Thursday, March 15, 2007
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.