It’s that time of the year when we pay a lot of lip service—oops, homage—to women around the world but especially here in the US. I want to bring this focus much closer to home—to my mother.
As you will find in my memoir The Red Kitchen, Mom and I spent too much time in battle. There wasn’t a negative adjective I didn’t over the course of many years (even after adolescence) apply to her—nosey, nuts, jealous, once or twice a bitch—all of which seemed my truth at the time.
Famous Mom curses: “I hope your kids are as (mean, ungrateful, etc.) to you as you are to me. Just wait until you’re my age, you’ll understand.” BINGO! on that one. Now I’m in her shoes and see her resemblance on my face. Digging deeper for the memoir, being a mother, and officially old, I have a new, more compassionate understanding of her.
This is like the room where my mother garnered esteem, identity, and her island of privacy. I hated the pile of little notes she kept to the left of her chair—often listing our minor sins (left the basement light on) or things she was thinking about. Now I see that it served as her desk. Give my mother an actual room of her own? It had to have a name—sewing most likely—before her generation had a right to privacy.
Like the majority of women of her time and leaking into my own, the kitchen is where she ruled supreme. My father never entered unless there was a meal to consume. My brother followed Dad’s lead, and I rarely ventured in except twice in my memory when I took secret purchase of her quarters.
The first time was when I was about twelve and made Mom a chocolate cake for her birthday. We were in one of our good places. I presented my surprise with the same hoped for praise she must have wanted on special occasions when she honored us. From hours of prep including poking a hole in a hairy coconut, draining the milk, and grating the coconut came my favorite birthday cake. Back to my effort. When her birthday desert was over—and it was praised—Mom remarked that there were a lot of chocolate splats on the backsplash I’d left for her to clean up. I vowed never again.
In my late teens I developed a craving for pitted black olives. I liked popping them on the fingertips of my left hand, completing a math problem, and rewarding my struggle with an olive. My parents were in the living room and I needed my reward. I snuck into the forbidden kitchen (closed for the night) and quietly leaned into the pantry and closed the door. I slipped the can of olives under the can opener on the wall and just as the lid came off my mother yanked open the door, I dropped the can, and watched the brine cascade down into whatever was stored on the shelves below. “GET OUT!!!” Mom yelled, grabbed my shirt, and yanked me away. I was more furious than stunned, returned to my bedroom, and slammed the door. I was all set to launch one of our famous I’m not speaking to you sessions when there was a light tap on my door. I opened it a crack and there was my mother with a small bowl of olives in her hand and a look that said we were both at fault.
Photo credit Simone Impei
All this to say you can have your Women’s History Month to honor celebrities, politicians, extraordinary women who get medals or postage stamp images, and occasionally a statue somewhere. For the month maybe it would be a good idea to work harder to change the lives for the better of women and girls around the world—starting here in the US. Let’s pay them what they’re worth and then double it—a kind of reparation if you will. We know that currently many women are either un- or under-employed, managing kids, work, the house, stress, and all manner of what comes with the territory of motherhood 24/7.
I regret that I didn’t look deeper into my own mother’s life and give her the praise she so rightfully deserved. She saw my father to his death (given their marriage, quite a gift on her part). She didn’t get to dream big like we tell girls even though we could do so much more to make it happen. She had small dreams that did come true and looking back regret that I didn’t celebrate more of them with her. Mother’s Day really is more of an insult than a salute.
My friend Joan Robins (find out more about Joan in Other Makers on this website) is a brilliant photographer, a mother, and more. She took this picture and I only wish that I had sent my mother off to whatever was next after her death with this in her hand. I know I want it in mine when the time comes.
PS – Here’s Mom at age ninety-seven shortly before she passed away.