Not me. I’m going to talk about regret.
When I was a kid, my mother and other female relatives would sometimes tell me, “Have fun while you can.” I knew what they meant. I’d already observed that for women, life ended after marriage. With the wedding ring came the assumption that even if you had a job, your home and family were more important.
This was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when women’s roles in society were being called into question. But the women I knew had always worked. My maternal grandmother and aunts had sweated as field hands, cooked in cafeterias, toiled in tomato canneries; my mother was considered a success because she worked as a secretary in the glass factory instead of standing on its concrete floors eight hours a day to inspect and pack bottles. Other relatives and the mothers of my friends worked in dress factories, provided child care, drove school buses, took in sewing, gave piano lessons.
It was the middle- and upper-class women who had the luxury of arguing for liberation, which for them meant equality and fairness at work and at home. Among my kind of people, “having it all” meant doing it all. I saw the same dynamic over and over: When a man and woman got home from work, the woman headed for the kitchen and the man headed for the couch. After dinner, the men usually did things they wanted to do. The women did everything that needed to be done to keep their households running for another day.
What we girls saw was that women had no power. Their examples, spoken or unspoken, felt like inculcation. We did not want to be like the women we knew, helpless and/or devalued and/or saddled with all the responsibilities. So although they might have had useful advice to offer, we couldn’t listen. We were afraid of becoming our mothers, a running societal joke.
Ever heard a woman in a department store say, “That’s something my mother would wear”? Ever lamented with friends about the first time you opened your mouth and heard your mother’s voice coming out of it? And certainly motherhood is perennial fodder for comedians, who know that barely veiled hostility toward their own moms won’t be seen as disrespectful because, after all, everyone has a mother.
Apparently all mothers are alike. Martyr, fixer of everything, absorber of all of life’s blows, general drudge and ultimate laughingstock – who would willingly assume such a mantle? It’s no wonder we run like hell. But we can’t run far or fast enough.
“Girls like you don’t go to college”
I wish I had been able to understand my mother’s life, rather than judging her for what I perceived to be its lacks. During early childhood I was always afraid of doing something to upset her. As a preadolescent I longed for nurturing but had long since been trained to be self-sufficient. As a young teen I was critical of her, especially after she and my dad split up and I was left to run the household.
Throughout the divorce I was furious with her, unable to understand the parallel tracks on which her and my father’s lives had run for years – or the possibility that she might have wanted more out of life than just putting out familial fires. As a dangerously sick mother-to-be I was simultaneously grateful for her help and angry to be in what I perceived as a position of weakness.
I couldn’t really comprehend how hard her life had been from the first breath onward. She was the tenth child in a family of field hands plagued by hunger and poverty and violence. Mom likely remembered (but never spoke of) the two-room Tennessee cabin that had housed 10 people before the family headed “up North” to work in fields and factories. She was not quite six at the time.
My maternal grandmother died when Mom was 13. The oldest sister used the insurance money to buy half of a duplex, a place that had four rooms plus attic, but no bathtub or shower. My early memories of that home are mostly olfactory: cigarette smoke, cooking fat, kerosene, snuff, imperfectly washed bodies. It was poorly lit and old bedspreads covered worn spots in the furniture. In the winter, cold winds rattled the plastic sheeting that covered the windows.
Her siblings left school after fourth grade, sixth grade, ninth grade; somehow Mom finished high school, even though no one in her family showed up for graduation. She wanted to take college prep classes but a guidance counselor told her she couldn’t: “Girls like you don’t go to college.” So she took business English and business math, and worked as many hours as she could get each week in the five-and-dime or the army-navy store.
At one point the school got her a part-time secretarial job, but Mom left it because “my boss couldn’t keep his hands to himself.” She took a lot of grief for quitting the job, but kept silent about the reason. Later another student who took the job was also sexually harassed, but complained about it. My mother was called in and asked, “Did this happen to you too? Why didn’t you tell us?” Mom said, “Would you have believed me?”
As my Aunt Dot once told me, “Your mama never did a thing except go to school and work.” The biggest event of Mom’s life was a short trip to New York City with a school club (the future secretaries of America, or something like that). As far as I can tell, it was the first time she ever had a bath in a real tub.
Seven months later, she would have her first child; a year and a day after that, she’d have her second. During my pregnancy I caught her staring at me with a wistful look in her eye. “I have a hard time believing you’re old enough to have a baby,” she said. “But when I was your age, I had two.”
She could never get things clean enough
For my mother, cleanliness was not just the next thing to godliness – it was a measure of the distance she’d put between herself and her past. As a child she’d vowed to herself that when she grew up she would have a nice house. A clean house. Her kids would never be ashamed to bring friends home.
Our place wasn’t huge. The downstairs consisted of living room, kitchen, my parents’ bedroom and the “radio room,” a small cave off the living room that held my father’s ham radio equipment. The upstairs was one bedroom shared by two sisters and me; above that was the attic that Dad had finished off to make a room for my brother.
Over time it became a museum of the middle class, with my mother as its ferocious curator. The living room carpet was, of course, wall-to-wall. The furniture was from Sears, a style called “early American,” although it’s doubtful that the Founding Fathers sat on couches upholstered in tweedy pea-green fabric or stored their Bibles in end tables whose drawer pulls were just for show.
A bowl of plastic fruit sat on the coffee table. The bowl itself was made of milk glass; so were a couple of vases and a candy dish that rarely held candy. At Christmas my mother put out a green pillar candle with a ring of plastic holly around its base. The candle smelled like bayberry – or would have, if we had ever burned it. But in Mom’s world candles were for show, not for use.
Her kitchen was as immaculate as an operating theater. The waxed floor shone. Dirty dishes were never allowed to accumulate. Both sinks were scrubbed after every meal. One drawer was devoted entirely to Tupperware lids; the Tupperware bowls stacked in a cupboard were proof that my mother was no longer the little white-trash (her words) girl who cut asparagus and picked tomatoes, the girl who had two dresses (“one on, one off”) that she pressed with an iron heated on the stove, the girl whose father drank and hit his wife and children.
Look how far she had come. Look how not-her-family she was. Just to be on the safe side, Mom regularly soaked the Tupperware lids in a sink full of bleach water. Clorox was her favorite fragrance. She could never get things clean enough.
Why did you leave?
Mom always swore that her kids would have more than she’d had. How galling it must have been to have two daughters give birth out of wedlock and then struggle financially, and an artistically talented son barely out of his teens get his girlfriend pregnant and have to become a prison guard to support his new family. Her other daughter might have wound up the same way if not for infertility.
I was working as a typesetter and proofreader in Philadelphia when I got pregnant at age 20. Near-constant morning sickness left me so weak I could hardly walk. When I took the bus down to South Jersey to tell my mother I was pregnant, she took one look at my gaunt-and-ghastly self and begged me to move back home. In time I accepted – and almost immediately regretted the decision, because Mom began to pester me, gently but persistently, to look for a permanent job in the area instead of commuting to Philly by bus with an eye toward moving back there.
Yet she seemed afraid to press too hard, e.g., to attach an ultimatum like “If you don’t look for work here, you’ll have to leave.” Maybe that’s because she thought I would leave. I certainly considered it. In the end, we both danced around what we really wanted to say, pushing it all back behind the other un-discussed hurts in our recent history.
Looking back, I can see what Mom was probably thinking: How are you going to manage without help? What if you can’t pay your bills? What if something terrible happens to you in the city? And, maybe: Why are leaving me? Will you ever forgive me for leaving you?
I can see what I wanted to say, too: Why did you put us through all that? Why couldn’t you and Dad have worked out the divorce decently? Can’t you see that I am where I am because of all of that?
And, surely: Who are you to tell me how to be a good mother? If you cared so much, why did you leave?
The pregnancy was the perfect distraction, both for her and for me. I used the baby not as a weapon but as a shield, something to deflect the sorts of discussions I didn’t want to have – either with her or with myself. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking, “If I wanted, I would have an excuse not to make anything of myself for the next 18 years.”
That wasn’t what I wanted, and I knew it. But I didn’t know what I did want, except maybe for my mother’s attention. I was about to become a mother myself and I still wanted her to brush my hair and put it in ponytails, the way she used to do when I was 10 years old. Yet I just couldn’t let her in. Whenever she tried to talk about anything real – the pain of labor, the changes that children bring to your life, the need to be practical and get a job at the county courthouse – I would find a way to change the subject.
I especially didn’t want to hear her when she talked about her memories of us as babies and how much she loved us when we were little. Sardonic responses like “Sure wish you’d let us know” or “Except when we were selfish enough to run high fevers or spill something” kept leaping into my mind.
I felt a mix of guilt and anger about those feelings. Here she was giving me free room and board and driving me to Lamaze classes – yet somehow it felt like control. I couldn’t let her get too close. I couldn’t give her that power over me again.
Karma is a bitch
Oh, how I regret not having been able to talk with my mother, really talk and understand. But neither of us had the tools to get past our upbringings. She couldn’t explain and I couldn’t understand. We didn’t have the words to name what was wrong, let alone the power to affect change.
Regret is the keenest emotion there is, worlds stronger than love or hate or jealousy. Love either goes or stays. Hate ebbs and flows until, if you’re lucky, you realize what a waste of time it really is. Jealousy can be contained, or sometimes used as a goad for self-improvement.
But regret is like a slow, steady drip of icy tears. Regret forces you to look backward and inward: Toward the past to see what you did wrong, and inside yourself until you understand just how badly you hurt someone else.
Whether or not I could have lived my life differently is beside the point. The fact is, through action or inaction I did things that I now regret. The pain is particularly keen because there is no redress. I cannot tell my mother how sorry I am that we lost so many years, how sorry I am that because of anger or pride or the simple ignorance of youth I neglected to listen.
In the early months of her illness she said that she felt she’d failed my brother and me. Stricken by the knowledge that she was dying – the doctors hadn’t said so, but I knew it and I think she knew it, too – I rushed to assure her that it was all right. She’d been under tremendous strain, I said, and of course things went badly. But it was all in the past and forgotten.
Mom smiled with what appeared to be gratitude, but now I wonder if that wasn’t just a sham. She probably had plenty more she wanted to say. When I was in my 30s and 40s she’d tried a few times to talk about our lives, but I was not receptive. She’d stopped trying. Now she would never have the chance. And neither would I. I still wasn’t listening.