Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A long overdue tribute to my mother

My mother had a certain phrase that, when she said it, bristled every hair on the back of my neck. It was, “I did the best I could.” For years I would almost get physically sick when I would hear that. She didn’t say it often and started saying it only when I became an adult, but it would grate on my nerves. I wanted to scream, “There’s no fucking way you did the best you could. You were stoned most of the time. I’m doing the best I can. Not you.” I stayed away from her, in part, so I didn’t have to hear her rationale for poor mothering. Mind you, if you’ve ever had a bad mother, you know that while you can put down your mother, no one else can. Human nature defends your blood, but I can be vicious and rude and downright mean when it comes to my mother’s inadequacies. But you can’t. It also doesn’t help when outsiders try to tell me, “She did the best she could.”

But upon the occasions of my older daughter’s graduation from college, my younger daughter’s 18th birthday, Mothers’ Day and every emotional experience of late, I can truly and honestly admit that my mother did the best she could. Do you know how many years it has taken to get here? I was in therapy for 3 years on the promise that I never had to forgive my mother. I started out my first session with, “If I have to forgive my mother when this is over, then we better not even start.” And because the counselor said, “I will never make you forgive your mother,” I was able to begin the work I needed to do.

And then God did a remarkable thing. I had a tiny iddy biddy nervous breakdown 7 years ago. Although not hospitalized, I was forced to take off work for 3 weeks and get some medication. (And when the first two anti-depressants didn’t work, I suffered a paradoxical effect that was horrendous.) But for a brief moment, I finally understood what it must have been like to be my mother. The only difference was (a) I had drugs, (b) I had a supportive family, (c) and I had remarkable friends to help me through. My mother, on the other hand, must have suffered from clinical depression for decades with no help, no friends, and 4 daughters who just plugged away trying to survive. (Is it supportive when, as children, you do not get into trouble so that your single mother is never blamed?) And when I say “no friends,” I mean not one. When people got divorced in the 50s, the husband often took custody of the friends as was the case in my parents’ divorce. And although my mother had a mother, she never went home for help or called her for assistance or relied on her siblings for support. She was depressed and truly alone in her struggle. I thank God for my experience so that I could “walk a mile in my mother’s shoes.”

But lately, as my children grow up and I see the adults they are becoming, I am very emotional about my mother’s life. I tell my daughters how much I love then, how proud I am of them, how stupendous they are, things my mother never said. I guess for that generation, those things were expected and subtle. Two things have come up recently that make me think my mother was remarkable. As most of you know, I have a job that is boring and unfulfilling. Sure it’s not hard physical work nor is it under the iron fist of an ogre, but it is boring and with no friends around. And yes, there is a low salary, but I do it for the benefits for which I am so desperate. But I marvel at the fact that my mother was a linotype operator (which is hot, noisy, tedious, smelly work) for 40 years, 25 with the same company. She worked long, hard hours, thus the tedium, at a machine that melted metal, thus the smelly part, and clunked down metal letters, thus the loud part, day in and day out. She had no friends as women did not work much in those days let alone at union jobs. The men had nothing to do with her. She smoked and drank coffee all days long while setting type, mostly for medical books that were very complicated and tedious. She didn’t have a car so she relied on one man in particular to pick her up every day and drop her off. She never took a vacation, never had sick days. She had to take off 4 weeks to have me and hope she could reapply for her job when she came back because there was no such thing as maternity leave. And before you say I’m a bitch for not admiring her all those years while growing up, I never knew that was remarkable until I became a mother and learned that maternity benefits were not always part of the work world. Second, my mother was laid off from this job at the age of 58 (which seems younger and younger) after decades in the same profession. (Printing is all done by computer which they offered to teach her if she moved to St. Louis. Ha!) At that point, she decided to go to college, a dream she had always had and that had been nipped during the Depression. First, she CLEPPed out of two years. Do you know what that means? My brain is losing brain cells (7000 a day, I hear), and the thought of taking any professional test right now boggles my mind, let alone one that could get you out of taking college courses. She started college as a junior. (This was all pre-AP classes that kids take now to enter college with credit hours.) Next, she not only got her bachelors in anthropology but she continued on to get her Masters in archeology. No, there was no purpose, no job, no reason, no future but she did it, I guess, to prove she could. We called her the modern Margaret Mead, and although we were semi-proud of her, we did not go to her graduation or applaud her efforts at the time. After attending my daughter’s college graduation this past weekend, I cannot believe not one of her daughters attended her graduation. At the time, I guess, we were still so resentful that she did not cheer us on, pay for anything, encourage us, or say she was proud of us, all the things that children hold against our parents. We could not rise above our selfishness for one moment to rejoice in her victories, and for that, I have many regrets.

I hate it when we repeat those phrases that our parents have said that we find as true when we become adults. My mother would tell us, “I put a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly.” This generation, one I call “The Generation of Entitlement,” expects all that and more. And I have repeated those words to my daughters reminding them that anything else I provide is icing on the cake. I am not here to provide a car, a computer, a college education, an abundance of shoes, their own rooms, and every other little thing their hearts desire. Those are extras. The fact that my mother never had friends meant she also never had “gentleman callers.” We never had a parade of men in the house. We never moved from our crummy little roach-infested apartment. We knew it would always be there at the end of the day and that our mother would always be sitting on the edge of that bed smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. Because she worked constantly and utilities were often shut off, we were never evicted from our home nor “had” to move to avoid the authorities. I never realized what a form of stability that must have meant for kids who lived precarious lives. Because of the times, she was put on every prescription drug to shut her off, shut her down, and keep her from plunging off the Missouri River Bridge which made her a zombie most of the time. And yet, she got up every day and (after drinking a pot of coffee) went to work (where she drank the other pot of coffee). She sewed clothes for 4 girls, sometimes at the last minute (including my prom dress while my date was at the door). I don’t know how she stayed awake or how she went to sleep. (Well, the drugs helped.) And as each day brings more and more forgetfulness with age, I marvel at the fact that this woman went back to college to earn 2 degrees when she was in her 60s. And I regret that I did not celebrate her achievements at the time. Deeply regret.

At a recent Sunday school class (Stop laughing, yes, I teach the high school Sunday school.), we were discussing death and regrets, and I mentioned that it’s difficult to tell someone who is dying how we feel at the time even though we should have been saying it all along. This very wise 14-year-old, whose father is a breast cancer survivor, said, “It doesn’t matter if you say those things before your loved one dies. They already know.” I was speechless, not only at the profound statement but also at the thought that I didn’t need to live my life with regrets for what I never said to my mother. So 10 years after her death, I do not have to regret not telling her how remarkable I thought she was or how brilliant she must have been to go back to college late in life or how proud of her I was that she earned 2 college degrees or how exhausted and lonely I knew she must have been all those years or how sorry I was that she had to go to a tedious, unfulfilling job for decades or that I was sorry that I was so selfish and angry as an adult that I could not applaud her efforts or that I was thankful she made me stronger by providing just the basics and was not the extras (necessarily) and that, for the first time in my life, I truly believe she did the best she could. This young girl reminded me, “She already knew.”

Friday, May 12, 2006

My last letter to my college daughter

Sorry I have been too busy to post lately. One daughter graduates from college this weekend, another from high school in 3 weeks. I am up to my eyeballs in sending out announcements, planning a party for the girls, everyday life, and weeping at every twist and turn (which, by the way, takes a lot of energy). Then it hit me yesterday. I don't have to come up with a unique post. I can post my last letter to my daughter during her last week of being an undergrad. So here it is. Get out the hankie...

May 8, 2006

Dear daughter,

I guess this is my last letter to you as an undergrad. I cannot believe four years have gone by so quickly. Four years ago we were trying to figure out how to get to your high school graduation the back way to avoid the crowded main entrance to the park, and now we’re doing that again with your little sister. And getting ready for your 2 graduations (honors and College of Education).

Two graduations? Whoda thunk? I never heard of such a goofy thing. But you know I would crawl on my hands and knees over hot coals to get to your graduation ceremonies no matter how many of them there are. Of course, parking close to the venue and having no sun, no rain, and no crowds would be bitchin’. But that ain’t gonna happen, is it? So a nice compromise of horrible parking, unpredictable weather, no seating (bring lawnchairs!), and no hot coals will have to do. Whether you can see us or not, please know that your parents will be somewhere in the crowd hootin’ and hollerin’ at the mention of your name. Or perhaps a Kirkwood Clap will do? I will do my best not to embarrass you, but I can’t make any promises. (My life’s motto)

Can you remember how much you didn’t want to “end up” at Mizzou? (Remember when I told you that the only word I wanted to hear after “ended up” was PRISON?) I’m not saying it’s the perfect school, but I do believe you made the most of it. I hope like hell that any child you have gives you an immense amount of trouble while searching for a college to attend. Only then will you appreciate what we went through during your senior year of high school. Like it or not, Mizzou was where you “ended up,” and it has served you well, whether you admit it or not. Personally, I think you did just fine with a state school. But it wasn’t until we attended Summer Welcome that you saw the possibilities… the gorgeous guys that would be on campus when you arrived in the fall. The look on your face at the eye candy really swung you over to the Mizzou side. From that point, we did not have too much trouble convincing you to pack up and head to where you “ended up.” Thank you for cooperating.

I can still remember the day we moved you into your dorm (excuse me, residence hall). We woke up that Sunday morning to the crash of thunder and lightning, the first rain in many weeks. My promise that it would rain on your first day of college was coming true. One of my favorite memories was figuring out that your room was very close to the back staircase instead of the elevator by the front entrance and parking in the back for convenience while your father traipsed up and down the steps with your boxes, bins, and supplies. Remember sitting on your dorm bed and looking out the door at the service elevator that he could have been using the whole time? Did we ever let your dad in on that secret? Shhhh, I’ll never tell. And may I say for the record, that I really thought that you signed up for RUSH just to get into the dorm early and so we didn’t have to move you on your sister’s first day of high school. How naïve was I? I never ever ever dreamed that you would actually enjoy RUSH (as much as one can enjoy seeing others rejected) and pledge a sorority. In a family history of English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish, there is not one ounce of Greek blood and so this came as a shock. I will never forget the Thursday you called to announce that you were pledging Chi Omega. After dropping you off at the dorm 4 days earlier without a tear, the tears began to flow when I heard you tell me this news. Where did I go wrong? What had I done to deserve this? I wept at the thought that you had betrayed your mother, turned your back on your liberal roots, denied your GDI heritage. It was difficult to listen to your thinking, but you eventually calmed me down by telling me 2 things. First, officers were given a discount, and you just planned to be an officer (and you were). And second, there were so many Republicans in Greek Town that you vowed to shake things up with your Democrat liberalism. I choked back the sobs and listened to your rationale, taking deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, just like I did when I was in labor with you. Much the same way!

That weekend your aunt took me out to go shopping to sweep away the “mother of a sorority girl” blues. We bought a black and gold outfit for future Mizzou visits, not necessarily as a Chi O Mom, but for games and shopping and such. I knew I would never fit in, never be one of them. I wasn’t skinny enough, not cute enough, not rich enough, not conservative enough. Every time I visited you in the dorm and saw that owl on your door, I shuddered, but I took baby steps in accepting that this was what you wanted. In through the nose, out through the mouth. A few weeks into your first semester, and you called home to tell me you had changed majors. Do you remember that phone call? You had dropped your international political science class and come to the realization that being a poli sci major may require a lot of reading. Keeping up with that class was keeping you from keeping up with all your other classes and so you cut your losses. (Do you remember telling us that you thought taking the LSAT’s would require a lot of reading, and we sort of smiled and nodded and hoped you’d figure out that being a poli sci major would require a lot of reading before that.) After spending several classes taking over for Kenneth Wu, the unintelligible Chinese algebra teacher, you decided you’d make a kickass math teacher. Do you remember calling me to tell me that Chinese people do not say their “v’s”? And that he “diwided” his “nominator” by the “dominator.” Sounded good to me, but apparently, that’s not how you say it. Remember when he told the class, “I going to learn alphabet one day,” and you replied, “How many letters do you need to know, Kenneth? A, b, c and x, y, z.” I knew then that God had a good sense of humor when She had an English major for a mom give birth to a math teacher. I can remember standing in the kitchen and thinking, “You will always have a job.” And on top of it, my grandparents, not to mention my sisters, would be so proud of you. I could forgive the math part. I could even learn to forgive the sorority part. (Aand I don't want comments from people who think I'm horrible for coming down on Greeks. It was just totally foreign to me, and I learned to adjust.)

A parents’ weekend here, a football game there, and the first semester was soon over. Your grades, as expected, were stellar, and I was so proud of your perseverance, your brilliance, your ability to have fun, work hard, and come out a winner, a combination I never achieved in college. I was loving Mizzou with you more than I ever had in my 3 ½ years on campus. I will admit that I was living vicariously and having a ball. February brought your initiation and secret handshakes, passwords, winks, and you told me I would never be your “sister.” But I would always be your mother. I even learned to shut my mouth, a new skill for me to learn in my old age. By now, you were probably so sick of hearing “When I was here” stories, but I kept telling them to you anyway. Mizzou was a totally different place for you than it was for me. Part of that was the 30 years difference and part of that was what you put into the school. You joined, you organized, you contributed, you partied. There was not a time I saw you on campus where tons of people said hello, waved, hugged you. This was definitely not the Mizzou I attended.

No, I won’t go semester by semester, year by year and reminisce. I remember your naked greeting you, Homecoming house decs (for your parents first time), Jell-O shots, boxed wine, spring break in Chicago to see "Rent" (or was that Bloomington), Grinders, skipping out on “Chi O mom” activities to watch School of Rock, (avoiding) fake purse parties, shopping, shopping in downtown Columbia in the rain, a smoky piano bar, shopping, picking out our favorite candy at The Candy Factory, pointing to the Episcopal Church every time we passed it just in case you were wondering, driving to Columbia in the snow for your birthday, and friends of yours thinking I was your sister. Oh, woops, my fantasy, not yours! You called me practically every night not because you needed to but because you wanted to. I wrote lengthy, newsy letters until you told me to stop it. You weren’t reading them anyway. I will admit I was hurt, at first, but I had to adjust my needs to fit your life. Yes, I am hoping your little sister loves me more and allows me to write her lengthy newsy letters. After your first summer at home, you have enjoyed summers in Maine and even one quick course on a Greek cruise ship. How did you finagle that? We had occasional fights, but, for the most part, grew closer and closer as each year drifted into the next. Where you were once my daughter you are now my best friend. There cannot possibly be a luckier mother on this earth.

So here we are, days away from your graduation. This day will be so special… until your next graduation and your next graduation… until you are crowned Queen of the Monkey People. And out in that audience, your mom and dad will always be there, hootin’ and hollerin’ but keeping the Piggley Wiggley bags at home. I know your life has been busy with student teaching and getting ready for graduation, but it’s been a little hectic over here getting ready to come see you graduate while getting your sister ready for her senior prom we have to miss this weekend. I am so excited that you have a job and won't be living in my basement (although, at times, I wish you were moving home, but I would never tell you that).

I hope you know that sometimes my chest aches with love and pride for you that I think it will explode. In all my 39 years my mother was alive in my lifetime, she never once told me she was proud of me. I do not doubt that she was (well, except for the time I was drunk at my high school graduation or when I announced to my senior class that I was getting my tubes tied), but she never uttered the words. I don’t think I can say them enough. Children are 20 percent of our population, but 100 percent of the future. I know that, because of you, our country's future is in good hands. I leave you with one of my favorite “teacher” quotes. It hangs in your aunt’s classroom, and even though you refer to some students as asswipes (your term of endearment), I know you are becoming a member of a most honorable profession. I leave you with one of my favorite teacher quotes. This is from Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides. In this passage, the character Tom, a teacher, is asked why he chose to “sell himself short” when he was so talented and could have done anything with his life. Tom replies, “There's no word in the language that I revere more than ‘teacher.’ None. My heart sings when a kid refers to me as his teacher, and it always has. I've honored myself and the entire family of man by becoming a teacher.”

All my love,

Your mom (the wind beneath your wings)