We All Become our Mothers

American Studies professor and champion cake baker. Making the world a better place.

My mother was a Force of Nature, whose personality was so strong that I still feel myself peeking out from her shadow. Even though she’s been gone for 25 years, I’m still not happy about it. Then I feel guilty.

Because that’s how mothers are. No matter how nurturing, no matter how much they represent your Past and your Home, mothers always make you feel guilty. And there is always something that your mother did well that you still can’t do.

Mom with my 1-year-old brother. About to get her doctorate, she was 8 months pregnant with me.

My mother was a larger-than-life character. When she was in her sixties, she had her picture taken posing as Eleanor Roosevelt in a famous photo. Of course, she then gave us large framed copies as a Christmas present. I thought it was really pretentious, but then I found a picture where she actually did meet Eleanor Roosevelt, as a college student on the committee to support the United Nations in 1950.

Eleanor Roosevelt and students for the UN, @1950. Mom with her back to photo.

She wrote her Master’s thesis on the propaganda in the speeches of Joseph McCarthy. This was in 1955, when McCarthy was still in power. I wonder what the university thought of that. She could have been black-balled from future jobs. Did they tell her to tone it down? Just don’t publish it anywhere? She was a rabble-rouser, in an every day way.

Betty Chmaj was a force of nature who would command everyone’s attention when she came into a room. She was the Michigan women’s state debate champion in 1954; the men’s champ, Guy Vander Jagt, was elected to Congress. (She said he was a creep.) She had a radio show in Detroit–today it would be a podcast–called “Cities of our Minds.” She helped co-found the Radical Caucus of the American Studies Association in the 1960s, protesting the under-representation of minorities and women in the academic profession. She sued her university for gender discrimination (they settled out of court in her favor).

Teaching “Jazz & the American Consciousness” in Detroit with my Dad, probably 1968.

She used multimedia in her classes, teaching about the arts in America and images of women in film, print, advertising. That doesn’t sound impressive, except this was 1975. Video technology had not been invented yet. So her multimedia was a record player, a movie projector, and a slide carousel. She would drop the needle, play a snippet of music, show a picture or a film clip, then explain it. I took it for granted that’s what professors did until I went to college and realized, nobody did that. Somebody stole her purse in a parking lot once and she was so mad because they took all her De Kooning slides, which she was never able to replace.

Yet Mom also made the best pancakes. She was a late sleeper, so we would have to wait until 10:30 on the odd Sunday morning, when we could then wake her up to beg for bacon and pancakes. I’m an early riser like my dad, so I always thought she was lazy and had no idea that this was because she stayed up until the wee hours, working. I learned it when we started spending summers in a cabin together, and she would sit at her imported electronic typewriter, banging away into the wee hours. Images in Women in Film and American Culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Double Attraction in the American Arts. My brother affectionately called it the Olivetti lullaby.

Oh, Mom! Another birthday party?

Our moms were Forces of Nature because the world didn’t take them seriously. What must it have been like to raise kids and be a professor? A woman in academia, where she was expected to get coffee and take notes at meetings? In the Sixties and Seventies when women were belittled and patronized?

Once, we were in a furniture store when the oily salesman started calling her “Honey.” She started calling him “Sweetie” and “Dear,” until his smile faded. I felt the heat rise to my face and cringed. Oh, Mom! Do you always have to do that? And now I think Boo-yah! Right on! I can only hope to have the courage to do that.

Mom with me and KK, some 40+ years ago.

Dr. Chmaj had high expectations for my brother and me. We felt the weight of those expectations. She would always look over the papers we would hand in for an English class and frown over something, lean over to correct an error. Force of habit. I don’t ever remember her reacting to a report card, unless it was to ask why something wasn’t an “A.” But I have thought recently that perhaps that’s my memory. Maybe she said This is great, and I simply don’t remember that part. I was always trying to squirm out of the hugs, so maybe I just don’t remember them.

I am a chip off the old block. I know my writing tends to ramble. I think it’s that insecurity of needing to prove that I know something. But my mom had to fight for that same recognition. She would write in 10-point font to half-inch margins, barely double-spaced.Page after page, crowded with ideas. She was always getting in trouble for lecturing too long, writing too much, having too much to say. If you wonder why my blogs are so g-dammed long, it’s genetic.

Mom puts down her crutch for the photo on the Great Wall of China, ?1992.

Mom had a lot of health problems when she got older. She had a form of migraines and fibromyalgia. It wasn’t diagnosed as such for about 15 years, so she had to endure doctors telling her it was in her head. Until it wasn’t. When she went to China, she took a picture of herself proudly climbing steps on the Great Wall, leaving her crutch on the stairs, so it’s not in the photo. She was in China because she was teaching American Studies in Beijing, through a translator. Even as a tourist, there was always academia attached to her destination.

My mother always told me I needed to “Make the world a better place.” I resented that. Why is that on me? More expectations! Now, I worry for my kids and my maybe-future grand kids. Will they make the world better? What did we hand them? Did we prepare them enough? I think now that’s what she meant. That we all needed to make the world better, starting with her. She certainly gave it the full welly.

Mom created a neighborhood 4th of July parade and would lead with her “Peace Float Walker.” I thought it was corny and refused to do it. The neighborhood loved it.

Moms are Forces of Nature because they have to be. My mom had to put up with me as a teenager. I didn’t like her as a mom then, and I bet she didn’t like me as a kid, either. I ran the opposite direction for what she had in mind for me, a life in academia. She did the same thing with her parents. I wonder how many generations that goes back, all of us rebelling against our parents’ ideals. Only to circle back around to them in the end. My mom would look at all these posts and probably find a typo somewhere. But then she would just nod to herself. Done my job.

Could barely climb stairs but got right down on the floor with her grandson, now a future Ph.D. Apple, tree.

We get old enough to understand what our mothers went through with us and with the world. We wonder how they put up with it, now that we’ve had to put up with it.

What I know is that my mom had a very long shadow because I can still feel it. But what I also realized, only recently, is that those shadows are also etchings. There are grooves in me from that shadow, markers, stamps, call them what you will. It made an impression on me in the most literal way.

In the best possible way. I also think my pancakes are better, but only because she showed me how to make them.

3 Replies to “We All Become our Mothers”

  1. Loved this portrait of your mother, and yes, every generation struggles with their mothers. I know mine do with me.

    1. I brought myself to tears. Came across some pics of your mom, too. Remember them all fondly, all these badassed women of our youth.

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