February 19th, 2014 by Melinda Blau
May 12th, 2013 by Melinda Blau
I intend to add this moving piece by Katy Butler to “The Buzz,” but in the interest of getting it up on Mother’s Day, I’m posting it here first. Katy and I have covered similar subjects over the years, and I’ve always admired her writing. A former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, she is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, forthcoming from Scribner. This essay ran in the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle on Mother’s Day, 2013.
Katy lost her mother four years ago; mine has been gone almost forty years. It’s an ache that never ends.
Mother’s Day, my mother would often say when I phoned her in Connecticut, was a sentimental holiday cooked up to sell greeting cards. Yet I called anyway, and I think she was secretly pleased by the loving notes I sent her. Ours was not a greeting card relationship.
When she was young, she’d wanted to be an artist. But middle-class women just after World War II mostly got married and stayed home. Her frustrated ambitions, artistry and anger were poured instead into making that home as perfect as she could. She reminded me of the Balinese saying, “We have no art: We do everything as well as we can.”
I was nothing like that. As a teenager, I felt like another woman’s daughter, incapable of meeting her high standards and frequent criticism. She wore her blonde-streaked hair swept up in an elegant French twist. I was awkward, with long dark hair, and lost in books.
She’d been raised in South Africa and served tea at 4 every afternoon — a family ritual I was prone to mar by knocking over the milk or burning the toast. She sewed her own clothes. I gave up on sewing forever after trying to make a simple shift one summer, only to have her rip out my wobbly seams and re-sew them perfectly herself.
When I graduated from college at the height of the feminist revolution, I fled west, free to pursue my dreams in a way she hadn’t, desperate to escape her critical eye and become a writer.
I made sure not to get trapped in a life that looked anything like hers. I worked as a reporter, bought a house, dated, married, divorced, dated some more, and paid the dry cleaner to hem my pants. When she visited, she could barely conceal her disgust at my messy house and refrigerator full of expensive goat cheese and wilting vegetables. And I, in turned, harbored secret contempt for what the poet Adrienne Rich? called “the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr?.”
When my mother was 77, my father had a major stroke, and my view of my mother — and hers of me — turned upside down. My father could no longer take a shower alone, and struggled to finish a sentence. The housewifery she’d honed over a lifetime — skills mostly lost to my generation — served her well. And she, in turn, was grateful for my reporterly skills when I used them to research medical alternatives and helped her hire caregivers.
“With my practical skills and your brains, we make a great team,” she said.
She kept my father at home, and out of a nursing home, for seven years, providing support that few Baby Boomers, given our history of divorce, will be able to rely on. When she was impatient, she got up two hours early to meditate and do yoga.
As a teenager, I’d had contempt for her rigid schedules. Now they formed the underpinnings of an increasingly difficult life. They carried her through my father’s death and the first months of her lonely and increasingly fragile widowhood. She developed congestive heart failure, and with my support, declined open-heart surgery because of the risks of stroke and dementia.
A year after my father’s death, I went to Book Passage, the bookstore in Corte Madera, to hear one of my former writing students read from his book about tea, and the rituals that surround it.
Throughout the reading, I couldn’t stop thinking of my mother. I remembered how she’d swirl boiling water in her beloved Japanese iron teapot, gracefully set out her thin china cups, and gather our family each day at the kitchen table. But I had been too defensive and clumsy, too afraid of her criticism, and too much of a feminist bookworm, to learn from her.
In an outpouring of love, I told her all this.
“Katy,” she said. Her voice was weak. “You’re good at other things. You are yourself.”
It was her final blessing to me. She died two days later, with my brother at her side. This is the fourth Mother’s Day since her death, and every year I admire her more deeply, accept myself more, and fear her less.
Note: If you live in the San Francisco area, mark your calendar. Katy will appear at Berkeley Arts and Lectures to talk about Knocking on Heaven’s Door, at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St., Berkeley, at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2013.
November 11th, 2011 by Melinda Blau
The title of this post, “What’s a Hippie, Grandma?” is a purposeful distortion of our latest addition to The Buzz by Sara Davidson, “What’s a Hippie Grandma?” To the punctuationally-challenged, the two might look the same. They’re not (I never actually read Eats Shoots and Leaves, but like the author, Lynne Truss, I take my punctuation seriously.)
What’s a Hippee, Grandma?” is a question, I suspect, that one (if not all) of my three grandsons might ask someday, perhaps when the Sixties come up in history class. Being a hippie grandma myself–late of the generation that didn’t trust anyone over thirty–I prefer not to be called “Grandma,” though. So they will have to ask, “What’s a hippie, Minna?” if they want to get my attention.
Like Davidson, I wouldn’t have dreamed of actually moving to a commune in those days–I wasn’t that kind of hippee. But when I was an editor at Random House in the late sixties, I remember stringing “love beads” in my office. I used guitar-strap material to lengthen my sons pants (he’s finally forgiven me!). And I was all about altered consciousness. Once the boys learn about the Seventies, maybe they will also ask whether I went to Studio 54. (I did.) Hopefully, it will be a long time before they ask about that picture on my desk of me in all black leather and dog collar–attached to a leash, no less. I’ll try to explain that their grandmother, once a hippie, segued to disco queen and then to ace reporter, covering S & M for New York magazine in 1994.
In contrast, “What’s a Hippie Grandma?” (without the comma) is the question Sara Davidson ponders as her daughter gets closer to the altar and Sara inches toward grandmotherhood. What, she wonders, qualifies her to become the “hippie grandmother” her daughter claims she will be? My answer would be: drugs, sex, and rock and roll–adjectives not formerly (normally?) associated with grandmothers. But there’s a lot of us out there who fit the bill (Davidson offers other “credentials” in her piece). “I’m in touch with my inner Mick Jagger,” one such grandma confided.
Not surprisingly, I also think hippie grandmothers have a lot to offer their grandchildren: an expansive, imaginative view about life and, as long as they’re out of earshot of their adult children, some damn good stories.
One of the (few) “gifts” of aging, contemporary grandmothers know, is that it’s easier to sort out what’s really important. No big deal about being a hippie grandma — or a hippy one, for that matter. Nora Ephron said it best when a television reporter asked her to sum up what she learned from writing, I Feel Bad About My Neck, her musings about getting older. Looking right into the camera, she said, “Eat more bread.”
September 16th, 2011 by Melinda Blau
An email from Haydée Souffrant, Media and Press Intern for StoryCorps alerted me to this recording about “meeting matriarchs and returning home.” Neglectful blogger that I have become (with good reason: I’m writing a new Baby Whisperer book about family!), I thought I’d at least share this with you. Haydée explained in her email…
Each StoryCorps interview is recorded on a free CD for participants to take home and share with their loved one and archived for generations to come at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
StoryCorps currently has one of the country’s largest oral history archives—with more than 30,000 interviews recorded in all 50 states. Please let me know if you have any questions about StoryCorps or today’s broadcast. I hope you’ll take the time to listen to our stories and to share them with your readers and families, especially your grandmothers!!!
July 24th, 2011 by Melinda Blau
It started off-handedly. It was an intriguing idea, and it was easy to do, so I created a Facebook page for my sorority sisters. I built it, and I wondered if they’d come. Before I knew it, I was Social Chairman again, organizing what I thought of as a “pilot” reunion. If it went well, we’d do others.
It went well. It was a lot of things: a trip down memory lane, a chance to re-view our housemates–and to see them with fresh eyes. It also forced us to remember–and cringe at–the not-so-nice byproduct of being in a close-knit, almost inbred community. Legend had it that during rush-week, we made a grand gesture of folding the coats in, so as not to see the label. It was untrue (I think), but no matter what others thought of us, we knew we were “the Iotas.”
Some have “joined” the page; others aren’t into social networking. No matter, reconnection can happen on Facebook or in emails. We go back and forth, sharing the Roman numerals of our lives: partnership status, children/grandchildren, careers. It’s like time-lapse photography.
So what is it that’s so compelling about reunions–and reconnecting after so many years? Ironically, I’m coming up on my 50th high school reunion, and have been involved in a similar process with those classmates. The woman–and former co-valedictorian–who’s organizing that event asked us to answer a few key questions for the reunion booklet, including your best and worst memories of high school. (My worst was being spat on and called a “dirty Jew.”) I read the various blurbs, and then turn to my Class of ‘61 yearbook, juxtaposing this new information with each person’s 17- or 18-year-old self. I read an inscription scribbled over his or her face and get glimpses of who that person was to me. It’s oddly satisfying.
The fact is, these people knew me when: when I went to sock hops and wore circle pins; when I acted in the senior play, when we ate French fries and cokes after school at my father’s diner.
And my sorority sisters know an even more significant “when.” They knew the old boy friends, the ones I didn’t marry, the one I did. They remember my favorite songs. They remember spring formals. One old friend still talks about the time she ate dinner with my parents and promptly splattered grease on my mother’s white collar. It’s not just that our lives were intertwined or that they were privy to the details of my life. It’s also that we can now piece together our young lives, the group experience, and see how we’ve been affected by it. I sense that they know things about me I don’t even know.
Most of my high school friends and sorority sisters are now grandmothers, and we wonder how we got here. As one of my new-found sorors marveled, “Just yesterday we were putting on our dinner dresses and hoping not to sit with [our “housemother”] Aunt Edna.”
And what does this do for–or have to do with–our daughters? For one thing, they see how important it is to acknowledge and keep up with one’s past. Mine already gets this; she has an annual girls’ weekend with her college chums, and is in contact with many characters from high school as well. Thanks to the Internet, she doesn’t ever have to lose touch.
But there’s another important message here for our daughters: Despite the obviously different frames of reference, we’re really not that different, are we? I suspect my daughter and many of her peers could relate to this statement, posted recently by one of my sorority sisters:
I loved the women! I loved being part of something, that quite frankly, I still think of as so very special. It was, and continues to be a memory of which I am so very fond.
And someday–just as we’re now doing–our daughter will be asking themselves. “How did we get to be grandmothers?”
May 24th, 2011 by Melinda Blau
With summer around the corner, the prospect of inter-generational house-sharing increases. So journalism professor Mary Quigly, founder of Mothering21–a site about “raising” older children (read adult children)–asked readers to share their experiences. Mary, who is not yet a grandma, recalls visiting her own mother’s pristine condo in Florida, usually without incident–except for the time one of her children spilled a cherry Slurpee on Mother’s precious pale blue carpet:
My husband and I got most of it out after scrubbing with numerous chemicals. Before leaving to go home, we cleaned the apartment so spotlessly that on her next visit my mother never noticed the slight discoloration on the rug. I saw it though every time I opened the front door!
Now the shoe is on the other foot and we Boomers are the ones protecting our homes from sticky fingers and Slurpees. Here’s the piece (in the interest of full disclosure, she quotes me in it!), which has familiar themes and good advice for daughters. (The rest of the site is well worth a read, too.)
Now how about some responses from daughters who host their mothers about what it takes to be a good older-generation house guest? (Jen? Anyone?) Ironically, after writing the above post, I remembered that I had, in fact, written such an article for the New York Times in 1979–Jen was 10 and Jeremy 7: “When Children Are House Guest for a Weekend.” The advice holds up!
May 9th, 2011 by Melinda Blau
“…giving birth to or raising another precious human being changes you as nothing else can.”
In her beautiful Mother’s Day offering, What Becoming a Mother Can Mean to a Woman, published on Fox News online magazine, psychologist Phyllis Chesler, a distinguished professor of women’s studies and author of thirteen books, recalls the changes in her own life:
Female motherhood is both a sacred undertaking and a sacred experience. Becoming a mother—giving birth to or raising another precious human being—changes you as nothing else can. You are pitched, head-long and feet-first into a parallel universe, a new way of life, a craft, a passion which tempers and deepens all those who engage in it.
For example, before I became a mother, my ego knew no bounds. I thought I could overcome all obstacles through force of will, not by bending to circumstance, or trusting in forces larger than myself. Becoming a newborn mother changed my life. It humbled me, slowed me down, made me kinder, and infinitely more vulnerable to cruelty.
Mothering a child is an incomparable rite of passage.
So, now that the pancakes have been served in bed, the car washed for you, the garage cleaned out (with your help of course), and it’s back to everyday motherhood, ask yourself, how has motherhood changed you? Please state your age, so we can see if there’s a difference in the generations. Of course, we older mothers-turned-grandmas have to dig deeper into our psyches to remember what it was like before children!
May 7th, 2011 by Melinda Blau
Psychologist and prolific author Paula J. Caplan, whose Buzz contribution, “On Each Other’s Side (Instead of at Each Other’s Throats,” was adapted from her 1990 classic Don’t Blame Mother — now out as The New Don’t Blame Mother and a must-read for mothers of any age — also writes Silence Isn’t Golden, a fascinating blog for Psychology Today. Paula prefaces her May 6 post, Mother’s Day Thoughts: What’s Funny, and What’s Not, with this wonderful story about her own mother. A kernel of wisdom (in bold) that I had to pass on:
When my book, Don’t Blame Mother, first appeared, a journalist from one of the major women’s magazines called me. For their Mother’s Day issue, they wanted to report “The Best Advice My Mother Ever Gave Me” as told by numerous interviewees. They knew I had just written this book. I replied, “When you said that, a response immediately popped into my head, but could you do me a favor? Before I tell you what it is, I’m just curious to see what my mother would say. Could you please call me back in five minutes?” She agreed.
“Perfect!” I said. “That’s exactly what came to my mind!” When the journalist called back, I told her what had just happened. I heard her sigh.
She was disappointed. “That’s not really what we were looking for,” she said. “We were looking for things like how to keep mascara from running.” Mother, I like your advice the best! Thank you. And Happy Mother’s Day. (Mother is now 87 and still saying what she thinks.)
Happy Mother’s Day to Paula and Tac, to our daughters Emily Caplan Stephenson and Jen, and to mothers and daughters everywhere who are–we hope–doing their best to say what they think!
May 5th, 2011 by Melinda Blau
I am in Paris (where Fetes de Meres is not until June 7). This coming Sunday, May 7, is the first American Mother’s Day (if memory serves me,which it often doesn’t!) that I haven’t been with at least one of my two children. I suppose I’m fortunate to have had so many other Mother’s Days with them Or maybe I should consider myself lucky this year. We all know that it’s just a Hallmark holiday. And isn’t every day supposed to be Mother’s Day? Yeah, right.
Cynicism aside, this can be a hard day for mothers and daughters. Those of us whose mothers have died feel the loss even more acutely. And some women can’t stand being with their mothers, not even for one day. But even close mother/daughter duos have “moments.” Who needs the pressure to have a “good” Mother’s Day? As the family grows and changes, you also step parents and in-laws and all their ideas, potentially making the day more strained than celebratory. Plans bump up against prior traditions: “Mother’s Day has always been at my sister’s house” is met with, “But our family goes to the Pancake House.”
The good news is that any relationship can shift toward a more positive direction. In her “5 Ways to Strengthen the Bond with Mom”– just published on The Buzz — relationship expert Terry Orbuch directs her advice to daughters. Here’s a few points we older-generation mothers ought to remember as Mother’s Day approaches. After all, now it’s their day, too!
1. Make a gratitude list. Just as Orbach advises daughters not to focus on what Mom does wrong, it’s a good idea for mothers to “take 10 minutes and write down a handful of things you really appreciate” about your daughter, too. No one is all bad all the time, and humans have an unfortunate tendency to elevate the negatives. Consciously listing the good will help you gain a balanced perspective. And by the way, if you have trouble thinking of what’s she’s “given” you, just look at your grandchildren! Read the rest of this entry »
May 2nd, 2011 by Melinda Blau
This from writer Beth Meleski, who interviewed a range of grandmothers in northern New Jersey for The Parent Paper and NorthJersey.com:
For many of us, our mothers have been our moral compasses, the ones we turn to for information, knowledge and advice. Now, as parents ourselves, it is suddenly easier to understand how much we need their guidance as we shepherd our children safely into adulthood.
The bond between mothers and their adult children is complicated. On the one hand, our mothers have been there, done that. They have survived the toddler meltdown in the dairy aisle, the 10-year-old who wasn’t invited to the sleepover, the teen who can’t get home by curfew, the senior who is wait-listed at his first choice school. On the other hand, advice from mothers is fraught with our shared history.
Jennifer Blau Martin, a mom and health educator who blogs with her mom, says that when we are new parents, we seek our mother’s advice to bolster our confidence. As our children grow, we trust ourselves more but we still occasionally need help. Jen suggests that our moms are a valuable resource because of their ability to view our plights with a level of objectivity. Additionally, mothers often have areas of expertise that we would do well to tap.
Her mother, Melinda Blau, journalist, author and creator of the website MotherU, (www.motheru.com) agrees. She offers this advice for mothers and children. “Mothers, wait until you are asked to share your advice and once it is given, let it go. Adult children have the right to decide whether to take their mother’s advice and also how and when to implement it.” To parents, Melinda has this to say, “If your mother shares her opinion without invitation, the adult reaction is to ask her to wait until you request her input.” Melinda asserts that seeing each other as a whole person, not just as mother or child, is key.
As Tiger Moms push the boundaries of success and Helicopter Moms monitor their children’s every move, and movies like The Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman highlight our children’s collective stress, the advice from our mothers, when they do weigh in, can be helpful….[continue reading the rest of this article here]