Finding the Mothers

Lately I have been conjuring up my foremothers out of the deep cauldron of childhood memories. As I begin to think about passing along some Mother-full wisdom, possibly some grandmotherly advice, I realized how little I have stored in my memory's safe deposit vault. Was I not paying attention? Had they not passed it along? Were my lessons, my examples, my modeling buried under the sludge of time past?

I thought about my foremothers for an extended time before I could hear the subtle soundings of my own past echoes. Eventually, history began to filter into my unconscious awareness, memories dribbling in from the secret streams of childhood, carried in distant rivulets from a rented farmhouse, a city bungalow, a two family apartment, a lake home bought out of the fierce determination of immigrants' children. From this montage came fragments from the past, misfit pieces at random.

My grandmothers were lessons from opposite sides. My paternal, Italian Nana, was broad of beam, white haired when I knew her, and resides in my memory as a woman who ran her household with proud enthusiasm for life, devoted attention to her husband and her household, making pasta relentlessly, and letting it dry on fresh sheets flung across the beds for cleanliness. I knew her during her transition from elder to oldster, and was blithely ignorant of her having had any dynamic life. By the time she died at 73, some dozen years later, she was an invalid, somewhat diabolically off her blind rockers, requiring all of us to bathe, spoon-feed, dust and toilet her on a daily basis. She did not live in our home a long time, as her own daughters shared the heavier burdens of that experience, but we learned some golden life-lessons from her stays with us; motets scored in the heart and soul. First, we learned about aging, inconvenience, and the group responsibility to kindness. We also learned what heavy burden that responsibility could be, especially when shared among all the members of a family, especially meaning actual inconvenience to us children. We had to do our part, including walking out the toilet remains from the comodu, a specially fitted bedside toilet-chair that took three of us to lift and load her old sagging body onto.

We washed and dusted her flabby self, lifting up the folds of her skin so thin that the veins shined out like highway maps, amazed at how vulnerable that alien body was, feeling somewhat disgusted by her condition, her complete helplessness. In my heart, she is forever old, a blind and demented bird, croaking out “Rosa wants Creamettes!” in English, and sometimes singing softly, speaking in Italian. For a long while I thought her name was Rosa, but it was not. Her mother's name was Rosa so perhaps she was remembering, channeling her own mother-self. I have to concentrate hard to remember her dancing around her kitchen just a few short years before, serving up the table wine, playfully encouraging each of us grandchildren to sing by producing a nickel for each song we could emulate from the popular radio singers.

We drew back a bit at her touch, even at her presence that disturbed our youthful unblemished perfection. We shrank back a bit, from a physical repugnance to old skin, loose and wobbling, white hair and oddness. I suspect that we were also manifesting my mothers intimate relationship with her, rather than our own. Her own daughters and their families adored her. She loved to entertain, and the gatherings had always been boisterous, roiling about in spirit, loud talk and warmth of friendship. I remember her only in cover-all aprons, her everyday costume wherever she was, although she must had had a life outside of being the kitchen matron.

My maternal grandmother, another woman born in the 19th century, birthed my mother late in life, late in her 40s, horrifying her other children, grown to adulthood, already with their own families. They were embarrassed at the thought that their mother had conceived through the usual manner, at her age. This Grandma was a part of our life in a very different sense. When I conjure her up I feel a calm come over me, and a quiet; remembering a few tales from my old childhood; being in that asbestos-sided house with it's corn- cob stove, and an outside bathroom, rolling our young eyes at the thought of that unmentionable activity. She had been poor all of her life, having married a farmer who did not own his own land; a man who farmed for others, leaving her to the mercy and kindness of relatives when he died 25 years before her turn. An earnest demeanor was nearly always on that small wrinkled face with its piercing dark eyes so like my mothers. She grew five children, and educated all into professional, intelligent, faithful Methodists, whose males all served proudly in the armed forces and came home to take their place in the American landscape, passing onto their own children their solid middle American values. She cooked in a style we thought was Pennsylvania Dutch, although no one knows why, unless that was an undiscovered heritage; thus far, it remains a lost cultural puzzle piece. Long after her death, she remains in my mind as a hero, although I didn't know that until I just said so. Tiny and quiet, an unassuming person of great inner resources, she moved no visible mountains, but served the world in an unpretentious and honest way. Her children admired her, and she was welcomed whenever she would visit them, encouraged by them when they would come to her, tending her in her old age with softness and love. I do not remember her asking for anything.

I can visualize the scene today so easily, me standing in my own bedroom at 10 years of age, watching her changing into her bedclothes during a visit. We were modern children, used to soft tactile clothing and new underwear with little girlie designs on them. She was wearing an undershirt of a type of cotton new to us, a print dress with little cap sleeves and an apron made by hand from flour sacks; she was emanating an elderly woman's smell, a mixture between old skin, perspiration and soap. We had not been sold on the terribleness of body sweat yet, but I can wrinkle my ten year old nose today, reliving my reaction to the strange odorous mixture. Flour sacks clothes were nothing to be ashamed of either, and her sewing skills were a point of pride, rick-rack dancing sweetly around all of the edges of her apron. She was 85, and covered in dark freckles that had become large irregular muddy pools as they spread across her forearms and across her thin vulnerable chest and neck in old age

I was delivered to her house during one earlier summer of family health crisis, a summer where I spent my time being bored, picking up dandelions in the yard, laying on the grass, and jumping onto cows from the hay-barns of neighbors; a city girl flitting about in the space of her own mind without the usual distractions of home, spreading wings in free space. It was a safe landing in that yard. In my older self, when I think of youthful carefree moments, that scene in her front yard, so full of the yellow flowers and the smell of a cob stove in the air, is one of the shiny vignettes, grown brighter with time.

Lastly, memories of mother, my mother. Are all mothers so difficult to wrestle with; like arm-wrestling with one's own soul for identity? How angry are the children of the mothers who stayed on duty, showing up and refusing to absent themselves from their posts, I wonder. It isn't fair to impose such a demand, but it appears that I did. Is it because each mother is the magus of childhood, offering her own gifts, then demanding that the loved child accept them as their own? In exchange for this undying love, we howl, we scratch, we bite in rebellion, in disconnected determination to mine our own gold, seek our own Gods.

My mother wanted to be a musician, like her elder sister, and studied the piano, until, lacking the money to pay for proper training, she went to school and became an RN, a designation of which she was most proud all of her days, retelling many dramatic tales from her days of nursing in the rolling farmlands of southern Illinois. She fell in love and married a man, an exotic for that small Protestant town.She chose an Italian, and a Catholic to boot. She told us the stories; well meaning folks told her aside to share tales designed to dissuade such an unfortunate choice, none of which she believed. She chose as she always did, to do things in her own way, thank God.

She carried a leather strap with which to punish us when she lost her temper, although occasionally, we tormented her into losing her calm, hoping, with intent, to make her think that she was crazy. We hid the strap, first. I can remember using the dining room table as protection from her broom, knowing that the end would result in eventual capitulation, but rounding the table many time, as we circled like boxers, me looking for a safe place out of reach, her holding that maternal authority in hand with the demand that I go and get a switch for her to use. Most days, each of us would go to practice, lessons, play or do the dishes, cooking dinner, a requirement which was ordinary daily business, giving us routine as well as responsibility. In our neighborhood, every child over the age of ten was expected to be able to put a diner for 4 or more on the table, complete with roast, and side dishes. We lived in an Italian/Catholic enclave of 2nd generation immigrants, with a small smattering of Germans and Poles, also Catholics. Many of the people lived in duplex apartments, with another generation living above or below. Families lived closely together, guarded against outsiders. Most of us attended the same church, although my mother the Protestant was an anomaly, and we never let her forget it.

Our mother loved to talk with the nuns and priests who ran St. Williams Elementary School, removing any possible hiding place for us when our behavior was in questions. There was no escaping in the streets either, as neighbors paid attention, especially to us neighborhood kids playing, known within 8 blocks of home. Both our parents were involved with church and school; they showed up early to be the chair set-ups, the very best sorts of people; they sold the tickets, they helped out at the fairs. They were the invisible sort of people who serve, who show up and help to make things work; the underpinnings of organizations that work well. Our lessons were always in front of us, life models as transparent as air, but substantial.

I have a photo someplace of my mother, and it is sharply detailed in black and white. Her a young round faced newlywed, stretched out across a flowered couch in a stylish dress in 1930's mode, brown hair wavy around her face, her looking directly into the face of the person taking the photo, beaming a brilliant smile. She is caught at a moment unbelievably young and beautiful to me, and her eyes are shining with optimism and anticipation and love, knowing with certainty that her new family life lay ahead, that blue skies were smiling on her dreams, nothing but blue skies from now on.

When my widowed mother remarried years later, she married a Jew, one more time choosing against the advice of well intentioned friends, and perhaps against some current wisdom from the Jewish community as well. Their reservations at a posh resort for their honeymoon were sent back by American Express, labeled “Preferred Only.” The term, new to us, was specific, and meant- “No Jews!” They instead had a cozy two weeks time in the Bahamas, a luxury boat tour sold by a company less scrupulous. Each of her happy marriages lasted 25 years, and my step father and his beloved bride, for that is how he saw her, boldly celebrated 50 years of marriage, cumulatively. Over time they had achieved that marker of success, with someone, and had earned their Golden Jubilee acknowledgments.

They made commitments, and they kept them; they honored their words, and took what life brought them with what might even be called a fatalistic but proud acceptance. They cared for each other till they each died, paying their bills, coaching us through, showing up for family events, proud of each accomplishment. Holiday dinners began with blessings, Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, then ending with Bless us Oh Lord, for these Thy gifts. They probably had to swallow hard to find something to be proud of, with us, sometimes, but in the end, the fruits didn't land too far from the trees, although they may have been blown a good way off course.

I was angry at her for so very long, seething in a base note of dark hostility. I assured myself regularly that I was right about most everything, and amp-ed up my anger with little provocation. It was only much later, after I had wasted decades of time that my vision turned, and I could grieve for how much love had spilled down the drain, flushed from where it might have given pleasure, been acknowledgment for bravery and courage under fire.

She married and buried two good husbands; corresponded with hundreds of people; ran a business without any preparation or much help, facing harsh lessons that required a sharp learning curve; raised four obstreperous children, sheltered grandchildren, and forgave regularly without forgetting a slight. She cried alone at night, she told me once. Deep woman stuff.

Even in anger I had been watching her, and although it was only later that I could admit her strength and determination, her unique courage, I had always been paying attention. Because I could see her more clearly with time, I could also finally make my peace with her and ask her forgiveness. Thank God that we could finally have peace and gratitude and respect between us while she lived.

I find that I miss her greatly, my introverted enemy, my reluctant hero.

What did I receive that I might give another? In their turn they each existed, they lived, they played their part in life's great drama. I notice that each of these three women, mother, grandmother, and nana, stands like a bridge, solidly connecting one place to another, forming an arc, a bow that lifts across a gulf of some sort. They each stand. Wavering a bit in the winds that buffet them, they suffered through their journeys, and walked, individually, independently and courageously, giving back their goods to the world that demanded so much.

A note here on strength and flexibility. Ultimate tensile strength is a complex measurement of elasticity, and stress; our human skin is rated at a 20. Although variable, spider silk is considered to be about 1000; stainless steel, the kind that formed my sink where my breakfast dishes now lay soaking, is 860. If one could measure such plasticity in a human interior, what would be the tensile strength of the human spirit; is that a key to being blown about and swaying some, without fracturing?

Human elasticity? My own bridges to the world, they each took their place, enduringly, in their own destiny, bowing to the hurricanes that roared around them in their lifetimes. They spread their light, diffusing it in an arc that long years later, allowed us to walk through their bones, sensing them beside us, allowing their afterglow to guide us forward.