In young womanhood, I had a lot of anger at my mother. I worked through most of it before she died, with the aid of therapy and time — but I’m only recently realizing why she did the things that troubled me most.
My mother was born in the 1930s, raised on Shirley Temple and coming into age when Elvis was peaking. She was the first of her family to go to college: She read Anaïs Nin and later The Feminine Mystique and was a lesbian, although she couldn’t admit it to her family or herself until the late 1980s.
A failure to be honest with herself was her greatest flaw. Once she came out, she went through a number of different processes that resulted in healing and empowerment and joy coming into her life.
In the end, she was truly one of my best friends. I love her and miss her so very much. She died of Leukemia ten years ago.
Gosh, how I wish she could see my strong smart son and the good life I’ve created with my husband — whom she liked, but cautiously. She came throughout her life not to truly trust any man.
I’ve been realizing lately how much of her advice and guidance was about creating a strong, independent, liberated daughter: a daughter free to make choices; free to be honest about who she was, and what she wanted, and not to be constrained by familial or social roles about what women should be and do and say.
For her, it was primarily about sex. She instructed me about carnal knowledge in what felt like too much detail. She seemed fixated on the problem of the female orgasm. Did it exist? Was penetration necessary or was clitoral stimulation sufficient, or even superior?
I listened to all this, in my teenage years, with a mix of horror and fascination — why was she telling me all this? It was as if she was encouraging me to be promiscuous; to take charge of my own pleasure, to find the biggest and best “O.” It was almost clinical – I was her experiment to see what a fully empowered, liberated, sexually active young woman could be.
My experimentation was very much influenced by her stress on finding a suitable sex partner. And believe me, I tried. I went through some periods of disappointment and embarassement and shame because of my adventures in copulation. In the end, I came to a basic understanding of what pleased me sexually, which was more about love than the physical (although, hey, the physical doesn't hurt) so when I found a good and honest man who provided it all, I married him.
For me, however, the overriding message of her life was about money. As an outside observer, the main thing that limited her opportunity was financial oppression and social isolation. She failed to finish her PHD because she got married and was expected to stay home and have children (which she wanted, but still...why couldn't she have done academia too?). She worked unpaid and unrecognized for years as a technical writer for my father’s business. He gave her verbal credit, but no one else really knew how hard she worked. And she was obsessive, like me. Productive.
I was mad at her most for leaving our family, which she chose to do a week before my high school graduation. But at the same time, I knew how miserable she was, and knew that something had to change.
She struggled to get on her feet after leaving my father. She tried running her own businesses and becoming a financial planner and working for an insurance company before going back to school to become a minister. She graduated with honors and was one of the first openly gay women ordained in her denomination: but she never felt comfortable enough to come out to her congregation, a very small church that was only part-time.
The bottom line is, she died flat broke, with outstanding student loans, without health insurance, and without a home of her own. She was living with her partner in a mobile home with lots of cats by then, splitting time between the manse of the church and working at a newspaper typing in the want ads. She loved her partner of many years very much, and her partner indeed loved her back, and that was a very lovely gift to blossom so late in her life. I do wonder if she could have made it a few more years if she had health insurance and a little money of her own. How I wish she could have lived to see my child, her grandson.
I am still disappointed by some of her choices. And I recognize her lifelong struggle with depression and addiction and spiritual seeking in my own life struggles.
Still, I am so happy on this Mother’s Day to recognize her amazing life journey, and how she gave me power and strength and confidence in ways that are still nurturing and amazing me today.
Take my hands. Lord, how you loved me, Momma. And Lord, how I loved you.
Even in a western, modern world, with so many apparent advances and advantages, it is still exceedingly hard to be a woman — and you did an amazing, courageous, phenomenal job; as an individual, as mother and as a friend, probably the three women’s roles that matter most.
Happy Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 8th, USA, CAN, AUS, NZL).