Mother’s Day — it’s complicated

About 20 years ago, from left, my mother, me, my daughter Alexandra home from college with crooked glasses (always) and hair, holding youngest daughter, Hannah.

The cliché is that psychiatrists’ patients talk about how much they hate their mothers. In fact, my shrink met my mother once and never stopped talking about how much he disliked her!

I’ve always given her points for being brave enough to go with me to one of my sessions, but, in truth, felt validated by his immediate assessment of her inabilities.

So this year for chief of the made-up Hallmark holidays, I’d like to think about the things she did and did well.

  1. Sometimes it pays to be oblivious. Such as when you march into a situation like the one above, thinking only that you’re being beneficent to your poor, struggling child. Oblivious evidently means fewer lines and less gray. When she died at 80, she looked younger than I do today at 72. And she never went out looking like I’m going to look this morning when I go to buy strawberries and asparagus at a nearby farm.
  2. She never, and I mean never, discussed her health. Sex, money and health — a lady never talked about any of those (nor did she tell her daughters she loved them because it would give them “big heads”). Today the first  two seem to remain taboo, but people continually tell me incredibly personal things about their physical selves that make my eyebrows go up and stay up.
  3. She exercised, and looked for new ways and places, for as long as she was able. Beyond that point, really. She was always learning a new craft — lampshades were the final one.
  4. She read. Before we found the library in Lewisburg (PA), we ordered books from the Harrisburg (90 miles away) library system, mailed them back and ordered more.
  5. She gardened and she cooked. She mended and darned,  wrote letters and kept scrapbooks. I had a friend who said she was getting ready for me to be famous.
  6. She was never lazy. People came to the house, you set a pretty table and fixed a nice meal. You did something every waking minute, which could make those around you batshit crazy, but it also got things done. The house was clean, the laundry was done.
  7. She volunteered everywhere — church, Girl Scouts, PTA — the reason I got to participate in any of those things.
  8. I don’t remember learning how to swim — that’s how early I started. Because we lived in the Alabama of rural central Pennsylvania, she drove me and my sister to and from piano and voice lessons, dance lessons, Lifesaving classes. When I was in high school plays, because my father wouldn’t let me drive at 16, she picked me up from daily rehearsals and went to almost every performance. From the time we were old enough to sit through a show, she got us to every musical and concert at Bucknell University (30 minutes each way).
  9. She adored her parents — her whole family really, the big reason I’m stuck with all these antiques that no one wants (real and phantasmagoric) — and saw to it that we spent a lot of time with them, the best parts of my childhood summers and holidays.
  10. She was tenacious as a pit bull, speaking of clichés. She did not give up. A second nutso-inducing habit,but it’s not a bad thing  as long as you can tell, or you have a partner to pull you up short and tell you, hey, you’re being a nutcake, too.
  11. She was funny. When there were no husbands around to switch over her brain to remote, we laughed about some pretty outrageous stuff. Neither of her husbands, though, relished a wife who thought, laughed, voted, spent her money for herself. As my husband reminds me about once a year  she chose them. In her defense, I guess, a 1939 female college graduate with a business school degree to boot, thought she’d be negatively labeled without a husband to support her. Ironically, she was the one who supported us when my father spent just about everything he earned on his own hobbies. She went back to work and paid for college and weddings.
  12. She was finally able to love a couple of her grandchildren as much as she loved her parents. That was good to see, even if they will never understand that none of us grew up with the same woman. To her, I was competition; grandchildren were objects of art. Those grandchildren think, I’m sure, that I’m pretty petty  when it comes to my assessment of the mothering I got. I try not to be, to realize how she was damaged too, but I’ll probably never post anything sappy like “I miss her every day” or “I wish I could talk to her.” No reason to think she’d hear me any more clearly in the 21 years since her death.  But she left some good things behind her, and I’m not talking furniture. Happy Mother’s Day, Josephine.
  13. My mother at 14 or 15 at her grandparents’ in northern New Jersey, c. early 1930s. Below her, two pictures of her mother and horsey friend.
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