Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mothers & Daughters

It's not happenstance that so many of my stories depict the tempestuous relationship between mothers and daughters. (An editor, who ultimately proved herself a complete fool, once told me that the mother/daughter conflict was overplayed. Yeah, duh. So are love stories and murder mysteries.)
My mother was not very good at the mommy thing. From the day I was born, she had no clue what to do, other than put me in the hands of a nanny.
Mom left her childhood home at seventeen. She arrived in Chicago in 1944, and promptly got a job as a free-lance commercial artist. She was quite successful with her career, eventually working for all three of the major advertising agencies. It was at J.Walter Thompson that she met my father. In the early 1950s, most women succumbed to social pressures to marry, move to the suburbs, and produce two children. Mom followed that path, but I guess parenthood was not quite what she imagined. Enter the nanny. A few years later, after my brother was born, she decided to work from home. The loss of Nanny Kelly was something of a disaster for all of us, and I ended up spending a great deal of time at my grandmother's house.
Once I started school, however, the real trouble began. I went to a private school, which meant no bus service, and my mother never learned to drive. That alone put me in the "freak" category. Mom was never a room mother, Brownie leader, tennis player, or even friends with my friends' mothers. Super freak. When I was nine, my beloved grandmother moved away, and I had a particularly vicious 4th grade teacher. The double whammy made my life hell. Mom either didn't understand or didn't care. She'd never gotten along with her mother-in-law, and she refused to come to my defense at school.
Mostly, I remember her sitting at her drawing table for hours on end, oblivious to anything my brother and I did, unless it involved copious amounts of blood. When she did step away from the drawing board, it was to party. Mad Men? She and my dad were the real deal.
The "Greatest Generation" was certainly great when it came to booze, and Mom could knock back beer, wine, and scotch with the best of 'em. Unfortunately, she often didn't know when to quit.
I rarely saw her do housework, laundry was sent out, and while she eventually became a very good cook, my childhood dinners were rife with Velveeta and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.
Today, I went to visit Mother in the nursing home. She's a pathetic shell of her former self. The woman who could recall entire guest lists and all items of apparel from every party she'd ever attended is no longer able to tell you the color of the nail polish on her gnarled, arthritic hands. In the past four years, I've spent more time caring for her than she ever did for me, but that's okay, because she's given me something she never intended to impart: a lifetime's worth of stories.


Spirit Bear said...

One thing I've noticed about parents of that era (mine included) is that they didn't really "entertain" their kids that much. We used to leave the house to play, and they had no idea of our whereabouts or what we were doing. A far cry from the "helicopter parents" of today. The trick is finding the happy medium. I'm glad you have your daughters!

Cindy Serikaku said...

Mary, this gives me much "food for thought." My own mother was a prisoner of the Catholic ethos of the day, which prescribed having as many children as possible and living for family and church. You and I have spent many an hour over a glass (or two) of wine "de-constructing" our mother-daughter relationships. No doubt there's more discussion ahead of us...