...

This is a lovely tribute to your mother, LJ. I love that she went in after the dog, and that you have that memory of her. How sad that you lost her when you and she were both so young. This was a great post--I bet she'd be impressed.

Katie said...

This post, and with Mother's Day fast on the horizon, makes me think of my own Mother. Such a strong and amazing woman she is. She has been dealt a series of trials in her life that would have broken a lesser person, starting with her first child being hit by a car and within two years losing a husband. She was abused as a small child and has taken care of my sister who is at home in a wheelchair from the accident for 25 years now. Yet, she always seeks to give so much of her self to me and my younger sister, with what I often think of as leaving nothing for herself. And while I so admire her, respect her, and as she tells me am similar to her at my age as she was at my age, I cannot help but feel that there are choices she has made and actions that she has taken that I don't want to follow in. Therein lies that struggle you spoke of. Mother's can be amazing role models, but I also feel the need to find my own way. A beautiful post. Very emotional for me and thought-provoking.

Mary said...

Phlegmfatale has said beautifully what I wanted to say here. This is a beautiful piece of writing and, yes, I bet she is impressed ...

LJ said...

Thanks so much everyone. This was a pretty emotional post for me and I appreciate your kind remarks.

And a little note to "a girl"...I'm sure, yes, that this must have hit some vulnerable spots for you.
I so much wish you the very best in finding your own way and defining your own life.