Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reflections on Mother's Day

While garden centers, restaurants, and greeting card companies like it, Mother's Day is a mixed bag for many people. The concept is a nice one as there's little doubt that most mothers sacrifice for their children, nurture them, and deserve at least one day of appreciation. But for those that were unable to have children for many possible reasons, or that have lost their children, it could be a day of sadness or mourning.  Those mourning the loss of a mom, or people with bad moms dislike this day immensely because it is a reminder of what they don't have.

We attended a church in college that gave prizes for those that were somehow "winners" in the mom-game. They celebrated the one with the most children, the one with the most grandchildren, the one that had a child present that had traveled the most to be there, etc.  It seemed very inconsiderate. Of course the mom with the most kids was the winner each year... it'd be hard for people to catch up with her dozen or so kids. If you had one or two children, you knew you'd never be in the running for that one... and chances are, it'd be slim to have the most grandchildren too. One year two moms had children there from a long distance. One came from Chicago and the other Dallas, and someone started a debate about distance. Why not declare it a tie? But for that matter, if your child lived across the street, were you less worthy?  What if you couldn't even have children? What made any of these women any better than other women?

As a young mother with elementary and preschool aged children, I sat through the church service many years feeling like a failure. The pastor we had at the time always talked about the virtuous moms of the Bible and spoke in glowing terms of their steadfast love and dedication. He spoke of women that never raised their voices in anger and always supported their husbands.

Meanwhile, having just managed to get the family to church in time - and dressed at that - I was feeling less than worthy of honor. I recalled the cross words when I told a child for the third time to get out of bed. Then there was the fact that one of my sons had on his old tennis shoes because the other new one seemed lost that morning - even though he wore it the day before. No, they didn't have a great breakfast - they had whatever cereal they grabbed while I fed the baby. Speaking of the baby, it probably spit up on my dress so there was that to deal with as well. I was not only a working mom, I was a teacher, so spent far too many evenings dealing with schoolwork rather than playing board games with my kids. Every year I dreaded that service.

The advertisements that showed husbands and kids taking mom out to eat, showering her with praise and gifts, and showing their love just made things worse. That wasn't my reality. We left church and headed home to a meal that more likely than not, was one I cooked... and cleaned up after. In the afternoon, people did their own things and I wrote lessen plans.  Eventually, I convinced my husband that buying a plant was NOT stupid since that is what I wanted. After a few years of token gifts, the kids were older and no longer as cheerful about the effort. I figured out that the day was a bust and I might as well take matters into my own hands. I went shopping ALONE and picked out flowers for my porch or garden.  The first year, I did it as a minor temper tantrum (that probably went un-noticed) but I discovered that it was fantastic! They were relieved of the hassle. I got exactly what I wanted and had a break from childcare. Over the years, I expanded it and now look forward to my annual gardening trip.

But my motherhood experience has been one of the good ones. For the most part, things have gone smoothly overall. At least they all made it to adulthood, something I wasn't sure would happen at some points. Memories of hassles dim and it made me stronger. There are many more good memories than bad.

But while I disliked the Mother's Day moments I described, there are others that have it much worse. In reality, we should take a day to honor those that NURTURE us - an aunt, grandparent, dad, teacher, or a friend.  Not many moms are "Hallmark Moms" as we're human.   In later years, I had pastors that realized that it does take a village.. and many people are needed to fill the "mom" role in a person's life. (Don't get me started on "mom role" as that's another whole can of worms!)

After I lowered my expectations on Mother's Day and realized adoration was only on commercials, I had a pretty significant thought.  It's too bad I didn't think of it back when I had that pastor that talked about the wonderful Biblical moms.... but Mary, the mother of Jesus, was more than the woman in the blue scarf of the Nativity Play. She lost her son on the way home! She DIDN'T KNOW WHERE HE WAS.  She wasn't watching him and thought he was with friends. They had to go back the next day to find him at the Temple. Yes, she was frantic.  When I read that account I think back to the times when I wasn't sure where my kids were - especially once they were driving.  There's the whole "I'm scared to death but once I find out you're safe, I'm going to be so angry" thing going on.  So maybe we only heard the good stuff of the Biblical women. We didn't hear about the times they burned dinner or yelled at kids. But that didn't mean it didn't happen!

 I'm fortunate - though my mom is gone, when I think of her, I have only smiles, not tears. She was a loving and creative mom. I also have Nancy Doty​, a dear friend that has served as a mom as well as close friend, too. Motherhood isn't easy - the joys are wrapped in trials, but I'm glad I've had the opportunity to do it. I hope that everyone can claim at least one person that is "there" for them, no matter what.

Monday, February 2, 2015

My Grandmother, a Women Ahead of Her Time

My maternal grandmother was a study in contrasts. She was a woman ahead of her time in some areas but also clung to ritual and proper behavior in others. To me, she was "Grandma" and seemed to stay the same age even though I aged. But her life was connected to the times she lived as well as the past and pushing forward Looking back, I suspect she was frustrated by limits put on her by society, just as she seemed desperate to make sure we followed the rules that were being cast away by our generation.

She played the piano for us. She could play just about anything by ear but also played intricate classical music. One of the favorites was "Up a Lazy River" which she played with all the flourishes, almost every time she visited. She and her sister, Alice, used to earn money for school (Oberlin College) playing the piano at the local movie theater. What? Playing the piano at the movies? Yes, it was the time of the silent movies, Charlie Chaplin style. They'd be the first to see the movies and played the music to bring attention to the dramatic moments.  She always said that "Alice was the talented one. That's why I had to excel in academics." Well, I never heard my great-aunt play the piano, but knew my grandmother was good. Even at an early age though, I felt sorry for her that she felt inferior and that it was a competition. Knowing my aunt, I can't imagine her thinking of it in that way.

As a child, I recall going through a trunk of her "flapper dresses" from high school and college.She taught me to do the Charleston. According to her though, she wasn't like the girls in the movies. I'm not surprised - she liked fun, but in a very conservative manner. (The Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey reminds me of my grandmother, though of a different age) She graduated high school in 1927. She was very active in sorority life in college. I remember reading notes from her girlfriends - apparently, she was quite the social butterfly. At a time when other women dropped out of school in 8th grade, and considered it "educated" to graduate high school, she went to college. Even as a middle schooler, I was impressed since I realized how unusual that was for the time period. After that, she got married and she and my grandpa continued their education, getting graduate degrees at Ohio State, even though the Depression had hit.

While she had many friends, keeping up with them for decades, she had a more serious side as well. My grandmother knew the importance of "proper behavior," even to the point of getting carried away. My grandpa was a Methodist minister and she played the role of "Minister's wife." She told me about hosting tea with the ladies of the church and the importance of having a proper home, always ready for people to stop by. Later, my grandpa was the Dean of Students at Adrian College in Michigan. (They later named a building after him.) Her days of serving tea continued. This came up regularly, but especially when she discovered my future husband was headed into the ministry. She was convinced I needed a silver tea service for a wedding present, though matching stoneware would have seemed fancy to us. I tried to convince her that in the 1980s, women didn't do things the way they were done 40 years earlier.

Growing up, we always had Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at her house, often with some friends of the family. it was a dress-up affair. Unlike my dad's parents' celebration, with lots of people grabbing a plate and sitting wherever they could, we all sat stiffly in the dining room. Each place setting had 2-3 forks, knife, and 1-2 spoons, as well as a water glass, glass to drink with appetizer, and drink for the meal. Add a plate for appetizers, the dinner plate, dessert plate, etc. The meat was served at the head of the table and plates presented to each one. We were taught, even as little kids, the proper way to use all of that. Later, I at least knew how to handle myself in the rare moments it came up.
I remember an interview I did with her when I was about 9 or so. We had a school assignment to interview the oldest person we knew and ask about their childhood. One of the things I remember was when she talked about what they did for fun. She loved ice skating with friends and activities with her church group. She explained how they made taffy and about making maple syrup. To me, it seemed like a chapter from one of my favorite childhood books, "Little House on the Prairie," though she was a later time period. As an adult, it occurred to me that she might not have had an indoor bathroom growing up, though she was in town, not the country, so it was possible. The idea of my very-proper grandmother using an outhouse just seemed impossible. I never had the nerve to ask her about it!

As her oldest grandchild, we spent more time together than my sisters and cousins did. My cousins lived far away, so I understood her not seeing them, but I later wondered why she didn't do as much with my sisters. Perhaps it was because she didn't want to have multiple kids at once? We had our annual events, just the two of us, such as the Christmas Tree display at Cheekwood Mansion followed by tea with her friends, or the Steeplechase. I remember the two of us getting dressed up to go shopping downtown when I was in elementary school. When I was older, she took me to the symphony regularly. We often cooked together, especially preparing for holidays, and she shared all the family recipes and told me family stories from her grandparents. Latin was one of my majors in high school, something no one else in my immediate family studied. But she'd taught Latin so enjoyed helping me study. I later learned that she and my grandpa used to write love letters to each other in Latin. I came across them after she'd died.

While we had good times together, she was definitely NOT the cuddly spoiling model of a grandma. We had a lot in common, but I always figured that she would have developed interests with the others if she had just made the effort. Unlike the "everything you do is perfect" grandparenting attitude of some people, I always felt I had to live up to her standards. I knew that she not only felt things had to be done "properly," but realized she was a bit of a snob as well. She tried very hard to convince me to go to a private college and pledge her sorority. She told me many times that I was selling myself short by considering a state school. I rejected her plea to attend Peabody locally and went to a state college 50 miles away so I could be independent.

To say she valued education would be an understatement. Both she and her husband, my grandpa, had graduate degrees. He worked a lot of odd jobs to pay for his classes. He was also a Methodist minister. From everything my mom told me, despite this, he was down to earth. (I see that my mom was like her dad, not her mom.) He died when their kids were teens, and soon after, Grandma began teaching high school Latin and AP English. She once had my dad in a summer school class. He said they clashed big time. Knowing that he hated English class only a little less than people that put on airs, I imagine it didn't go well. 

Later, when my mom fell for him, my grandmother tried to stop them from dating. She looked down on him because neither of his parents had graduated high school. She made sure all 3 of her kids went to college. My mom didn't want to go, but was forced... a complete waste of money since she fought it. While the others told jokes in Latin, she dreamed of being a wife and mother. During the "women's lib" days of the 60s and beyond, while other women were knocking on glass ceilings and breaking barriers, my mom was the rebel of the family. Unlike everyone in her family, she quit college to marry and be a stay at home mom, and loved it. My grandmother considered her a failure. I knew better.

Earlier today, I happened to come across an online listing for my grandmother's master's thesis, "Shakespeare and the Pastoral Tradition." It sounds like something she'd write. it got me to thinking about her. Even though I was probably the closest grandchild, the one that she talked to the most, I still was always aware of a rigidness about her. I think she was showing love in her own way, especially when we cooked together and she told me about the family history. but with every conversation, there was a lesson. She inserted subtle reminders of the importance of appearance, of making the right connections, and doing the proper things in every setting. There was never the pure joy I share with my own grandchildren.  She was a little more relaxed with her great-grandchildren, but it was still more of an observation relationship than an involved one.

But then, as now, I marveled at the barriers she broke through. She was disappointed in me for going to a state college, even though she was glad I did go. I think it relieved her when I went to graduate school. Even though I'd planned to do so since age 6, she tried to get me to consider something other than teaching. She said, "In my day, teaching is one of the few things women could do. You can do anything you want - go for it." Just as my mom disappointed her by choosing a "career" in motherhood, I "settled" by becoming a teacher. I told her i knew I could do anything - but teaching was what I wanted to do. it was the right choice. I hope she figured that out.