My Mother–Camp Follower

"I started late with only a map given to me by other women who said the territory was there. It was a fertile landscape just inside the head. I had only to load the wagon, hitch the horses..."

A journey which my mother never made before she folded up her camp…

These words penned by Cherokee writer, Diane Glancy, haunted me long after I copied them to my journal page. Metaphorically “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 part of my journey. Scared women that embraced their fears remind me of trapeze artists: dangling far above the earth, without a rope, something I admire from a distance while wondering how it is done. The idea is thrilling; the reality is my fear of remaining an observer. Yet, I could not help but ask—what had prodded these women to discover strains of courage within themselves to become guides for the rest of us? Women like suffragettes, writers disguised as men or gutsy political activists who defied the odds. Reluctant leaders who succeeded beyond expectations in roles they dreaded taking on, like Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Sally Ride or Michele Obama. Women who slay the darkness by thrusting into it their bright lanterns of compassion through artistic, humanitarian or exploratory achievements. Like proverbial grains of sand, one cannot count the many chances proffered to my generation by those who hiked before us, alongside us or encouraged us from the rear.

My mother was no fearless leader, writer or activist. In my mind, she shrank from opportunities that knocked from outside her comfort zone. My mother openly scoffed at feminism when I floated the radical idea in her presence while still in high school. A friend had introduced me to Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer. They were suspect—these women who “did the things they did.” Why, I’ve often wondered, were they so frightening to her? And why had I never pushed for answers? What had I been afraid of? In imagined conversations, I’ve rummaged through possibilities:

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 instead of leaving school in 8th grade to care for your siblings? Did you ever wish to 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, pondering these unasked questions?

For years, I believed my mother, Violet, folded up her camp because she feared the journey. I could not know this to be true though. And for inexplicable reasons, this was territory we never explored with each other. I say inexplicable, but I must admit to my own dread of conflicts. Once, when my children were preschoolers, my mother loudly vented her disapproval because I’d taken a part-time job. I never left you four kids with your father or a babysitter just so I could make money for frivolous things I didn’t need.

Her observation stung—she’d shrunk me with her laser-thin beam of accusation, leaving me speechless even though I felt I had a valid defense. Food and shelter were more expensive in the 1980s, hardly frivolous luxuries. I loved my children beyond imagining; motherhood had been my most successful accomplishment. Still, I couldn’t lie. There were many days when I craved for small amounts of personal time. Days, even weeks flew by, without any adult interaction with anyone other than their father. We discussed mounting bills or our mutual tiredness, hardly anything more ambitious or fulfilling. I did not speak up to my mother that day; it wasn’t our way to “have words.” Eventually, we settled for an uneasy truce, sweeping the topic under the same bumpy rug where notorious big bears go to hide.

This didn’t start with my own motherhood, of course. My childhood was loving and carefree, but it was never one of easily shared parental dialogues. In fourth grade, my mother slid something under the cloth on 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, she attended the “Mother’s Club” meetings at our school. (To my recollection, the “P” was silent in PTA during the 60s).  I glanced at the cover—Oh! Women’s menstruation!

She could not have guessed the older girls at school had already discussed this, which is not to say I believed any of it. I peered closely at the cartoonish 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 every young woman when “Aunt Flow came to visit.” When we got older, she also predicted, we’d all have babies, which miraculously transformed the blood into mother’s milk. To an impressionable Catholic schoolgirl this claim was credible. Transubstantiation was a core tenet of our faith, after all. What remained implausible to me, however, was how wearing bulky rectangular “napkins” would go unnoticed since we were flat-chested, not even wearing  our “training” bras yet. I kept my disbelief to myself as I read the brochure’s words about embarrassing leaks. How would I deal with bloodstains on my white school blouse when that “moment” arrived? Fourth-grade boys could be brutal bullies. After Juanita fed me this information in the school bathroom, I thought of asking my mother, but I chickened out. It seemed involved with sex, definitely a taboo topic.

Mama died before I was menopausal; therefore, we never had “the talks” that would have completed my menstrual cycle. No wisdom was passed on to me about hot flashes, hormonal imbalances or outlandish urges to become a more self-actualized woman. If my mother had ever felt an itch to be more, she scratched it with daily coffee-downing tête-à-têtes 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 down there didn’t mean I had to dry up mentally or emotionally. Still, my mother’s voice strongly admonished: Your grandmother and I never took hormones. Just grin and bear it when your time comes. Hers was still a difficult voice to quiet, even a decade after her death. I guiltily filled my first prescription, and just as guiltily tossed it away a few months later. Dutifully, I sweated through “the change,” allowing grad school priorities to scratch some of my urges. I could hear Violet’s approval from the grave: If you’re in pain, just offer it up for us poor souls in Purgatory.

Okay, admittedly, this is unfair. Perhaps few women of mama’s generation could have had these conversations with their daughters. Catholic and Southern cultural taboos are fierce bookends, allowing female matters to get secreted away in unopened brochures, concealed under tablecloths. Shame was the coin of our realm. Feminine hygiene, feminine protection or the need for lubrication–these were not boldly hawked on television back then. There was no Googling to obtain immediate access to information. Talk show hosts and faux empathetic doctors may dissect these 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 political pundit made a brazen comment about condoms on mainstream radio, I squirmed and sweated because my three-year old son asked me what they were. I casually changed the channel and steered the conversation to safer ground, 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 hardly fair either. My grandfather was ill throughout the Depression, forcing my grandmother to apply for work. This left my 12-year old mother to care for her siblings, which was probably not a unique situation in that era. She acknowledged the challenge once in a 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. My mother answered her honestly, describing how shortchanged she’d always felt, having to forfeit her adolescence. Mama was the one everyone ran to for soup and solace. That letter is one thing that gave me more insight. My sister found it among mama’s things and I know we’d both love to speak with mama about it today. Had we explored her buried teenaged anguish, would we have understood her more? A part of me wants to believe that, but lost conversations forever haunt us, don’t they?

In a vision, I see my mother and me standing apart from one another, peering into dark woods, our curiosities tempered with foreboding of the unknown She disappears, so I am left to hike to a clearing alone. There is a boulder blocking my path, challenging and unyielding, the way I sometimes viewed my mother. She embodied stability to her siblings, husband and children.  Perhaps solid would be more apt. In my dream, I summon the courage to climb over the rock. Hugging its sturdiness, I pause to grieve for the little girl who had to feed and dress her siblings each morning, then walk them to classrooms where she was no longer welcomed. What was it like mama, to be the one everyone depended upon?

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 were often told that I’d respect and support their choices to have, or not have, children of their own. Two have now become parents. 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; perhaps, I am guilty of over-sharing. Despite my best intentions, I am certain I’ve often trespassed on their privacy. As mothers, some of us think we have earned carte blanche to do this. They are the flesh of our flesh, so what’s to hide? 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. Far from it! She was the consummate mother, one who cooked, sewed, and kept her family comfortable, all on an extremely meager budget. She loved us passionately. How she delivered four babies with haloes and no episiotomy amazes me still! While we were at school, she pulled out her Kenmore sewing machine to make dresses for other women, those others who worked outside the home.  She even made new habits for the order of teaching nuns we had in elementary school. (This was an eye-opener for the nine-year old me. I believed that all “nones” were born that way, like sexless dolls, and immediately placed in convents. How else to explain the high walls and mystery?)  Mama called me into the room and asked me to jot down each nun’s measurements. As they stripped down to their nun-derwear, I made a mental note to tell my best friend that they did have breasts and other female trappings—they were honest-to-God women after all!  Who knew?

Mama kept the earnings from her seamstress enterprise to herself; I later realized that the cash went directly into the bank for paying household bills.  Not one dollar was squandered on a pair of coveted high-heeled pumps, a night out with the girls or for a date with a hairdresser, pedicurist or masseuse. No, mama’s sewing profits bought her something she considered much more valuable. The funds allowed my father, whom she adored, to believe he provided sufficiently for his family on his disability pension. She never demeaned him by noting it was her extra contributions that kept the hungry wolf away from our door. Unconditional love trumped everything in mama’s personal hierarchy of needs. I was a mother myself before this occurred to me.

Mama also loved opera, playing her cherished LPs loudly and singing along with gusto as she went about her housework. The arias from Madama Butterfly, Aida, Rigoletto, La Traviata 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 “mama is preparing for her final exams.” I was curious though; Bible-reading was something devout Catholic lay-people of her day were not encouraged to do. She’d been told that only priests could discern the words, the rest of us were there for subservience, to nod meekly, genuflect and unhesitatingly obey. Was she at all concerned about her defiance of church tradition? So I asked.

You’ve heard about that movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”?  Well, they always say you should read the book before seeing the movie. That response was classic Violet logic!

Meditation has taught me to bless those obstacles that make me stumble. In stillness, I have learned to identify, embrace and work harder to honor barriers as guides on my life’s journey, not disruptions. 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 gifted to my progeny. Like Glancy noted, most of our mothers did pack up their camps without embarking on their journeys.

Or did they?

Could it be that these journeys were those that their daughters wanted to believe they should have taken? We think our mothers suffered because they never mapped new terrains for us to celebrate or follow. We believe, because they left this one teaching task to other women, that we were somehow shortchanged as their daughters. 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 meant to be, nor can we burden them as the keepers of dreams we wanted them to dream. We certainly would be quick to disavow our own daughters of such notions; why can we not grant this generous response to our mothers?

To the best of my knowledge, my mother did not possess my hungry energy. She never seemed to engage in introspection; she was always busy! She carved out own legacy of courage, integrity and unconditional love. I dare not expect my own children to fashion their lives the same ways I’ve fashioned mine. Why should I have expected my mother 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 visualize my mother as the clerk at a ticket counter. Outside of the depot, a train whistles loudly, heightening my anxiety. I must hurry or I’ll miss my connection. Impatiently, I grab for my ticket, but she won’t let it go. She scans it carefully, eyeing my destination. The whistle blows 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.





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