My mother and I weren’t close. But we never fought, not overtly. She was gentle and mild-mannered to a fault. Mother didn’t raise her voice or indulge in corporal punishment. She had very few rules but her “no” meant no and there was no point in challenging her.
Her tastes were simple and her needs modest. Frugality was a way of life. We never bought anything we could make, grow or barter for. Collars were turned, hems let out. We sewed our clothes, ate leftovers. Nothing went to waste, nothing was for show. We wore our clothes until they were too threadbare to wear in public and then they were recycled into fabric for quilts. She never went to movies or took
vacations. She didn’t wear perfume or go to a beauty shop. Lipstick was her only concession to cosmetics.
Farm life is strenuous and follows a set routine with little margin for error. Rules and boundaries are necessary to insure productivity and safety. They aren’t up for vote. Mother worked hard, gardening, running a household with no modern appliances, cooking, feeding livestock. In spite of its demands, she seemed comfortable with her life and in those days, it was not out of the ordinary. Girls married, raised their families on the family homestead, and once the children were out of the house, they cared for their parents and grandchildren, continuing the pattern of generations. If girls went to college, it was to become a teacher or a nurse until the children came. Though we never discussed it, I knew this was what was expected of me, of all of us, and it terrified me.
I was a boisterous and curious child, a puzzle to my parents; forever pushing the boundaries, challenging the rules, asking why. I read everything I could find in our small library. I was fascinated with faraway places, exotic religions, unfamiliar life styles and beliefs. From a small child, I ached to get out in the “real world,” and abruptly left home at my first opportunity. It was a foolhardy decision made with all the selfishness and confidence of youth. Of course I expected Mother to be disappointed, but instead she was profoundly, uncharacteristically, angry. This was not a decision I could not undo, she told me. Once I crossed the threshold, she told me, the door would lock behind me. That shocked and baffled me, still does. But I knew she meant what she said and anyway, I couldn’t imagine wanting to go back.
And so began our decades-long uneasy journey. Over the years, she “forgot” birthdays, ignored awards, expressed no interest in my accomplishments. All contact between us was one-way. She rarely visited; she never called or wrote. Nothing I did seemed to interest her. I get it, I thought. I blew my chance when I rejected her and her way of life.
It hurt, but I moved on. I couldn’t go home again, so instead I tried to convert her to my lifestyle. This may have been an effort to justify my rash decision to leave home, I’m not sure. But leaving any guilt aside, I couldn’t believe she could be happy, that anyone could be, with such a claustrophobic lifestyle. She had few friends, little outside interest beyond church on Sundays and visits with relatives. Her recreation was limited to crossword puzzles, soap operas and romance novels. I was sure she would want more if only she knew about it, if it was offered to her. Surely she would be delighted to have some of the luxuries her harsh farm life had denied her! I was relentless. I enrolled her in exercise programs, bought her the latest labor-saving appliances, sent her books to read. But to my frustration, she was not interested. The appliances remained in their boxes, the gym membership expired, the books lay on the coffee table, untouched.
This distorted dance continued for years; I pursued, she withdrew. As much as I told myself it didn’t matter what she thought of me, it did matter. A lot. I believed she never forgave me for leaving home, and that her withdrawal from me was my punishment for breaking the rules. I thought she saw my leaving as a rejection not only of my heritage, but of her way of life. But in my mind, I was simply choosing the way I wanted to live my life, nothing more. And in retrospect, I wonder if the same might have been was true for her. Was her withdrawal from me not a rejection at all; but simply her way of living out her life as she saw fit?
The mother-daughter tie is primal, enigmatic, eternal, the strongest of the familial bonds. It is Mother who breathes the breath of life into us. She is our first role model, the architect of those first deep wrinkles in our developing brains. Regardless of what we think or what we tell ourselves, our mothers matter to us, will always matter, probably much more than we realize.
On this Mothers Day, I wish I could re-live the times I hurt and disappointed my mother. I wish we had understood each other better; that we could have been close. But at the end of the day, the maternal bond prevailed and over the years we developed a companionable, if not affectionate relationship. We had some good years.
My mother died over 25 years ago. But there are still nights that she visits my dreams, mornings when I wake up thinking I need to call her. Mother still matters, she will always matter.