My mother died a few years ago. Losing her was the most devastating thing I have ever been through. Perhaps it isn’t for some people, or a lot of people, but it was for me. It is only very recently that I have been able to include her in things I write about.
For years I have measured my success or lack of it in life by my mother’s yardstick. Not any of the usual yardsticks mothers and daughters measure by, but one I created on my own. Listening to her stories of how she survived as a divorcée with two small children during a time when it was considered a shame, or a failure and men looked at her with knowing looks and assumptions regarding her “availability”. The difficult time before she met my father. She was independent, fearless, triumphant. I cut the wood for the yardstick, trimmed it to size, sanded it, applied the proper markings and varnished it over and over until it shone with an impossible gleam. By my mother’s yardstick, so many times I have felt that I failed. I have been obsessed with “measuring up”, and never, to my mind, quite up to the task.
My mother would have been the first to disagree with me, but that never stopped me from building this über image of her in her life before my existence. Friends who can be more objective point out that my mother had some help from my grandparents and that she had to have felt as idiotic, out of her depth and worthless as I have felt those times when I have done something spectacularly catastrophic. The brilliantly shining yardstick has always blinded me to those truths.
Lately, I have been reading Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons in Becoming Myself (Riverhead Books, 2006). I have found her recounting of her journey from her difficult childhood in
All I could then think about was my mother, and how she was a true feminine hero. She never understood the women’s liberation movement, telling me more than once that she had been liberated all her life. My mother never looked at the world as a place that could imprison her in any defined space, never accepted that. She began working in hospitals pre-World War II, when she was 12, and was smart enough to graduate from high school by age 17. Desiring to go on to nursing school, she was disappointed by their refusals to admit her at an early age. So she married. But she never gave up on what she wanted, and when the marriage turned out to be not such a good idea, she went back and she became that nurse, and she was one for the rest of her working life. When she wanted to do something, go somewhere, she did. Not because she had no regard for anyone, but because she was a realized, free person and she never conceded to any other designation.
Always, she told my brother and me that we could be anything we wanted and to never let anyone tell us we couldn’t. I don’t think she could have foreseen that the one who would tell me that I “couldn’t” was me. The obsession I should have is to live my life in fulfillment of my heroic potential. The lesson I should have learned, is the lesson of the feminine hero, the yardstick I should have crafted was the yardstick that proudly shows me my own progress in becoming one. Just like my mother taught me to be. It has just taken me a long time to see it very clearly.