I didn’t always like my mom. She worked all the time. She mixed up the foods I didn’t like with the foods my sisters liked and expected me to be happy with what she cooked. She bought me expensive orthopedic shoes we could not afford because I had prone ankles and flat feet (and I barely wore them). She was too quiet. She kept her thoughts and feelings to herself.
When I was older and tried to teach her how she was ruining the environment by occasionally (for a picnic) using paper plates, she did not appreciate it. When I criticized her for being so devoted to my dad’s needs, she ignored me, therefore lengthening dad’s life to an almost unheard of 91 years for a male diabetic. When I suggested she become more politically involved and volunteer for charities, she pointed out she was tired from working 12-hour days and that charity began at home with taking care of your own family.
Sheesh! If there’s one thing I didn’t want it was to be like my mom.
It took a long time for me to see she was an early feminist. She worked full-time from the 1960s on, when I was growing up. For a while she had a full-time job as a secretary (although her boss said that hardly describes her essential role in that office where history was being made to fight for rights for people with disabilities). But even when she worked full time she still helped out my dad at our popcorn shop. When he expanded and couldn’t find a good manager, she quit her rewarding job and managed one of the stores, working from 10 in the morning to 10 at night.
I remember thinking she was lazy when she got home from work, sore and tired, and sat in a chair and watched evening TV while her desk at home overflowed with paperwork for the stores. She would have had an hour and a half break to come home and make dinner for us while my dad read the newspaper. The dishes were often still in the sink from supper when she came home late because my sisters and I fought over whose turn it was to do them.
Meanwhile, I had the option to roam about on my bike or go home with friends after school without any close supervision. Mom trusted me to be safe and my dad’s store was within biking distance. Rather than feeling deprived with no after-school snack and cuddle, I felt independent and free. In junior and senior high school, mom may have missed afternoon and early evening events, but she never missed making birthdays and Christmas special no matter how tired she was, and we always went shopping for clothes before school started and at Easter.
I knew I’d be working when I went to college and funds were tight. My mom’s store was on campus and I stopped in a lot between classes and studying and working. I spent a lot of time talking to mom, lamenting my break-ups or lack of success with boys, supplementing my meager food budget with quick suppers prepared by mom.
One day my mom went for a walk with me on a break and sat me down on a bench. “I know a lot of women who send their daughters to college to find a husband. That’s not what you are here for. I want you to get an education and be what you want to be.”
So what did I do? I moved in with my boyfriend without telling my parents. Followed him to medical school, enrolling in a grad program in poetry writing with no thought as to my future, but just to pass the time. Followed him to his internship, got married, and kept my career freelance and flexible so I could raise children, accommodate my husband’s schedule, and have my freedom and not have to work as hard as my mom did – because I had a husband who was making the money. That gave me time to be involved in some volunteer activities and donate to political causes and made me think I was a feminist because I was doing what I wanted.
It was only when I saw how devoted my mother was to her grandsons and how tenderly she cared for my father in his later years that I began to grasp what a great lady mom was. After her stroke, she became more loving and gracious than ever. Looking back, she seemed to have always had respect for herself, no matter what situation she was in. And that showed.
At her funeral, my son Jake, her youngest grandson, pointed out how he always saw his grandmother as an early feminist, who had the opportunity to break out of the mold by working during WWII, like Rosie the Riveter, and then being a partner with her husband in business at a time when not many wives and mothers worked.
She did what she had to do until she could do what she wanted to do – and that was to take care of her family and accept our growing pains and never give up until we understood what was really important in life: love. It wasn’t something you made time for; you just did it.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I miss and love you always.