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My mother packed up her camp...
“A journey which my mother never made before she folded up her camp…”
These words from Cherokee writer, Diane Glancy haunted me long after I copied them to my journal page. Camping out with the women I most admired, those that blazed countless trails, leaving them freed of the clutter that might cause their followers to falter—that had been the start of my journey. Scared women like suffragettes, poets and feisty political activists who defied the odds by embracing their fears and discovering new strains of courage. Reluctant leaders who succeeded beyond expectations in roles they formerly dreaded and women who slayed the darkness by thrusting in their bright lanterns of compassion. How many chances were proffered to my generation by those who hiked before us, alongside us or encouraged us from the rear? My mother was not a fearless woman, not a leader. She shrank from any opportunity knocking from outside her comfort zone. My mother scoffed at feminism. Why, I’ve often wondered. And why had I never asked her why?
Had you not been a daughter of the Great Depression mama, would you have searched for more self-awareness and fulfillment? Would you still have chosen the path so clearly marked and well-trodden, defined primarily by marriage and motherhood? Would you have wished, given the chance, to complete your education, work outside the home or become an activist-advocate for causes you cherished? If that chance had been yours to take, would I even be here to ponder my unasked questions?
For years, I believed my mother folded up her camp because she feared the journey. I did not know this though; for inexplicable reasons, this was territory we never explored. I say inexplicable, but I admit to my own fears. Once, when my children were preschoolers, she loudly vented her disapproval because I’d taken a part-time job. I never left you four with your father or a neighborhood babysitter so I could make money for frivolous things I didn’t need.
That accusation stung—narrowing down my reality with a laser-thin beam, leaving me speechless. I had a valid defense. Food and shelter were more expensive in the 80s, not more frivolous. I loved my children beyond imagining, but I also craved some personal time. Days, even weeks flew by without any adult interaction other than their father and me discussing mounting bills or how tired we both were. But I did not speak up. Eventually we arrived at an uneasy truce because we swept our feelings under the same bumpy rug where all the other proverbial bears went into hiding.
It didn’t start with my own motherhood, of course. My childhood was loving and carefree, but it was not an open one of easily shared parental dialogues. In fourth grade, my mother slid something under the cloth of my bedside table. She whispered, you need to read this. It’s about women’s administration. Women’s administration? What could my mother possibly know about administering anything? True, Violet attended the “Mother’s Club” meetings at our school. (To my knowledge, the “P” was silent in PTA during the 60s). I glanced at the cover—women’s menstruation! She would not have guessed the older girls at school had already talked about this, which is not to say I believed any of it. I peered closely at the line drawings of eggs sliding merrily down roller-coaster-Fallopian tubes. It did nothing to ease my anxiety about bleeding from my nipples, which is what my friend Juanita said happened to all girls when “Aunt Flow came to visit.” When we got older, she noted, we’d have babies that would transform the blood into milk. To an impressionable Catholic schoolgirl that was credible. Transubstantiation was a core tenet of our faith. However, what was implausible was how a rectangular “napkin” would go unnoticed since all of us were flat-chested, not even wearing bras yet. I kept my disbelief to myself as I read the words about possible embarrassing leaks. How would I deal with bloodstains on my white school blouse when the “moment” arrived? Fourth-grade boys were brutal bullies.
Mama died before I was menopausal, therefore, we never had “the talks” that would have completed the menstrual cycle. No wisdom was passed on to me about hot flashes, hormonal imbalances or any outlandish urges to become more self-actualized. If my mother had ever felt an itch to be more, she scratched it with daily coffee-drowning tête-à-têtes over with other neighbor ladies who did not “work.” As a non-traditional student in my late forties, it took a post-menopausal professor to de-fang the change-of-life dragon for me. She explained that drying up physically didn’t mean I had to dry up mentally or emotionally. But my mother’s voice remained strong: Your grandmother and I never took hormones. Just grin and bear it when your time comes. I guiltily filled my first prescription and just as guiltily tossed it away a few months later. I sweated through, allowing grad school to scratch some of my urges, chafing under the impression they were exotic and warranted my attention.
Okay, admittedly this is unfair. Perhaps few women of Violet’s generation could have these conversations with their daughters. Catholic and Southern cultural taboos are fierce bookends, allowing the topic to get secreted away in unopened booklets, hidden under tablecloths. Shame was the coin of the realm. Feminine hygiene, feminine protection or the need for lubrication were not boldly hawked on television back then. There was no access to the technology that has given this generation the edge. Talk show hosts and faux empathetic doctors may discuss societal taboos easily today, but in the early days of women’s lib, the cultural dam was just starting to spring leaks. Even in the 80s, when a pundit made a brazen comment about rubbers on mainstream radio, I squirmed because my three-year old son asked what they were. I casually changed the channels and steered the conversation to safer subjects, but the question hung in the air like a gravid pear. It’s a type of wallet, one of my daughters finally wisecracked. Honestly, I was no more prepared than my mother would’ve been to set him straight.
I often compared my mother to the mothers of my friends because she was considerably more tight-lipped and older. That’s not fair either. My grandfather was ill throughout the Depression, forcing my grandmother to apply for work. This left my 10-year old mother at home to care for her siblings, which was probably not a unique situation in that era. She acknowledged the challenge once in a raw, honest letter she penned to a younger sibling. My aunt, twenty years my mother’s junior, felt she’d been pushed away after the birth of my mother’s own four children. That letter is one of many things I would love to speak with mama about today. Had she and I spoke of these things, exploring her buried teenaged angst, would I have understood her more?
In visions, I see us standing apart from one another peering into the dark woods, our dual curiosities tempered with foreboding. What was it like mama, you know, to be the one everyone depended upon? She’s not here to hike to a clearing with me now, so I arrive alone. When I get there, the rock in front of me stands solid like my mother. She embodied stability to her siblings, husband and children. I climb on this rock, hugging it as I pause to grieve for the little girl who had to dress her siblings each morning to walk them to a school she was no longer allowed to attend.
I guess I dwell on this quite a bit because, as I’ve often told my own children they have become three of my best friends in their adulthood. They also know that I respect and support their choice to have, or not have, children of their own. We discuss everything, which is undeniably a reaction to my not being able to do so with my mother. The pendulum swings both ways though; I am perhaps guilty of over-sharing. Despite my best intentions, I am certain I’ve trespassed on their privacy. As mothers, some of us think we have carte blanche to do this to the flesh of our flesh. Blessed is the umbilical cord. It is never completely severed; it can strangle as well as bind.
Don’t misunderstand any of this to mean that I was not fond of my mother. She was the consummate mother, one who cooked, sewed, and kept her family comfortable, on a very tight household budget. She loved us passionately. How she delivered four babies with haloes and no episiotomy amazes me! While we were at school, she pulled out her Kenmore sewing machine to make dresses for other women, the women who worked outside the home. She even made new habits for the order of teaching nuns we had in elementary school, which was an eye-opener for me since I thought “nones” were born that way. She allowed me to help her measure them. As they stripped down to their nun-derwear, I made a mental note to tell my best friends they were honest-to-God women after all. Who knew?
Mama kept the earnings from her seamstress enterprise to herself; the cash went directly into the bank for bills. Not one dollar was squandered on a pair of coveted high-heeled pumps, a night out with just the girls or for a date with a masseuse. Sewing profits bought her something she considered much more valuable: they allowed my father, whom she adored, to believe he was providing sufficiently for his family on his meager disability pension. She never reminded him it was her contributions that kept the hungry wolf away from our door. Unconditional love trumped everything on her personal hierarchy of needs.
Mama also loved opera, playing LPs loudly and singing along with gusto as she went about her housework. The arias from Madama Butterfly, Aida and Carmen contained words which she knew not by heart, but in her heart. With only an eighth-grade education, she taught herself history, geography and literature through her insatiable appetite for reading. Once, shortly before she died. I noticed a Bible sitting on her nightstand. My younger brother quipped she was preparing for final exams. I was curious though since Bible-reading was something devout Catholics of her day were never encouraged to do. Was she at all concerned about her disobedience to the Church’s traditions? You’ve heard about that movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”? Well, they always say you should read the book before seeing the movie. Classic Violet logic!
Meditation has taught me to bless the obstacles that make me stumble. In stillness, I have learned to identify, embrace and work harder to honor barriers as fundamental markers on my life’s journey. My mother was my mother; it’s as simple as that. She was gifted to me and my siblings, a product of her time and circumstances, no less than I have been to my progeny. Like Glancy noted, most of our mothers did pack up their camps without embarking on their journeys. Could it be that these were journeys their daughters want to believe they should have taken? We believe they suffered because they never mapped new terrains for us to celebrate or follow. We believe, because they left this teaching task to other women, that somehow we were short-changed. How dare we assume this for their generation? A raccoon is not a skunk, nor a skunk a possum. We cannot fashion our mothers into beings that they were not, nor can we burden them as the keepers of dreams we wanted them to dream.
To the best of my knowledge, my mother did not possess my hungry energy. She was not introspective, but she created her own legacy of love, integrity and courage. I doubt my own children will create in the same ways I do; I do not expect them to.
As W. Somerset Maugham wrote in The Razor’s Edge:
For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are born, the city apartment or farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can't come to know by hearsay...
To internalize this reality, I close my eyes. I see my mother as the clerk at a ticket counter. Outside of the depot, a train whistles loudly, heightening my fear that I will miss it. Anxiously, I grab for my ticket, but she won’t let it go. She scans it carefully, thoughtfully eyeing my destination. The whistle blows more insistently; I am desperate to be on my way. When she finally passes the ticket into my hands, she smiles wistfully. Funny thing, but you know, I never had any desire to go there.