I am flying at the moment over Hudson Bay, on my way back to San Diego after nearly two months in the Baltic. Earlier today, on the the first leg, I flew into Gatwick and saw the beautiful checkerboard of fields and hedgerows in the south of England. This scene was my first glimpse of the world beyond California, when I flew into Gatwick to begin my year in Edinburgh on my university’s Education Abroad program.
I did the math and realized that my first time to glimpse this sight was almost exactly fifty years ago—a half century!—having left home in early September of 1969.
This anniversary is paired with another that reached the century mark a few days ago. August 20 marked the one hundredth anniversary of my mother’s birth.
Reflecting on my mother’s life, one of my strongest emotions is pain. Not because she was a bad mother—far from it—but because she was such a good one. Jean was intelligent and accomplished, but lived in a time when no one gave much thought to what a woman should do with her life beyond being a wife and mother. She had a master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, and worked before her marriage in the new field of electroencephalograms (EEGs) at the Mayo Clinic. She and my father, who was a young physicist at the start of his career, fell in love and got married.
And that was it for her professional life. Within a few years she was mother to me and my older sister, and turned her prodigious energy and creativity into being the best Girl Scout leader and PTA volunteer on the planet.
There was always a lot of affection between my mom and dad, and I think it was a good marriage, though I only saw it through the lens of my own childish needs. I never once heard them raise their voice to each other. Perhaps they did in private, and perhaps it was more their way to handle anger with silence. If I had one complaint about their child rearing it would be that I never learned from my parents how to have a disagreement with a spouse, and more important, how to resolve it. When I compare this shortcoming to the drama many people I know grew up with, it sounds rather silly to complain, so I don’t.
Every once in a while I was aware that my mom was upset (and of course I knew quite well when she was mad at me), but she kept her thoughts and feelings to herself and I have no idea what they were.
It is far too late to ask, as she died in her early 60s, over three decades ago. I knew I should ask her about her life around the time my children were born and I gained perspective on what it means to be a mother, but it just seemed easier not to go there, so I never did.
I suspect, however, that she was unhappy with her life. She must have wanted—dreamed of—so much more. I can’t help but think she must have harbored more than a little resentment for how her life had gotten so circumscribed— maybe while she was ironing, or doing the dishes, or vacuuming up our messes.. She loved us, but I don’t think she loved motherhood, and definitely didn’t love keeping house.
She had a few friends while I was growing up, but I don’t think she spent a lot of time with them, and I cannot imagine my mother unburdening herself to them. Maybe she complained mildly about my dad, maybe she shared some worries about my sister and me, but I doubt the question “how are you?” got more than an offhand “I’m fine.” She was a victim of The Feminine Mystique, and when I gave her a copy of Betty Friedan’s book by that name year later, when I was in grad school, she was bowled over by how well it described her life. Even then, I didn’t ask, “how so?”
I smile now to think of how little effort my mother put into our meals. Casseroles with Campbell’s cream of celery soup (we thought mushrooms were boogers, so that staple was out) were on the menu every week in our house, because she stuck over and over again with the few things she knew we’d eat. Lunch was Franco-American spaghetti, or maybe a minimalist sandwich. And now I think, “Good for you, mom!“ I’m glad she allowed herself at least that much resistance.
I don’t mean to sound like our house was veiled in misery. My mom was cheerful and upbeat most of the time. She was thoughtful and focused on what was best for us, and I owe her so much for encouraging the drive that enabled me in a luckier generation to go as far as I could dream possible.
I just wish I could thank her. More than that I wish it weren’t too late to listen.