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Why We Need to “Re-vision” Our Mothers

April 25th, 2011 by Melinda Blau

This post was inspired by the newest addition to The Buzz, written by Janice Eidus, author, among other books of The War of the Rosens and The Last Jewish Virgin.  Janice and I met each other through Facebook, and when she passed through my town recently to do a reading, we finally met in person.  Being mothers, we both talked about our children and our mothers.  I suggested she write something for Mother U–perhaps exploring how the mother/daughter theme works its way into her novels.  Little did I realize that Janice’s piece, My Mother/My Writing: Turning Childhood Memories Into Fiction, would evoke memories of my own childhood.  “We had the same mother,” I quipped in an email to her.  Well, not exactly, but close enough to bring back memories–and some regrets.

My first grandson was only four months old when my daughter and I first began discussing the “motherhood union.”  Jen actually came up with the term, when I said to her, “It’s like we’re in the same club now.”

It’s easy for me to think of Jen and I as part of the motherhood union.  Not so my mother and me.  It’s not that we had a contentious relationship–the screaming in our family was delegated to my eleven years older (and very protective) sister.   At first it was simply that I didn’t know my mother.  A former teacher who now was the lady of the house, she was considered “old”–35–when she had me, her third child. (She had lost a baby after my brother, nine when I was born, and often reminded me that I was her “change of life” baby, her “surprise.”)  Everyone was out of the house when I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time alone or with “the help.”   My mother was always busy, shopping, volunteering and, mostly, putting out elaborate spreads when “the girls”  came over to play mah-jong or canasta.   Then there were the times she’d take to her bed, claiming another “sinus headache,” which, looking back, was depression.

I wasn’t angry as a child–maybe a little sad, but I didn’t feel deprived.  It was the only kind of mothering I knew.  By the time I was a teenager, I had developed great people skills.  I was a kid other kids’ mothers loved.   It got me places.  Still does.

Cut to a week before my wedding.  One of “the girls” called my mother to tell her that my father had been having an affair with Shirley–a buxom redhead (think Jessica Rabbit) who lived across the street and just happened to be my mother’s best friend.  Although I saw his behavior as reprehensible–and felt guilty because even I had known about Shirley–it was my mother who turned their divorce into public spectacle.  She’d rant about my father to anyone who’d listen.  At one point, she aired her complaints on national television, to the delight of host Alan Burke who loved stories of sex, sleaze, and sensationalism.   I saw as little of her as I could.  I had my own marriage to worry about.

Even after Jen was born, I bristled at every visit.  I hated that sometimes she’d just show up, asking if she could take the baby for a walk.   Then, as Jen got older, it was lunch.  Then, it was for an afternoon at her apartment.  But slowly, as she and Jen developed a relationship that had nothing to do with me, I began to soften, seeing a side of my mother I’d never have imagined.  My mother had always been too preoccupied to be much of a hands-on grandmother with my older siblings’ children–by then, there were six of them.  Now it was if she had all the time in the world.

When Jen would come home from an outing and describe how she and “Gamma Henny-etta” played “restaurant,” it brought me back to sixth grade, the one year my mother decided to go back to teaching.  When I visited her classroom and watched her with her students, I kept thinking.  Is that really my mother? And I felt the same way as my four-year-old daughter recounted their day.  My mother role playing? (She was the waitress, Jen the customer)  My mother getting down on the floor with her for a “picnic”?  Laughing?

Their relationship began to change our relationship.  Sadly, just as I was letting go of my anger and getting ready to re-vision my mother through adult eyes, she was diagnosed with bone cancer and dead five months later.   It was Jen who helped me get through it.  I cringe when I think of the times I’d have liked to slam the door in her face, when I realize how my young, newly-married self, was so insensitive to the indignities she suffered.  The thing is, we were in the same club.  What I was afraid of, I now know, is that I’d end up in the same boat.

Afterword:  The irony is not lost on me that my own “grandma name”–Minna–is derived from my mother’s pet name for me:  Minda–a baby talk version of Melinda.

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