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.
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 she actually did meet Eleanor Roosevelt, as a college student on the committee to support the United Nations in 1950.
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).
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.
My mother couldn’t go anywhere without making it a big production. She went to the Mall of America with her nephew, then wrote it up for a paper, saying that it “preached familial happiness through reinvented consumerism.” We couldn’t go to Disneyland without her kvetching about the “Disneyfication” of America. Instead, she preferred dragging us to museums, concerts, Shakespeare, Renaissance fairs. Man, did I resent it! But, when I had kids, what did I do? Dragged them to museums, concerts… My birthday celebration with my kids was (and still is ) Shakespeare in the park: KFC, blanket, cookies, Macbeth and Cymbeline.
Mom did make 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 late working. I learned it when we started spending summers in a cabin together, and she would sit at the 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.
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.
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. At the end of my high school AP History class, after the test was over, we had to write a 10-page paper. I churned out 25 pages on the American arts. I just walked around the house and pulled books off the shelf. I think my high school teacher probably just flipped through the pages and said oh my God. My mom would write in 10-point font to half-inch margins, barely double-spaced. If you look at anything she wrote, it would be 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.
My mother had a lot of health problems when she was 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.
Because she was in China, teaching about American Studies to the Chinese. (For heaven’s sake! Through a translator! They loved her!) She won a Fulbright a year later but decided she didn’t want to go because they wanted her to go Shanghai and she wanted to go to Beijing, the belly of the beast. My brother and I were kind of annoyed that she turned it down, but I thought later — Geez, she won a Fulbright. For all I know, she didn’t feel physically up to the travel. I’m that age now, and I don’t know if I’d want to spend a year in China traveling. With fibromyalgia.
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 the make the world better, starting with her. She certainly gave it the full welly.
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 those 26 posts I just finished writing about the Renaissance and probably find a typo somewhere. But then she would just nod to herself. Done my job.
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.