My mother tells her daughters she wishes she would have, could have been more like us. What she means is she wishes she had been an independent woman, a woman who goes ahead without fear.
Her daughters are women who have followed our passions. We are women who have worked in “men’s” fields. We are women who are perfectly fine going to eat on our own, going to see a film on our own, or traveling on our own. We can repair our toilets or our cars, even though we don’t always want to. We make life-altering decisions and follow them through, even though we don’t always want to. We chop wood, hoe giant gardens, put by food. We can fish and come home with something for dinner. Well, one of us has trouble with that, I admit. Among us, we have raised families, taught school, managed a cemetery, run non-profits, remodeled houses. In other words, we are today’s typical, marvelously ordinary women.
When our mother tells us she wishes she could be more like us, we laugh. Why? Where the hell does she think we learned to be that way? Helloooo.
Our mother did the typical mom things of the 50’s, cooking, cleaning, sewing, preserving foods, etc. She also taught 4-H classes in cooking and sewing (in which I was her least-gifted student), and she was president of the PTA and my father’s union auxiliary. I still have a newspaper clipping of her and her friend Lorraine wearing red-lipped smiles, in their nice dresses, heels, hats, with purses hanging from their arms, surrounded by swarthy, unsmiling union officials. She was somebody important and didn’t even know it.
Then we moved to the farm—“the place”– between La Grande and Island City. My father began working nights at the mill because that paid more. That way he would have more money to make the yearly “place” mortgage payment and he could work around the farm during the day.
However, that meant my mother’s job expanded from basic housewife, to unpaid laborer and overseer of everything that needed doing NOW and manager of we three sources of even cheaper labor. Who really ran the farm and made things happen? Mostly, my mother.
She raised chickens, turkeys (for a year—they were too stupid for more), and pigs. She sold eggs and fryers for banquets. We had rabbits and later, sheep, for 4-H projects. Dad milked the cows, (and later, we three girls milked), but Mom sold the milk and made the butter and cottage cheese. When buyers came for the milk and eggs, she gave them a cup of coffee and entertained them. If there was a customer my dad didn’t care for, he lit out for the bottom pasture. We hid in the background and listened, especially to the one guy who swore continually.
Dad slaughtered every large animal we grew to eat or those game animals he shot, and Mom was right alongside him through every bloody step right to the end with the packaging. Except killing the chickens. Then Mom ran the show. Dead animal parts in white, waxed butcher paper litter my young adult life.
Dad planted the garden, but Mom, and we girls, hoed the weeds and preserved the food. What we didn’t grow on the farm, such as apricots, peaches, and plums, she gleaned or purchased and preserved.
What’s amazing to me is that she did all this and still had a hot, well-rounded meal on the table every night for Dad before he went to work. I’ve tried doing that the last twelve years since retirement—work outside in the garden and yard all day and then come in and have energy left to prepare a substantial, healthy meal—It’s too much for me, and I don’t see how she did it.
Among her other amazing accomplishments, my mother was always lovely every time she went out in public, dressed as she said, “to the ‘T’.” “Like stepping out of a bandbox.” (I’m still not sure what those phrases mean, but I assume they mean that a person looks good.) When we asked her why she took such care, just to go buy toilet paper and paper towel at the store, for example, she said, “I never want to embarrass you kids by how I look.” I think there might be another story behind her comment, but I have never asked.
She sewed our clothing until I was in high school and then we were expected to buy our own with the money we made selling our lambs at the fair. I don’t know when she would have had time to sew, anyway.
I remember most of the dresses she made for us, especially the ones for the Easter season. When my sister Anita and I were little girls going to church, we had new shoes, hats, coats, dresses, gloves, and little purses every Easter. One year the dresses were lavender organdy, another year, turquoise chiffon. One coat was lemon yellow seersucker with a white collar trim.
We had school clothes, too—the yellow and black plaid dresses that my sisters and I wore, along with our aunts who were my age. In their separate towns, my grandmother had sewn the dresses of my aunts, and our mother, ours. Then we all came together at our home for picture taking. The five of us girls lined up in front of the red house look like smiling bumble bees. My baby sister looks like she’s thinking, “Where am I? Who am I?”
Another favorite was my fourth grade dress with the red top and red and white vertically-striped skirt sporting a big tie in back. I was forever stepping on the untied tie and ripping it from my waistband. My sister’s dress was always pristine.
The year I was asked to a college formal, my mother sewed me a turquoise satin and lace, A-framed, below-the-knee dress with wide, swinging sleeves in the style of the late 60’s. My little brother had arrived in the family by then, so she was even busier and yet, on the night of the formal, there was the dress.
In those years, there were things about being a woman we girls saw and didn’t like. We saw Mom didn’t have her own money; that she had to buy gifts for Dad with the money he earned. She was so proud each time she had a project and made her own money and could buy a gift on her own. We learned from her situation that we should be able to take care of ourselves by having a skill we could market, that if we could take care of ourselves financially, we’d be beholden to no one. We also learned from our entire childhood how to save and how to live cheaply, yet well. How to cook with a few, healthy ingredients and make something from whatever was in the cupboard or freezer.
Mom was Martha Stewart before her time.
I often wonder what she would choose to do or be if she found herself a teenager right now, in this time. She studied to be a nurse. Would that be her choice? Would she be the CEO of a company? Would she be a scientist? Would she work for Intel or Micron? After all, she was a highly organized multi-tasker in her early days. She loved the sciences. Would she have been in a band? She could play the piano and read music without the benefit of lessons. If she could live for just herself, what would she choose to be?
Growing up in a different time, she didn’t have that luxury. As her daughters, we were told things like “a woman’s duty is to her husband” and “you make your bed, you lie in it” beliefs from her parents’ time that kept on coming through her lifetime and maybe through ours as well, statements meant to keep women second class citizens. But we never believed, growing up her children, that women could not accomplish what they intended to accomplish.
That’s not what we saw. Yes, we saw fear—Mom didn’t drive until she was 29, but then I didn’t learn to swim until that age, either. We saw fear of change every time she was given the gift of a new appliance and had to learn how to work it. We all have fears like that. But we never saw fear in not being able to accomplish what she set out to do.
Watching our mother is how we daughters learned that a woman has the ability to do whatever she wants to do. Why do you suppose we refused to believe anyone who told us we couldn’t do a particular job? Why do you suppose one of us laughed in the face of a “superior” at work who said “you don’t know your place? Or at a business owner who told one of us she should just go home and take care of her children instead of applying for a job?
Our mother showed us women aren’t less, just female.
I’m sure she has no idea she taught us that. She would say she was just doing what needed done at the time. But isn’t that the reason any of us accomplishes what we do? It needs doing.
I often wonder what she would choose to do or be if she found herself a teenager right now, in this time. She studied to be a nurse. Would that be her choice? Would she be the CEO of a company? Would she be a scientist? Would she work for Intel or Micron? After all, she was a highly organized multi-tasker in her early days. She loved the sciences. Would she have been in a band? She could play the piano and read music without the benefit of many lessons. If she could live for just herself, what would she choose to be?
What we know from her example is not to judge people by male or female but by skills and gifts and to appreciate what each of us brings to the world. Things get done by doing.
What we learned from was not so much what our mother said, but what she did.
Truth in action.
The yellow and white bumblebee dresses. I’m second from left. Love my purse and the Ionic porch columns.
The turquoise chiffon dresses, accessorized with hat, purse, gloves, shoes. I’m second from right.
I’m on the right. The red and red and white striped dresses. Anita, Susie, and me. My first permanent.