Thursday, February 17, 2011

This post was inspired by Teresa Strasser’s new book Exploiting My Baby. I received a copy of this book through my participation in This is not a review and I was not paid for responding to the book.

Teresa’s book is a book about motherhood as much as it is a book about pregnancy, especially her complicated relationship with her own mother. All mother/daughter relationships are complicated---mine proved uncommonly so. Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot because I was a week old and she hadn’t bothered to name me. Perhaps she’d figured out already with my older brother that motherhood wouldn’t be her strong suit in life.
Mom’s struggle with parenting swelled between her various marriages. I assumed a parental role early on so Mother could still be a child, albeit, a charming child at times. We laughed a lot. Played games. Sang songs. But I knew and she knew that I held the power. I didn’t require discipline (okay maybe on one or two notable occasions) so assuming the role of “adult of the household” came easy. It became more difficult when she later married Herman. He didn’t take well to my being in charge.

Through my high school years, I cooked every evening meal, cared for my siblings who now included younger half-sisters Ashley and Vivian, as well as Bill and Margaret. Our whole neighborhood heard the unison groan every time macaroni and cheese showed up on the menu. We either didn’t know about or couldn’t afford help from Kraft, so sometimes I got the cheese sauce right and sometimes it looked and tasted like a yellow sandy substance not intended for human consumption. No one taught me to cook; I just did.

We cleaned house on Saturdays so I got in big trouble if I went to a sleepover on Friday night and didn’t appear on top of my game for Saturday chores…not because I would be punished by a withdrawal of privileges but rather with Mom’s crying and proclamation that my love for her represented lip service only. In retrospect and from my own experience of premenstrual syndrome, I realize Mom probably had severe PMS, mood swings and ongoing depression.

Mom also decided I would be “designated achiever.” I’m not sure why that mantle fell to me rather than older brother Bill except that he was probably learning disabled. Did we even know that term in the Fifties? In autograph books that came with our school pictures one year, Mom sent clear messages regarding these assigned family roles. Bill was in fifth grade and Mom wrote in his book “As sure as the grass grows around the stump, you are my little Bill-Lump-Lump.”

I was in third grade and in my book she wrote “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, go out and meet it.”

I felt hurt that Bill’s message sounded gooey and loving. I didn’t even understand mine. Mom tried to explain it. She made matters worse. Her explanation sounded to me like what she felt for Bill showed love; what she wrote to me showed expectation. Intent or not, Bill and I lived out the truth of those messages in our futures.

Ironically though Mom had no aspirations for me to attend college. Her dream for me did not extend beyond graduating from high school, going to beauty school and becoming a hairdresser. (While I did show early interest in hair and make-up, I would have been inclined to smack a client who didn’t accept what I thought to be her best style. Obviously, this would not have been a good career path.) Mom later said the reason I didn’t become involved in the drugs, music or peace movement of the Sixties rested on the fact that I had blinders on about going to college. Nothing mattered to me as much as getting that college degree. Her analysis hit the target.

At times while I attended college, Mom worked as a waitress and sent me her tips. This may seem like a paltry gesture since my family paid not a penny for books or tuition but it provided loving support for everyday expenses and I needed it. There were, after all, three other siblings still at home.

Playing games can be listed among her strongest skills as mother. From the time we were very young, we were taught to play all sorts of games especially card games. We played Authors when Margaret was so young she couldn’t say or remember Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so we all identified him as Santa Claus so Margaret could play. While playing Crazy Eights when Vivian was ten (I was twenty-two and married), Mom would not give an inch of allowance for Vivi not playing the game well. I teased “God sure makes funny people mothers.” We repeated that joke often over the years. We both knew it had layers of meaning.

A friend, trying to be supportive around the time of Mom’s death, asked about memories of my Mom in the kitchen. Having never lived in the same house two years in a row, the memory of kitchens requires way too much recall power. My mother in the kitchen generates only one blip. Fifties TV shows provided plenty of mother images but the Donna Reed-type did not show up in apron and pearls with a pan of warm cinnamon rolls in our family kitchen. And my mother didn’t even bother to watch the damn show.

One day when I came home from school for lunch, Mother sat at the table eating a can of peas, buttered bread and coffee. I hated that house close to Delaware School and particularly the kitchen. Herman painted the linoleum with a bizarre abstract pattern to cover his bad base coat. When you turned on the light in the dark of night those giant, crusty-backed cockroaches scrambled for cover---hundreds of them. To my nine year old mind, the roaches, the bizarrely painted linoleum, a mother who ate only peas for lunch and the shame of our poverty-stricken dysfunctional family were all inter-related. Surely, if Mom could just pull off the June Cleaver act with diagonally cut lunch meat sandwiches and freshly coiffed hair, our lives would greatly improve. But she sat around in her red chenille bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and working crossword puzzles looking more like a hungover Cher than June or Donna---and she didn’t even drink.

For all her inadequacies, Mom had many redeeming qualities. She intrinsically knew that all human beings had value. As a child I thought racism an historical phenomenon that no longer existed in the United States. I thought people like my Grandma Sims who spoke coarsely about “niggers and Catholics” were throwbacks from another time and place. Dad seemed irreparably backward and redneck when he told my sister Margaret that her car looked so messy he felt sure “five families of niggers lived in it.” In Mom’s world racism didn’t exist. We lived in federal housing projects during the Fifties and black neighbors were friends. We played on the grassless playground with children of all hues never thinking this was unusual.
My adult relationship with Mom turned a corner at the time of the death of my second husband. He asked Mom to come over to the house and have a chat with him before he died. He explained to her that he was leaving me with enough money to rear and educate our two boys but that he had asked me not to help support my family members. There just were not sufficient funds for reaching out to them. He bought Mom a new car at that time which she let the insurance lapse on. Then she allowed my sister Vivian to drive it and wreck it. But the most important outcome of this chat Mom had with Bart is that she fully believed I would not follow through on his request. When I did she never forgave me.

To honor Mom at the rehearsal dinner of my next wedding, I read the following poem titled “Violets” because it not only carries her name but captures this quality that I valued most about her.


By Miriam Woolfolk
Used with permission

I picked a bunch of violets
outside my kitchen door;
they never seem to care just
where they grow.
‘Mid garbage cans and weeds,
or in my garden fair,
it matters not to them
if they will show.

I plucked them one by one
from many a different place
and laid them all together
in my hand,
and found I couldn’t tell
which one had come from where—
so it is with people
of our land.

Mom said “Brenda’s just showing off.”

She could not receive my intended compliment. What I wanted was to express gratitude for a quality she bestowed on family and strangers. The incident ended with sadness for me and for Mom.

updated: 6 years ago


bpetersonSaturday, February 19th 2011 5:50PM

Thanks, Emily. I am going to dream about what my life would have been like if my Mom had had access to therapy, Al-Anon and a good anti-depressant. She would have been a different Mom no doubt!

I appreciate your kind comments. Stay in touch. This will all be part of my memoir coming to a bookstore near you!

EmilySaturday, February 19th 2011 4:15PM

I can't help thinking if you had grown up in a different time, your mom would have gotten the help she needed and you would have had a very different life.

Your mother, Teresa's mother, proves that we do not have to turn into our mothers when we grow up.

Your post was written so beautifully.

AprilSaturday, February 19th 2011 3:42PM

It's so hard for me to fathom mothers like yours (and Teresa's). But reminds me how lucky I was to have a mother who cherished the role.

Yes, it is hard to fathom not-so-great mothers. It is even sadder when I think that many of those mothers are probably doing the best they can. I think mine was. Thanks for the comment.