This is the first in our series of posts celebrating Mother’s Day—which is coming up this Sunday, May 12. —Ed.
Here’s the story of a lovely lady
Who was bringing up three very lovely girls . . .
Unfortunately, the “one day when the lady met this fellow” part never came to pass at our house. And although I was definitely Jan and my sisters were Marcia and Cindy to a T, a lot of the time our home resembled Lord of the Flies more than The Brady Bunch. I’m not exaggerating. We girls triangulated, two against one, and made plans for how we’d take our revenge on the other sister. Then we’d be friends again and go sit on the roof of our two-story house (!) and play . . . until we started fighting again. Loyalties would shift, and someone else took a turn being frozen out. Meanwhile “Carol” was at work, so she wasn’t there to mediate. And I resented her for that absence for most of my life.
By the time I felt the smallest appreciation for my mother, she had been gone from this earth for four years. By the time I appreciated her fully, another seven years had passed. That’s because it took me that long to have a baby and then actually spend a little time raising him. Then one day my 7-year old pushed past me in a doorway and I heaved a (silent) sigh, thinking of all I had to do for him—dinner, laundry, homework help, a doctor’s appointment tomorrow—and I wondered when I might get a spare five minutes for myself. I stopped mid-thought and said, “Oh. My. God.” I finally had some sense of what my mother’s existence had been like.
She would have laughed at this. She was widowed when I was 2, my older sister was 3, and she was 8 months pregnant with my little sister. It was 1964 and she was 23 years old. I couldn’t begin to understand her life. After the car accident that left her alone with three toddlers, for her there were long hours of working two jobs to make ends meet, and for us, years of babysitters when she was gone from home. Which was often. At her main job, she worked the night shift as a computer operator (back when there were punch cards), so she slept for much of the day, sometimes lying out in the sun to get a tan. She picked us up from school and left for work right after dinner. It must have been a sort of escape from her massive responsibilities to live this way. On top of it all, she wasn’t really made for parenthood.
Before she married my father, she loved to go to parties to dance. She was single and slim and blonde. She had an 18-inch waist and a slew of boyfriends. She dreamed for a while of being a country singer. But then came love, then came marriage . . . you know the rest.
Absurdly bright, she taught herself how to program computers by reading books. This was when computers were in their infancy and achieving the capacity of a laptop required the entire floor of an office building. She taught herself to program because she knew that once she became a data center manager, she couldn’t rise any higher. So she started over and learned the other half of the business. By the time she died she was a systems programmer—the highest programming level that existed—and she never took a single class beyond high school.
She bought us that house on whose roof we played. She took us to doctors and dentists when we needed them. And she was at every school show and play for each one of us. We had a family vacation in Hawaii when I was 8. And other than spending my grocery money on a Donny Osmond album, I cannot say that I was ever left hungry. Child Services was never threatened by anyone—no need. Somehow she did it. We had a TV set and a safe neighborhood and got educations and survived long enough to hate her for all that she wasn’t.
By the time I was 12, the babysitters were gone and we kids did our own shopping, dragged our own clothes to the Laundromat, and sorted out homework on our own. We had no idea that perhaps we should pitch in—we did it under protest. Finally, I left home at 17 in the wake of a hearty row. As the cliché goes, of course I can’t remember what we fought about. We were always fighting. With all the surviving going on, not a lot of mothering came my way, and though I would never admit it, I was bereft. And bitter. These fictional mothers who existed on television were my idea of what a mother should be, and mine, well . . . there were no TV shows with moms like mine.
But at 30 . . . well, 30 was something else altogether. At 30 I knew that a baby could be hard work. Yet I did not also have an 11-month-old child when my son was born. And when he was 7, I did not have an 8-year old and a 5-year old. I was also not supporting them on my own. Nor was I lonely and cut off from social activities that paired-parents could enjoy. When I think now of the void in which she lived . . . how alone she must have been . . .
We had a sort of friendship, each of us with her, when we were in our 20s. She helped me move from one apartment to another. We’d meet for lunch. We shared all the holidays. She asked about my life, met my boyfriends, and, not long before she died, even the man I would marry. But she herself never remarried. She had a few boyfriends along the way, that was all. People would ask me in surprise: “Your mother never remarried?” How and where on earth could she have even met someone who could love her and take on three unruly daughters? Hers was not that sort of life.
No. She did it all on her own, long before Women’s Lib. Without support, and without ever really receiving my gratitude. I only wish that that moment in the doorway had come to me sooner so that I could have told her that it was all enough, that she really was enough.