My Mother's Memorable Lessons
As she struggled with mental illness, my mother always taught me the importance of being true to myself
I am 75. My mother died 22 years ago, yet I feel her on the bench beside me when I play the piano. When I play songs by Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Irving Berlin, I hear her singing along.
We did not always make music together in my heart or in my life. When I was a little girl, my mother's struggles with mental illness caused a distance and an unavailability. For closeness, I sat beside her on the sofa watching "The Kate Smith Show" and discussing the necklines on Kate's dresses, which were important to Mom; wet the bed so she would change me; and made sure she gave me my cod liver oil instead of taking it myself.
My friend, Alice, said my mother's unavailability enabled me to figure out what I needed, and fend for myself which made me lucky, whereas her mother's coddling and attentiveness prevented that. Yes, distance from my mother has guided me toward independence, but so has my nature.
When I was a little girl, my mother's struggles with mental illness caused a distance and an unavailability.
My Mom's Truths and Wisdom
So have Mom's truths and wisdom. They include the following:
My mother, at home in our local library, took me there. I sat at a table in the children's room, reading with her or by myself. We checked out books together. As I got older, I biked to our library when friends went to each other's houses, or to the playground. Like my mother, I found peace and excitement at the library and in books. My first job was at that local library. My college job was at New York University's library. Books and the library remain my regular, wise companions.
Three childhood incidents of a similar nature imparted much about my mother. They continue to shape me. She enrolled me in an after-school ballet class that my classmates would be taking. They had been talking about it and were looking forward to it.
She did not question me or make me think there was something wrong with me.
The first session delighted them. They loved the teacher, the exercises, the prospect of buying ballet slippers and could not wait for the second session. I did not like the class at all. I felt uncomfortable there. Afterwards, nearing the store for ballet slippers, despite being afraid to tell my mother the truth, I did. I said I did not want to get out of the car to buy slippers or continue taking the class. She did not question me or make me think there was something wrong with me. She said that would be fine. And sounded as if she meant it. I smiled as we headed home, feeling relieved. Heard.
Something like that occurred at a Catskills resort where my mother, father and I spent a long weekend. I ate my first lunch in the children's dining room. My parents assumed I would enjoy being among my peers. They assumed wrong. I could barely eat, which was unusual for me. At my table for 10, among those my age and older, I politely answered and asked questions, but spoke little and struggled to interact. I did not enjoy eating with strangers. It was too difficult. Too much work. I felt lonely and missed my parents.
After the meal, although I did not want them to think something was wrong with me or that I was peculiar by not fitting in, I told them I wanted to eat with them. I did so for the rest of the weekend despite being the only child in the main dining room. Neither parent commented on my wishes, nor made me feel bad about myself. They liked having me with them at the table.
It surprised me again that my wishes mattered when my mother and I were in a fitting room in a clothing store where I was trying on dresses. She liked a plaid one with a full skirt and a big collar on me. I said I was not sure.
"If you're not sure, we won't buy it. You're the one who will be wearing it," she said. Off came the dress. We left the store empty-handed and bought a dress I liked elsewhere.
"Read this instead. You'll understand me better and have a fuller life."
I was grateful and surprised that my opinions and needs prevailed. My mother's empathy, perhaps stemming from her nonconformity and ability to listen to the voice inside her and not the herd's, empowered me. If I was not sure about a dress, a class or a way of doing something or being, I had the freedom to wear or do or share what felt right for me. Me. My mother taught me to march to my own drummer and express my truths and feelings. What a gift!
'The Feminine Mystique'
In 1963, when I was a teenager, angry she was not a cookie-baking or a working mother, and I talked back to her and sulked, she appeared in the living room late one afternoon when I was glued to a soap opera and handed me "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan, which I had heard about.
"Read this instead," she said. "You'll understand me better and have a fuller life."
I dashed up to my room and dipped in. Wow! I finished the book in two days. At school I told my friends that my mother gave me "The Feminine Mystique." They said their mothers would not dream of giving them that book or reading it themselves. Unlike my mother, they were not looking to put ideas into their own or their children's heads that would rock the boat.
When I became a writer, revised my work, revised some more, and began getting rejection slips, and when I got divorced and had romantic relationships that ended, she reminded me that good things take a long time to develop.
Just like my appreciation of her. When she gave me "The Feminine Mystique," we talked about it. Briefly. I wish I had thanked her for sharing her frustration and guiding me towards a fuller life through the book, her truths, perceptiveness and her character. Her mental illness when I was young was not my fault or hers.
How lucky I am that I can now feel our closeness. At the piano. And elsewhere.