Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Ides of March


My first stated ambition in life was to be a town character. My mother told me that I couldn’t do it. I thought she was saying it was impossible, but what she meant was that it was impermissible.

In our tribal mythology, we were the perfect American family. The father was smart, the mother, beautiful, the son was the Messiah, and there was a daughter, which was me.

My mother told me often that in ancient China, people killed girl babies because nobody wanted them. I surmised that I should be grateful to my parents because they had let me live. Not knowing the statute of limitations on this amazing reprieve made me uneasy, but since I had no other frame of reference, I assumed it was normal. It never occurred to me that we were not Chinese.

Several years ago, my mother died on this date, thus supplanting Julius Caesar's claim forever in my family. She went suddenly, and while I have no argument with the abruptness of it as she probably didn't suffer, I always thought we'd have her longer. Her own mother had lived to be 93, and she was nowhere near that age.

She had a youthful spirit and appearance, and people always thought that she was decades younger than she was.

She was the eldest of four children, and was forced to quit school at 14 to help support her family. She always resented it bitterly as she was a straight-A student and had hoped to attend college.

When her parents decided a year later that her sister should also leave school and get a job, she argued vehemently with them on her sister's behalf. My aunt was allowed to remain in school. She grew up to be a high school math teacher, and their two brothers became doctors.

My mother was so beautiful that it nearly blinded people to the fact that she was fiercely intelligent, too. She read everything she could get her hands on, and when she married my father, a lawyer, everyone who met her assumed that she was also highly educated. And she was, but not formally. It galled her that she had been denied the degree that meant so much to her.

Her marriage seemed happy, but my father was clearly the boss. We were all subservient to him. I struggled with this inequity as a child, but my mother seemed to accept male supremacy as natural. If it rankled her, I never saw any sign of it, and I watched carefully as I would have liked to feel that at least secretly, she sided with me.

My father was generally acknowledged to be brilliant, and he was also charming, although he could be cruel. I might have done better with him if I had been a docile child, but I was by nature more outspoken than he believed a girl should be. I tried to be like him rather than my mother because it was clear that he had all the power.

My mother learned to drive when I did at 16. She was 46. My father had not encouraged her autonomy over the years and she lacked the confidence to command her personal space or her vehicle well. She was a rosary beads driver who screeched to a crash landing at every stoplight.

When I was injured as a passenger in an accident with friends, she drove me to the hospital and got us into a second crash on the way. Years later, I refused to allow my own children to drive with her.

I adored my mother, but never felt that I was good enough in her eyes. She preferred my older brother, as did my father. My brother profoundly enjoyed his favored status, as any child would.

I wish she had believed that I, too, had the ability to do something extraordinary with my life. I resented her lack of support and encouragement for many years, but I now understand that she did the best she could. She was, like everyone, a product of her time and her own upbringing, and while saying that someone "did the best she could" sounds lame, it is also the only answer that makes any sense.

In a flawed social system, she loved me as much as she was able. She told me often when I was little that she would have preferred a Shirley Temple-like daughter. Needless to say, I despised the twinkling child star and tried hard to be different. I was the Anti-Shirleytemple, a bookish tomboy who loved animals but secretly yearned for girlish trappings like ballet lessons and patent leather maryjanes.

I would never admit this, of course. I wanted my parents to love me by my own standards. It would have been an admission of defeat to conform to their notions of femininity. I was conflicted, climbing trees in white gloves with a slingshot and a doll tucked into my back pockets.

When I developed breasts, I gave up and accepted my fate: I would have to be a woman someday. My parents still favored my brother, but since he was the junior God of our family, I worshiped him, too. In this manner, I struggled toward adulthood, defiant and lonely in my family, but blessed with many loving and supportive friends.

My mother had learned to sew and made many of my clothes. They were always too big so that I could grow into them. I was the only girl of my generation who was smaller than her own mother, so she must have anticipated a growth spurt that never happened. I rolled my skirts over at the waist to avoid tripping on them.

But for Winter Prom my senior year of high school, she made me a starkly simple, fitted, strapless ice blue satin gown and draped a filmy white and gold sari over my right shoulder to my left hip, like a beauty pageant banner. It was a garment worthy of Cinderella's fairy godmother. She worked on it late into the night for weeks.

When I was elected Prom Queen, I was so excited that I immediately ran to a phone to call home with the news.

I didn't want to brag so I said, "Walter got Prom King!"

She didn't answer.

"And... and that means that I. am. Prom. Queen."

There was a moment of silence, then she said, "Make sure you're home by midnight."

I got home at 1:00, and was grounded for months. My parents maintained a constant and thankless vigil over my chastity.

After my father died, my mother went back to work. She had been a stay-at-home mom, but my father's lingering illness had made a huge dent in their savings. She worked at many jobs that were considerably below her abilities because she was not a college graduate.

Finally, she got her GED and enrolled in college. She was 71 years old, yet she managed to relate to the young kids in her classes as well as to the professors teaching them. She was the top student in all her classes.

She graduated with honors at 79, and we all went to her graduation ceremony. She wore her cap and gown proudly as she marched in the slow processional with hundreds of 22-year olds. Afterward, we celebrated with a huge party which was attended by several of her professors and many fellow graduates.

She was loved by so many.

Literature was her passion, and she was especially captivated by Alice Walker's wonderful books. She introduced me to Zora Neale Hurston, whose work was little-known until Ms. Walker republished her novels. They remain among my favorites.

My mother was doing graduate work in Womens' Studies, planning her thesis on Ms. Hurston, when she died a year later. I'm sure that she was drawn to this field of study because she was raised in a male-oriented society, and married an extremely dominant man.

She came full-circle in her views and became the strong woman she was meant to be.

We should all do as well.

She was a great role model for my daughters and nieces, all of whom adored her and were cherished in return.

In Adlai Stevenson's eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt, he said, "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness."

That statement applies to my mother, too. As she grew older, she grew stronger in a society which expects the opposite. After fulfilling her responsibilities to her children, she followed her own dreams. She did not allow herself to be limited by age, nor did she demand deferential treatment because of it. She earned a college degree at an age when most women are content to play cards and doze in rocking chairs, waiting for their grandchildren to visit.

A lot of light went out of the world when my mother died. As I burn a memorial candle for her, I cry because my own hurt and indignation prevented me from telling her how much I loved and admired her. I hope that in her wisdom, she knew my heart better than I did.

I know now that when we insist upon "all or nothing" with our loved ones, we deny ourselves. While behaving as a dutiful daughter, still I rejected my mother in my heart because she didn't love me as much as I wanted her to, and I refused to settle for less.

To be loved at all is a tremendous gift. It should not be quantified or questioned. It should just be enjoyed and passed on to others.

I wish I could tell my mother that I've finally grown up.

43 comments:

Judith said...

Your mothers story is an inspiration to us all, in her golden years she did not yield to the comfortable chair or the dronish lifesytle that seems to be the norm of the silver sect of society. I am sure she knew the potency of your love for her, you articulate this love so well in words for her that it was inevitable that although not outright in your vocabulary to her, you showed it so many otherways in silent simple gesture , body language and expression. The loss of a parent can be one of lifes most traumatic events and time has a way of soothing the hurt and replacing it with positive memories, this I feel is on of her many legacies to you. Her core acomplishment may not have only been to follow her dreams but also producing a daughter like you. Despite all our failings and warts if we grow up with the ability to forgive and see the best in others than our parents have done a half decent job. And as one mother to another, no one knows your child like you do , and Im sure your Mom knew you loved the very bones of her.

Ryane said...

I think, perhaps, you just did tell your mother exactly that. What a wonderful post.

furiousBall said...

As a parent (and child!) I love reading posts about parents. This really was a great post. Parents are human beings, but I think as the children of those parents we don't really realize their faults and then appreciate them until we (as you said) grow up ourselves. Which is the job of parents and tells the parent they accomplished what they set out to do.

Lex said...

You have just told her beautifully.

I think you're the philosopher dude. There is so much wisdom in this post. This is why I love reading you.

goodthomas said...

This was amazing, HinSF, from the first word to the last and every point in between. So many words, phrases had me gasping, smiling, wondering, hoping, listening. It was beautiful.

I must tell you that I burst out laughing here at my desk with " I surmised that I should be grateful to my parents because they had let me live. Not knowing the statute of limitations on this amazing reprieve made me uneasy, but since I had no other frame of reference, I assumed it was normal. It never occurred to me that we were not Chinese."

This is an elegant, beautiful tribute to a woman who passed on this March day. I do believe, Ms HinSF, that you do not have to tell her that you are grown up, not now, or that you loved her. I think she knew. Especially now, after this.

meno said...

It is difficult to describe a person well, but you have done it in a way that i feel like i knew your mother a little bit. How great to read of her blooming growth.

A complex description of a complex woman.

Lee said...

As always, you write about your past with such clarity and beauty. Your mom's story is so inspirational. It's not hard to see where you get it from.

I'm assuming that is a picture of her...she's lovely.

Thanks again for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wow - just stumbled over here from some other blog and that was beautiful and touching. I'm gonna go home and tell me mom I love her, which I haven't done in about...well I can't remember.

Travis said...

This is a beautifully expressed tribute to your mother.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Judith,

What great kindness you send my way. And you're so right -- the only way to love someone is to love the very bones of them.

Ryane,

If she reads my blog generally, then I'm probably in touble. Thank you.

Furious,

It's such a complicated relationship. My children turned out magnificently in spite of me, I think.

Lex,

Oh, good. You came over. I told you, it's spelled "filosifer." Write it 10 times until you get it, dear.

Thomas,

As always, your words make me smile. Growing up is hard to do... It was touch-and-go there for a while. But I never did become Chinese, or male. I could only do so much, you know?

Meno,

I don't think I did her justice, but I still feel her influence in so many ways. Complex people are interesting but sometimes difficult to describe.

Lee,

Yes, that is a picture of my mother.

I'm so glad you could make it to my open house. I know you're hosting a Newt ralley today. (Maybe he'll pull a Julius Caesar.)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Anonymous,

Do it! Do it now. And thanks for your visit.

Travis,

She was a beautiful person. Thank you.

Thailand Gal said...

I was able to get a real sense of your mother from this. One of the things I realized when I got older is that "son worship" was not all that uncommon in those days. It might not make it feel any better, it does at least offer an explanation. You mirrored your mother's own oppression in her sense that you would end up the same. Times changed ~ and she changed.

Her going to college so late is absolutely awesome!


Peace,


~chani

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Chani,

Plus c'a change... I worship my son, too. But I also worship my daughers.

Going to college was really important to her. She was disappointed that I dropped out several times because I didn't value a degree enough to suffer through subject matter that didn't interest me when I could study what did on my own.

jali said...

This was the most beautiful tribute - the best part is that you didn't sugar coat a thing and your love for your mom still shines.

PS - your mom already knows!

Kate S said...

Wonderful, as always - touching and thought provoking. Thank you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Jali,

Thank you for saying that. I tried to be honest, even when it hurt, but felt a bit guilty for not proclaiming her a Mother Teresa. (Of course, Mother T never had a daughter like me to deal with. Fair is fair.)

Kate,

I look forward to your visits. Thank you so much.

MsLittlePea said...

This was so beautiful, I had to read it twice. I've been going back and forth for months over whether or not to go back and finish college. The fear of not being able to really 'do it' has kept me from making that decision and reading this sealed the deal for me. If a woman can do it in her golden years I can do it in my thirties. Your mother was beautiful and I could feel the love and admiration you have for her from your words. I'm sure she knew as all mothers know everything about us without us having to say a word.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Sweet Pea,

You should do it if you really want to. I have always enjoyed college courses I took as an adult and done better in them than I did when I was of typical college age. Late bloomer or something.

Your comments made me feel so good, except for the omnicient mother one. I dearly hope she didn't know everything about me! What she did know was bad enough.

Pickled Olives said...

I think this post is profound. You admire your mom and yet still long for the one thing this woman could not give. I'm sure your kids had ample amounts of what you missed out on.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Olives,

Yeah, some people are never satisfied, huh?

When my two oldest children were toddlers, (girl and boy,) I had a friend with two sons the same ages who proclaimed herself a "boy mother." And I have since known other women who were only able to feel fully maternal with sons. I suspect my mother may have been one of them, and it must have been a challenge to have a daughter, especially an opinionated, strong-willed one.

I'm sure we had some karma to work out, and I hope we did so.

As for my children - in my eyes, they are all as perfect as humans get to be. I am intransigent on this one point.

Lex said...

I feel missed. I've been reading but not commenting lately. I'll do better. Ms. Filosifer.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Lex,

Oh, you are missed, Missy. I always like what you have to say.

EsLocura said...

beautiful, touching story Mothers are such unique people.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Eslocura,

They are, indeed. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

The Law Fairy said...

Wow, heart. This one made me tear up.

Parents have such a profound impact on us. I'm sure that, before she died, your mother understood how much you loved her, even if you didn't realize it until later.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Law Fairy,

I certainly hope so. All I can do now is make sure that my other loved ones know without a doubt how I feel.

It seems so little to do for all the grace and happiness they bring to my life.

Anonymous said...

Grandma looks beautiful! (It's startling how much one of your daughters looks like her!)
Thank you so much for the beautiful post about her. She absolutely knew how much you loved her. I know this for a fact--Grandma had a quiet and modest wisdom that was evident to me from very early on. (When I was still so young that when she would leave us after a visit, I would say that she was going to "Your Ami." (After all, she always said that she was going to Miami, so being the linguistically logical child that I was, I reasoned...)
As far as her driving goes, don't even get me started. I remember one time she was driving me along that strip of road between Miami and Miami Beach and she was drifting among the lanes Mr. Magoo style; cars were truly screeching off the road in her wake. Very scary. Even then she was blessed with some kind of wisdom and hindsight (literally).
The big Dude/Dudette upstairs wanted to keep her around for as long as he could, she touched so many lives....
Look, even today she is influencing others she did not even know: right here in your blog someone called mslittlepea decided to finish college because Grandma did so late in life. (Go Ms. Little Pea! Wonderful decision!)
She is definintely smiling somewhere above us. As far as what our parents know about us, don't worry; they have filters up there, so they can only see/know the stuff we want them to....
Loved the post. I did not have a candle to light for her tonight, but now I don't have to. You helped me remember her beautifully. Thank you!!
Your neice.
PS: If my Dad was the Messiah, what does that make me???
(It is true that he was treated that way, by the way, and the Messianic treatment continues with my mother... oy!)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Dear "Anonymous,"

God knows how any of us survived her driving skills, which never improved. I was her passenger once in Your Ami when a fire engine screamed up behind us with lights and sirens blasting.

I urged her to pull over.
She wailed, "I can't."
I said, "YOU.HAVE.TO."
She froze and I grabbed the wheel and steered us out of the 5-way intersection.

It was not our finest hour for mother-daughter bonding.

I'm trying to figure out what your title would be as the Messiah's daughter. If he is still pulling that off, I'd say he is a very lucky man.

Thank you for your visit, and for lighting a verbal candle here.

XOXO

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Beautiful, simply beautiful. Your mom did come full circle and became all that she could be. We should all hope to be so fortunate. You are your mother's daughter more than you might know.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Squirrel,

I believe that she lived well because she used her life to improve herself. Sometimes, it's easy to lose sight of our mission to do that when life gets in the way.

Thank you for your kind words.

velvet girl said...

This was a beautifully written tribute. It put so many things in perspective for me right at a time when I could really use it.

Desirea Madison said...

Quote: To be loved at all is a tremendous gift. It should not be quantified or questioned.

That's a message I will take to heart.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Velvet,

Thank you.

As for your current post, I wish I could tell you that aging is nowhere near as bad as it's cracked up to be as long as you never compromise with who you are.

In some ways, beauty grows with the years. You'll see. You will always be you, and in your case, that's a GOOD thing.

Desirea,

I really appreciate your comment, and your visit. Thank you for both.

Bob said...

I love this post. I doubt we can ever appreciate our parents until we've grown up and walked a few miles in their shoes. I know that my experiences as a parent have given me a filter through which I've been able to review my adolescence. It helped me deal with some lingering pain from that part of my life.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Bob,

What a nice and thoughtful comment. It is certainly true that being a parent changes our perspective on so many things, even our own youth.

The old saying, "Too soon old, too late smart" comes to mind here.

I don't know of many people who have not carried some degree of lingering adolescent pain into adulthood.

Molly said...

Just stumbled over from LGS---so glad I did! Your tribute to your mother was very moving. It is a hard row to hoe, making sure our children feel that we love them all equally....

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Molly,

It IS hard because even though we love them equally, we love them in different ways. And sometimes attention is distributed according to who seems to need us the most at a given time.

Thank you for coming by. You have a great blog, which I've bookmarked for easy access.

I am not Star Jones said...

you made me cry.
and you carry your mother in your life and writing so she lives on.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Star,

You're so sweet to say that. Hopefully, we all live on as long as there are those who loved us still walking the earth.

Cate said...

Beautiful, Mom.
(even though oddly... you never let ME have ballet lessons or patent leather mary janes, so you were clearly still conflicted! - I am saying this with a smile-- it's just funny how you fought your own daughter on something you wanted your mother to give. I suppose in that way, everything comes full circle.)
More importantly, what a lovely post.. and what an amazing picture of Grandma. Thanks.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Catie,

Thank you!

About the dancing lessons - she could afford it. I couldn't. You had jazz dance later, though. You were great. Also, I never had a pony. :)

I especially like that picture, although there were so many to choose from. She always did look beautiful, didn't she? Just like you.

katrice said...

I'm catching up, so I'm extremely late, but I just had to say...

I clearly see how you were your mother's inspiration for the accomplishments she made later in life. Docile and subservient, she was used to. Gutsy and independent, she had to be exposed to. Maybe you helped her to rediscover a part of herself that life and marriage had buried.

Your mom was a remarkable woman. Thanks for your balanced and truthful portrayal of her.

You are so gifted.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Katrice,

I confess that I was hoping you would comment on this post even though your beautiful and loving mother left this earth much too soon.

As always, you give me something to think of that has never occurred to me before, that I might have inspired her. I always considered that she was the inspiration for the younger women in my family. Thank you for that.

I also appreciate your noting that my portrayal was even-handed and honest. I wasn't sure about including the less positive parts, but opted for balance.

It shouldn't be surprising that you understand me so well by now. But it's still such a lovely gift.