The older I get the more regret I have about opportunities missed to learn about my mother. She is an enigma: who was she at heart, and how did she come to be the person whose influence must be playing out in me in ways I will never understand.
My Dad would talk about his years in school, his first jobs and his time in the Army during the war, but my mother never spoke about her own upbringing, never used “When I was your age …” examples to scold or instruct. She was a private person, keeping thoughts and feelings to herself.
I know now that she was a strong and independent woman – the only mother among all my childhood peers to drive a car (a Model A Ford which she could repair herself) and work full time while we kids were growing up. She knew her way around a toolbox as well as a cookbook and a sewing machine, and she managed all the household finances. But I did not know that any of this was exceptional in the suburban June Cleaver post-war of the 1950’s. Now, after she has long passed and I am at leisure to reflect on my own life, I am often wracked with regret at what I never asked.
What started this latest reverie on my mother? Readers of this blog know that a while ago I was fascinated with the book H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. In this remarkable memoir the author references an earlier book on falconry, The Goshawk, by T.H. White. I was excited at this connection because T.H. White has long been a favorite author of mine. That is to say The Once and Future King has long been a favorite book of mine. I re-read it every five years or so.
What really surprised me, however, was the incidental mention by Ms. Macdonald that White also wrote a children’s book, Mistress Masham’s Repose – a satirical fantasy about Maria, a clever, independent, fearless girl of ten in the erudite world of British history and manners, elevated, archaic speech (with Many Capital Letters), persecution by evil Governesses – and camaraderie with Lilliputians; a book my mother gave me when I was the same age as the heroine. Who gives their 10 year old child a biting satire filled with obscure phrases in Latin and references to Gulliver’s Travels and British pomp and circumstance?
She also had given me a beautiful, illustraed boxed set of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass for my first Christmas. I was three and a half months old at the time. The flyleaf dedication and date – so many years before I would ever be able to read these books – has long fascinated me. What was she thinking, or hoping for me? And why did I never ask her about this?
My Mom worked all the while my younger sister and brother and I were growing up, and my Grandmother came to live with the family when I was four or five. So, although Mom taught me to read at an early age, it was Grandma who read to me while I was still young. But Mom supplied the library. There was a beautifully illustrated, oversized A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson which may well have whet my appetite for poetry. I can still remember that book and its iconic illustrations with an almost physical pleasure. There was The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales; a thick volume full of the fanciful, often gory cautionary parables of western European folk lore, but also many tales of female cleverness and power. Grandma read these over and over and I loved them.
I’ve come to recognize now, that my love of reading, my early belief that girls could be as independent and clever and boys, plus my love of elevated language (which has become the bane of my efforts to be a contemporary poet), were shaped in some way by my mother’s reading choices for me; books full of stories about clever, adventuresome girls, sophisticated, dangerous, exciting and brilliantly imaginary worlds, told in complex and creative language. No Pat the Bunny or Velveteen Rabbit for me. It was Alice, Maria, Gretel … and “Jabberwocky,” which I can still recite from memory to this day.
In my pre-teen years there were long summer days spent reading – Mom in her chair, me in mine. Weekly trips to the Library and home with armfuls of books greedily read in tandem through the warm afternoons and evenings. One of my fondest memories is of Mom, cup of coffee and cigarette, permanent fixtures on the end table next to her chair, and a tower of books on the floor that reached up past the arm.
Later, there was the quarterly Reader’s Digest condensed anthology series of current best-selling novels – where I first read To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) and so many other modern authors. In the mind’s eye of my youth, I still see the gold-lettered volumes lined up on the shelves beside the fireplace in the living room.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, this blog is about “Paying Attention” and this is precisely what I did not do when I had the opportunity. Now late in my adult life, I am suddenly dumbfounded by how ignorant I have been about my mother’s influence on my own reading and writing life. I am struck by how little I know about why she chose to put these books and not others in my path. As grateful as I am for the gifts I am only now beginning to understand she gave me in her private, unspoken way, I am also saddened and embarrassed for myself that I did not have the awareness or the maturity to ask her about them and maybe learn a bit about what made her who she was, when I had the chance.
I suppose that many of us who have lost our parents have these regrets. But recently, in discussions with friends related to this, two insights bubbled up. The first was that rarely are children curious about their parents. It is a part of the natural distancing that children must do as they separate their identities from their parents to not only be un-curious, uninterested in who and what their parents are or think, but often become rebellious in that process as well.
The second bubble emerged in a lively discussion with other artists about the value of keeping a sketchbook. As artists we sometimes make casual sketches, or as poets, notes of things that strike us at a moment, but do not blossom into a fully realized creative effort. It is not until much later, upon reflection and perhaps the acquisition of increased skill or maturity, that the spark that first struck us finds fertile ground and can be grappled with productively.
I think it is the same with reflecting on our parents. Perhaps we weren’t curious enough as children to be interested in them and what they were sharing of themselves – a fault we can, I think, forgive ourselves for. But the regret comes when as adults, we realize that we could have leafed through our sketchbook of childhood memories while our parents were still with us to use our mature curiosity to learn about them – and about how they shaped who we are.
Maybe this is just wishful thinking. Maybe, even if I were the most skilled of interviewers, my mother would never have been able to share, to open up, perhaps even to understand herself the why of what she did for me. So I am left to wonder and grapple in what ways I can, and to be grateful if puzzled about who she was.
Here’s a poem from my chapbook, Coming to Terms that’s sort of an illustration of my relationship to my mother.
NOTE: I must thank Ellie Strong of Strong Bindery here in Cleveland for restoring the box for my ‘Alice” books. She is a book lover and restoration expert extraordinaire. Should you need her services for any of your own over-loved volumes, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org (shared with her permission).