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May 8th, 2011

A Meditation on Mother's Day

This is one of those holidays that doesn't feel as if it has anything to do with me.  I am neither a mother, nor have I had one for many, many years.  I lost my mother in 1974, when I was 22.  I thought she was 67, since that's what her passport said.  How she squeegeed that by the U.S. Government, I'll never know, but there it is, in black on official pale-green, as convincing as all get-out.  Less convincing is her white-out and ball-point revision of the family bible, which makes her younger than the two siblings whose name follow hers in my grandfather's firm, ornate 19th Century hand.  I found the page after she died, I no longer remember where, possibly between the cardboard inserts at the bottom of the plastic dress bag with several hundred dollars in cash she'd forgotten she put there.  It was her younger sister who outed her, not long after her death.  She'd been born in 1897, so she was 77 when she died, 11 years older than my father.

Mama was a Great Beauty.  Her Gibson-girl looks covered a will of iron and a mind like a campaigning general's.  In her, God created the perfect CEO of a major corporation.  The problem was, He did it a lifetime before that was a real possibility.  Like many such women of her age and era, she channeled her organizational and managerial skills into Family and Good Works. Both Papa and I stubbornly resisted being organized and managed, but what drove us mad rejoiced the charities of New York City. During her final illness, I wrote, from her dictation, something like 30 letters of resignation from various charitable boards and committees in New York, including the chairmanship of the YWCA and the Japan Society.  She was both privileged and conscious of the responsibilities attached to privilege.  She gave away a lot of money, and if her causes weren't mine, neither did they harm the environment or upped the quotient of prejudice and idiocy in the world.  Given her political opinions, which were Victorian in the very worst sense of the word, this was astonishing.  She didn't much like women, and she had no use at all for the shy and fearful.  Since I was a shy and fearful child, this created a certain coolness in our relationship.  Not that it would have been a warm one, no matter what kind of child I'd been.

Mama was not a warm woman.  She was, however, a very interesting one.  She adored history and travel and new experiences.  She took me out of school early and back to school late so we could spend months Abroad, taking advantage of my father's employee discount on Pan Am to fly us wherever she felt like going, standby, for free.  I spent my 19th birthday on the Gobi desert and spring vacation of my sophomore year in college in Africa.  I have pictures of myself on a boat on the Mediterranean (10), dressed up as a rather plump Dutch girl (11), feeding pigeons in St. Mark's Square (12), and riding a camel at Giza (14).  We got along when we were traveling.  We did not when we weren't. 

Reading all the tributes my LJ and FB friends have written to their mothers, I'm very glad for them, and a little envious.  When my mother died, I had not said a truthful word to her in years.  She did not often ask about the state of my life or my emotions, but when she did, I told her what I thought she wanted to hear, avoiding both conflict and any hope of intimacy.  As far as I know, she went to her grave thinking me a very different person than I felt myself to be--obedient, social, competent, open.  Straight.

The not being straight has remained constant.  The stutter, the shyness, the secretiveness, the general feeling of being a grave disappointment eventually went away, with the help of a good therapist, good friends, and a loving partner who values truth above rubies.  My hope, this mother's day and every mother's day, is that if Mama had been able to live long enough to see me grow up, she would see a daughter she could love and respect, even it wasn't the one she'd expected.  At this remove of time and space, I can see that she loved me as well as she could, that she genuinely wanted the best for me, and that many of the things she tried to teach me--about making conversation, about doing things that need doing, whether you feel like it or not, about not talking trash or holding a grudge or displaying your wit at someone else's expense--were good things for me to learn.  I didn't always like her, but I did love her.  All these years later, I still do.  

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