Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Valentine

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf claims, "We think through our mothers if we are women."

When I told this to a friend of mine, her immediate response was, "Oh Jesus."

I said, "Yeah.  You know, I think Virginia Woolf's mother died when Woolf was like, eleven, or something."

To which my friend replied, "That explains it."

In a few weeks, it will be exactly one year since my mom died.  So that means that, last year at this time, I was clinically insane.

I've talked about this issue with several friends of mine.  Our moms were tough.  It was a different generation, and a very different time.

One friend said, "We don't have what they have.  They were tough.  They just did it, because they had to.  We'd collapse under what they went through."

My best friend was recently thinking through her grandmother as she struggled to make sense of her son's brain cancer.

Her grandmother's husband died of a brain tumor when he wasn't very old.  She had already had a daughter who had to be institutionalized.  

During another pregnancy, the cord became wrapped around the fetus' neck and it died.

She was only five months pregnant at the time.  She did what they did back then: she carried the child to term, knowing that when she gave birth, it would be stillborn.

And yet, my friend said, "You'd never know she'd been through all that.  She was always the kindest, most upbeat person you'd ever want to meet."

The only hint, she said, came in photographs. When she was younger, she had always wondered why her grandmother's friends were all so much younger than she was.  But then she realized that they weren't.  They were all the same age.

Her grandmother just looked twenty years older than they did.

Nothing was ever talked about.  No one went to therapy. You just lived it, you got through it somehow, and you endured.

My mom grew up poor.  Her father was a migrant farm hand for much of my mom's childhood.  He eventually took a job in a factory, so that she and her brothers could stay in the same school for more than a year at a time.

She said my grandfather always said the Great Depression wasn't so bad, if you never had anything to start with.

When she went to school, a teacher had to explain to her that you need to brush your teeth every day.  She had "trench-mouth," because both of her parents had already lost all of their teeth by the time they were in their early twenties.

She said, "We used to take a bath once a week, whether we needed it or not."

My mom wanted to go to Julliard, but she decided to study French at Middlebury College.  She taught high school until she married, and unlike most women of her generation, she didn't get married until she was thirty.

As she said, "Everyone had given up on me.  But I knew.  They didn't know."

When I was 25, she took me aside and gave me some jewelry I had been asking for since I was 18.  I had given up asking for it, since she had made it clear I wasn't getting it anytime soon.

She told me, "I remember that it was hard to be 25.  Everyone was getting married, and I had no one.  I couldn't imagine that my life would be what it is today."

Then she said, "You know, I would rather die knowing that you'll never be married then have to sit through Christmas dinner with some... guy... and know that you're unhappy, or, worse yet, that he's cheating on you and everyone knows it.  You don't deserve that.  I would never want to see that."

She said, "There are all kinds of ways of being happy.  Being married isn't the only way."

Dylan Thomas would have been proud.  My mom did not "go gentle into that good night."  If "old age should burn and rave at close of day" and "rage, rage against the dying of the light," my mom definitely did both.

A year later, I can appreciate that.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."