Sometimes I don’t think we appreciate how much times have changed over such a short period. We accept things now that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Things like “guilt” no longer seem to motivate us like it used to. On the other hand, we no longer accept a high infant mortality rate as “normal”. Unless the people are poor, anyway. So I guess in some ways it balances out.
I remember the day I found out why my mother and her younger sister always forgave their baby sister anything, and put up with her pretensions. Mother was born in 1922. Her baby sister was born in 1928. I’d always known that my grandmother had died either during or shortly after the baby’s birth and Mother’s older sister became the “woman of the house” at that time. It was a position handed on to Mother when the older sister married a handful of years later.
Such deaths weren’t uncommon in those days. In fact, Mother had two sisters and two brothers born before she was and they all died young. Out of 10 children, only half made it to voting age. But what I didn’t know, because she’d never mentioned it, was that the baby wasn’t raised with her brothers and sisters. Apparently she went to south Texas to live with some part of the extended family once it became obvious that her father and siblings just weren’t able to care for the infant.
So we come to “guilt”, the once great motivator. Knowing my mother and the great sense of responsibility she carried throughout her life, she would have felt bad that, at six years old, she hadn’t been able to take care of the baby. And, from time spent around my Aunt (she lived with Mother, my baby sister, and I for six months once, while between husbands), I’m certain she was not above using that guilt for all it was worth.
And yet, I seldom saw my mother as happy as when she was sitting around the kitchen table, gossiping and laughing with her sisters. In fact, that was how I got the shock of my life. I couldn’t have been more than nine years old. After playing in the yard I slipped into the house by way of the back door. Just as I reached for the knob to open the door to the kitchen, I heard my Aunt scream out, “The vine, Jane, the vine!” My mother’s raucous laugh split through the door frame like a buzzsaw. Having just heard that old joke the week before from my best friend, I knew they were telling dirty stories. My mother! Laughing as if she knew what that meant! I turned and ran and didn’t go back inside until after the sun set. I was mortified.
Fortunately I survived such trauma and became a mature adult, or so I thought. It was 1977 when my mother told me she loved Woody Allen movies. That was a big shock. After “Bananas”, “Sleeper”, and “Love and Death” I’d decided he was the funniest man in the world. How weird could it be that my mother and I would like the same things? It turned out that she really wanted to go see his latest movie, and it wasn’t showing at the local theater. Since she didn’t like to drive in a big city, I offered to take her to Dallas. I hadn’t seen “Annie Hall”, but I knew the author of “Without Feathers” could do no wrong.
Picture this: we’re sitting side by side in the dark of the theater and “Annie Hall” is showing on the screen. The movie starts off vaguely “humorous”, but not a real knee-slapper. There were all those “relationship” jokes! Things my mother couldn’t possibly “get”. She was being pretty quiet. I was planning my apology for the drive home, when Woody and Annie sat up in bed. Annie said, “I’m sorry I took so long.” Woody rubbed his face and said, “That’s okay, the feeling’s coming back into my jaw now.” Mother exploded. She laughed so hard and so long that people from three rows away were turning around to see what happened. Apparently she’d been “holding it in” all along and that line drove her over the edge. I slunk down in my seat, mortified that she would understand the joke. I guess I hadn’t grown up as much as I thought I had.
For a long time I felt guilty about never acknowledging my mother as a person, not just a “Mom”. I’m not sure when I got over that. All I know is that when I go to tell a story about her, it’s always something that shows her human side. I never did that when she was alive, but I no longer feel very guilty about that — I think she understood. I know now that she was more than a mother, a wife, and a daughter. She was a person with dreams and hopes and plans and they didn’t all center around me. And finally I know that’s a good thing.
I hope you know that about your mom too…