What was the spirit in her, the essential thing, by which, had you found a glove in the corner of a sofa, you would have known it, from its twisted finger, hers indisputably?
Virginia Woolf on Mrs. Ramsay, To the Lighthouse
Mother’s Day, and I’m writing something my mom will never see though mostly she loves to read these little musings of mine. Here’s why she won’t see it: she doesn’t know that I’m gay…one of the reasons I write this blog anonymously. Mom’s is a religious culture that precludes understanding or acceptance, and having entered my own awareness so late in life, I worry there isn’t time for her to process and get beyond before her time here is gone. Of course, the omission begs the legitimacy of our relationship—what could it be but a pretended shell of a bond? But I would argue that there are absolute truths that my mom and I share, and, at this point, I’m not willing to sacrifice those truths for a fuller truth that will most assuredly result in a lengthy estrangement.
So… here in this cozy lesbian-owned coffee shop, I’m doing some mental putzing on the stories of Mom that, for me, transcend any religious homophobia. One of my favorites happens also to be one of my earliest memories. I guess I was about four, in a time before parents knew the dangers of strangers so trusted the neighborhood was safe for their little chicks, even in their absence—though, for reasons I can’t recall, Mom wasn’t big on me actually entering anyone else’s house unless she was around. So as she was leaving to go to the store on a summer morning, she gave permission for me to stay and play outside at my friend’s house but reminded me not to go inside; she would be home shortly.
I’m not sure how long it was after Mom left that I realized I needed to get quick to a toilet, but as is like most young children in the distractions of play, I’d waited too late to make it back to my own house. In my four-year-old panic and ever the rule follower, I shared my dilemma with my friend who had the perfect solution: In his backyard was a flat-roofed doghouse with a sliding door in the roof that, once opened, functioned perfectly as a toilet seat. No, I wasn’t thinking about the dog, nor, for that matter, that I was still breaking the rule by “going” in someone else’s house; I was just a four-year-old needing to go poo… fast. I did, and at some point, as the sun rose in the sky and Mom returned from the store, I knew it was time to head back home for a nap.
This next scene remains oddly vivid for reasons that elude me though I’ve heard psychologists say that when experiencing something that alters our views of the world or our relationships, we tend to recall the details. First betrayal, perhaps? Anyway, I heard the knock at the door, and when Mom opened it, sunlight poured into our darkened cave of a living room where blinds were drawn on the Wichita heat. Then the voices of my friend and his older brother delivering the messy news to my mother.
Lucky me, Mom was all about restorative justice before it had a name and before it was cool. So I marched down the street with paper towels and Pinesol under my arm and my mom beside me for support. I knocked on my friend’s door and when his mother answered, said something like, “I’m sorry I pooped in your dog’s house and I want to clean it up.”
And that was that.
Except there was a little more to it for me. This was the age of wait-till-your-father-gets-home, and although I never heard those words spoken by my mother, it was a cultural certainty that every child knew. So I waited… and waited. But the fatherly scolding never came–never one word on the subject of my pooping in the neighbor’s doghouse. It was years later when I’d learned enough of my culture to articulate the question, that I asked Mom why she never told Dad. The answer was something like, “I don’t know, Jan. I guess I never liked that idea of making you fear your dad when I could just handle it myself.”
Mom was as much a victim of the patriarchal standards of her day as any woman, but she was never much for playing that victim role. And it left her a little lonely, it seemed to me, because she refused many of the other behaviors that so often accompanied a powerlessness of the women of her day—the petty gossip and competition that stewed in circles of suburban housewives. To her it was all “silly,” and she’d have nothing to do with it, even where it left her a little disconnected from the neighborhood women. So, to me, there was a strength to her loneliness—a strength that, to this day, I aspire to.
In a previous post, Pa-pa’s Voice, I attributed my first whims of feminism to my grandfather, my mom’s dad. But as I think back on it now, credit for early visions might go to Mom. She’s as odd a source as my grandfather, having taken on so many of the cultural norms of her place and time, but she managed to carve out a voice that was her own–one that transcended her culture even as so much of it held her captive, and one that she gifted to me. So you’ll forgive me that I cannot reduce my mom to religious homophobia. No human being is as simple as a single label.
And thanks, Mom. I love you, and will tell you so, as I often do… just not by way of this blog 😉