The hard reality is that women are hard on women. We don’t forgive our mothers, partners, best girlfriends or daughters easily. Or we do just the opposite and forgive every trespass because we demand less under the guise of being understanding. For we can relate to one another’s hardships, inequitable treatment at the hands of others, sacrifices, longings, heartaches. Older women who wish to serve as mentors often find a less than enthusiastic audience among younger women, our tutelage undesired because they are lazy in the way that 21st century women have come to expect their lives to unfold – with relative ease and a certain innate entitlement. I speak, of course, of young women who may not have their emotional needs properly met by their 40-something parents but don’t go to bed hungry or wear tattered hand-me-downs. They have not been provided a good example because, simply put, women of my generation did not do a good job of raising their children.
I refer to those of us who came of age in the 60s, believing that our darlings were the center of the universe. It was a given that they could no do wrong but if they did behave badly, it was someone else’s fault. We raised men and women without the desire or capacity for introspection and, thus, the inability to own their flaws while marching toward the alien concept of redemption. It’s easier for them to place blame outside of their personal shortcomings than it is to look inside, regardless of whether that blame is shouldered by a grandparent, husband or wife.
Think of the analogy as that perfect glass of red wine you crave after a long day of negotiating your time and energy with the world. It sits in the oversized bowl like a waiting jewel. Your fingers caress the foot before they travel up to the stem to the base of the bowl to swirl the nectar and watch for the telltale sign to appear, leggy rivulets clinging to the interior like a Rockette’s high kick. This luxurious signal of a good vintage makes your mouth water with anticipation of intense flavor developed in an aged oak barrel. Just as each family has a unique geneaology, so does a bottle of wine begin with a choice between 10,000 kinds of grapes, particular characteristics pertaining to size, acidity, skin thickness, color and yield per vine. Only an elite group, referred as noble varieties, will ever make it into your glass and over your tongue, having first been gingerly babied on the vine, exposed to just the right sunlight, climate and tender loving care to assure maximum drinkability. Peel these grapes and the fleshy fruit is beyond luscious, borne of ancient Mesopotamian vines hand-carried from the old country in muslin cloths to Australia and California.
But not every vinter has these resources available to them. And so some grapes end up on the sale rack at the liquor store, that $6.99 bottle we tell ourselves is good enough because we just want a drink. If we advise our children that despite their flaws we love them without simultaneously encouraging them to evolve into a more perfect grape, how can they be to blame for a lackluster life? Peel this particular fruit and find a mushy mess that once held promise but could not measure up without proper oversight, the result of errant winemakers settling for less. Focusing on one’s inadequacies can feel intolerable. Being raised in relative comfort meant that development of conscience is stalled. And so this generation doesn’t understand the beauty in remorse, the certainty that we cannot live fully in the light unless we know darkness, the importance of repentance.
Pity these children and how we let them down, withering on the vine. Maybe you don’t agree, have had a different experience, but statistics tell the broader tale. Of all women, I am most hard on me. So what of my generation? How did our mothers raise us? Often it was with relative silence. There weren’t deep conversations around the dinner table. Our fathers often worked shift jobs in factories and there was no nightly dinner table unless your dad had a white-collar job. By the time I got home from drama club and cheerleading and 4-H variety shows and sleepovers and after-school job and visits with my boyfriend, I walked through the door into the emptiness of my kitchen. The dishes had been done, the room was clean and my meal was in the frig, either cooked or left for me to prepare with a note taped to the plate. Mother was asleep and so were my brothers. The avocado green appliances taunted me with their inertia.
I became used to quiet, to my own thoughts and depth was available in books written by Rod McKuen and Kahlil Gilbran. I did not have a tutor, a mentor, nor did it even occur to me to ask. I turned inward without guidance and did the best I could to create a belief system based upon my internal and external worlds. After all, you only got help if you were that girl who was wild or loose or stupid, black marks against your soul. The rest of us were expected to make our way with blinders intact. My mother taught me kindness and generosity and the certainty that she was my mother forever, the one person who would make sure my cheerleading uniform and white socks and sneakers were clean for each game. But beneath the beautifully frosted cupcakes awaiting us after school, I also witnessed her self-sacrifice and self-deprecation in the role of mother to her children, despite the bright smile.
I didn’t know what to name it then, but in hindsight her lack of assertiveness and independence was due to the fact that no-one expected her to do anything else. She was there to serve. Clearly that is just exactly what I believed. She did not even consider having a room of her own. She ran and ran and ran until she ran with my brother’s Flexible Flyer into the window of the shed at 2am, smashing the glass with a primal cry. I tore downstairs and out the back door to see her being restrained by my father. I never forgot that moment, where I was told nothing was wrong and to go back to bed when it was clear that something was plenty wrong. But the incident was instructive. I witnessed what happens when women who believe they are supposed to bury their burdens deep within can’t stand it anymore. Only then was it permissible to visit Crazytown.
Throughout my 13th year I had insomnia and night became my ally. All I knew was the intolerable sensation of being afraid in the dark, alone, and needing to find the light. Eventually I would creep downstairs to the first-floor stairway, close the door to the landing, grab a green Funk & Wagnall encyclopedia with that distinctive pebbly finish, position my slippers on the stair below me and read. Any volume would do. The pages were barely breathing as they turned in my hand and I read about subjects that had no reference in my waking world but became my universe night after night when unknown secrets revealed themselves to me. When I reflect upon this regular occurrence, it is remarkable to realize that my parents did not feel my tender presence crouched on those hard plastic stair treads, wriggling every so often to avoid discomfort and massaging the balls of my feet into the surface as if to ground me. I stayed there until my eyes were finally ready to close and marvel that I was able to manage school on so few hours of sleep, still an over-achiever and everybody’s good girl despite the clutch on my heart.
That clutch. A physical sensation that felt as though someone was literally squeezing my heart, wringing out love, fear, doubt, confidence. The first time I recall thinking my heart would stop beating was in first grade, when my teacher told the entire class that I was in charge while she went to the principal’s office. Who told her I wanted this attention, this responsibility? Sure, I scored 100% on the standardized test and my mother said everyone thought I was a very, very smart girl, and maybe I would skip first grade entirely, but that didn’t mean I was a grown-up. All eyes were on me to see what I would do or say, but how could I react when my heart was about to collapse like a deflated balloon?
I just stared at my desktop and prayed that I would not die in that moment. I recall the red plaid dress I wore, my long dark hair in one huge ponytail curl, the tops of my white socks folded over neatly. I have no idea how long she was actually gone from the room, but that is my last memory of first grade.
In second grade, one singular memory still embarrasses me. I was at my desk and the math lesson being taught by Mrs. Davis was lost on me because I had to pee. I mean, I really had to pee. I hadn’t visited the girls’ room after recess like I was supposed to and now I was in trouble. It was my fault because I hadn’t been a good girl and followed the rules, so in no way could I raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom. Finally, when I couldn’t stand it for one more second, my bladder let go. I have no recollection of what I was wearing, but the sensation of warm urine pooling in my seat and then running down my left leg remains horrifying to me.
It collected in the top of my sock, around my shoe. Oh. My. God. I looked up only once to see my teacher’s look of horror equal to the shame I felt. She was old and smelled like sachet. “Susan? Did you have an accident?”
An accident? No, I didn’t scrape my knee, fall off my bike, trip on the stairs, cut my finger with a knife, drop something heavy on my toe. I fucking pissed my pants. This was no accident, it was a necessary release. I couldn’t meet her eyes. She did not put her arm around my shoulder or quietly say, “Come on, honey, let’s take care of this. It’s all right. I’m here.” She stood in the front of the classroom and repeated, as though I hadn’t heard.
It was only when I began to cry that she was inconvenienced enough to act. She walked over to my desk and stood there. “I guess you better go to the nurse now.” That was it. Instruction. We were, after all, in a classroom. She didn’t even bother with the wooden hall pass that authorized our classroom absence, that’s how much she just wanted me to go. I was very much aware that she stood outside of the pee circle around my feet. I got up, dress stuck to my legs, and squished my way out into the hall. That’s when I really began to cry, running toward the nurse’s office all alone, shiny linoleum beneath the slippery bottoms of my shoes.
By now the urine had gone from hot to cold. I shivered into the nurse’s office, a kindly woman who didn’t hesitate to put her arm around me and call my mother. Of course, my mother didn’t even have a license then in 1963 and so my father had to pick me up. This is where the trail goes cold, for his lack of warmth was on par with Mrs. Davis. The last thing the nurse said was, “It will be okay, dear.” How I ever walked into the classroom the next day is not a conscious recollection. But that sensation remains, filled with the remorse and self-loathing of a young girl.
That’s what women do. We retain everything. Each significant event, good or bad, is imprinted so deeply on our souls that we cannot possibly escape the visceral remains. Although it is possible to unpack these experiences, dissect the trespass or joy, and figure out where to store it, those sensations never leave. I can only imagine what my mother was feeling when she experienced the release of the sled’s sharp metal rung crashing into the glass, heard the tinkling sound of the vicious shards. Did she worry she would be cut? What was so intolerable for her that she had to break something, anything? Of course, she was thoughtful – she went outside so as not to disturb her sleeping children because no one should witness her shattered psyche. Had I not been an insomniac, I wouldn’t have heard a thing. But I did. Another moment etched, a tributary on the roadmap of my soul.
Years later I asked her about that night. She said that two things converged. She was very distraught over her father’s recent death and the neighbor had put a cow-bell on their precious bovine. The cow also had insomnia and would roam the perimeter of the barbed wire fence, pacing endlessly. On this night, she had been driven over the edge by grief and the hollow sound of the bell. I wondered why she didn’t just call the neighbor and ask that the bell be removed at night. She said she tried, but the neighbor’s abusive husband would have none of it. Too bad if that MacNeil woman didn’t like the bell and too bad if his wife didn’t like his answer. It was his house, his yard, his cow. Period. Would have been nice if my father had supported her, but this was never in his repertoire.
I’m sure what she told me is true, but her lack of introspection about power, control and desire provided me with the definition of helplessness. Deserve a room of her own? Never. Years later, at the age of 78, her second husband died and for the first time in her life she lived alone. We shopped together to decorate her apartment and during these years I became her devotee. Reflecting upon all she did for us as children, I now had the chance to spoil her. Our relationship grew ever closer, and she finally claimed a room of her own with independence and appreciation, marveling at how her time was now her own. She found peace in the silent early morning hours, rising to have a bowl of ice cream and read the paper at 2am, or warm up dinner leftovers for breakfast. That silence. An unalterable catalyst in any situation. Sooner or later you have to unearth your own voice or dissipate into thin air.