Mind Matters — My Mother’s Memoirs

Late afternoon light lit upon a piece of crystal in my office window and—who knows why—I suddenly thought I should write my mother’s memoirs. Not mine, first, mind you, but my mother’s—and she died over eleven years ago.

Maybe seeing family the night before triggered this fantasy. I visited with my nephew and his lovely wife with their toddler and baby who had landed for a quick visit to New Jersey, all the way from Alaska, for the funeral of their young friend (a tragic story in itself). Life is so fragile and I watched them parenting those little ones remembering this nephew and his brother at those same ages. Meanwhile, down the street in the same Jersey town, in what used to be my parents’ home, this other nephew and his wife were awaiting the birth of their second child.

So why, out of all this, my mother’s memoirs? My mother was the quintessential grandmother. She would, without a doubt, be reveling in her grandchildren having children and would be particularly delighted that this would be occurring in her “dream” home (modest though it was) that had taken her so long to bring into fruition.

Over the years, my relationship with my mother had its closeness and its difficulties. And the difficulties usually arose from trying to differentiate from my mother and be “my own person.” However, as the years pass, I recall the times of crisis when she was there for me. I can now hold the contradictions of my relationship with my mother in both hands knowing that our conflict times may have had their basis in her own family history and that our close and caring times arose from her deep and abiding unconditional love. It may not have always felt like unconditional love, but in the final analysis I know that it was. I was fortunate to have had that.

So what do I mean by “Memoirs of My Mother?” Now that I have some distance on the family of origin dynamics, and all my mother’s sisters have died, I am beginning to view her story—“herstory”—as one more saga of women having to defer to a patriarchal culture. I never called myself a feminist in 1970—the feminists I knew then all wanted to flirt and/or converse with men. I was invisible to them. Just as my mother was invisible in her own milieu to making her own life as she wanted it. She had to quit high school so that her brothers could continue their education. She was stymied by the patriarchal system, yet accepted it, deferring to the men in her midst, doting on my older brother, looking for affirmation from her highly successful younger brother (she never got it). Even though my father, for a 1950’s husband was pretty mild as patriarchs go, he still controlled her life. She seemed in the dark as to their financial problems and didn’t learn to drive a car until she was in her late forties (and she never did get to learn to ride a bike!).

Forgive my memoir meandering, but I do think there is something afoot here. Subtly, I am seeing a convergence of “herstory” with the present. Recently I began reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s book Woman Warrior. It begins with the story of an aunt who was excised from the family genealogy because she suicided in China after becoming pregnant while her husband was away. More than likely, her aunt was raped, but no matter; the shame was so intense after the villagers pillaged the family house that this woman could not bear to live. And the family negated her existence forever—even after emigrating to America. (My mother also had a sister pushed off the family tree, perhaps for similar reasons—again, another story.)

The new novel, Ten Thousand Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, also focuses on the dark and horrific plight of women in the patriarchy of Afghanistan. Humorously, the New Yorker magazine recently depicted on its cover, three women riding the subway. One woman is wearing the Muslim burkha; next to her, a woman is scantily dressed in halter top and short shorts only to have as her other bookend a Catholic nun dressed in a traditional habit (that looks very much like a burkha). Are any of these women any freer of the constrictures of patriarchy than my mother was?

Not really. One hundred and eighty degrees from a problem is a problem. The woman in the middle isn’t really in the “middle.” She too is deferring to a patriarchal culture that still defines women. If it didn’t, there would not be denigrating rap music, domestic violence against women, or (on a “lighter” note) any question whether a woman (how about an African American woman) could be elected to the White House or not.

We have evolved from where we were as a culture in my mother’s time, but we still have a long way to go. And we cannot point fingers at other cultures when we do so poorly in our own. I look forward to the day when a woman in the White House is a matter of course and not a crisis! To women president wannabees, I suggest looking to TV’s Commander-In-Chief as a role model. This woman president did not disavow her “femaleness” to be more “manly”. She managed to integrate the best of both interior psychological worlds.

And I look forward to the night when women can freely walk alone and unafraid.