Fairy Tales My Mother Taught me

Posted by on Apr 15, 2005 in Mother | 0 comments

I come from a long line of strong women, much to the consternation of the long line of men also associated with my family. I remember reading the stories of happily ever after women in fairy tales and imagined myself in those settings. After a few minutes I would realize that I was bored and went off to climb a tree or build a fort. I would sit in my imaginary tower for about 5 minutes waiting for the prince before I went off to do something more exciting. When I started dating I listened to other girls describe things their boyfriends did for them. I puzzled over why I never attracted the sort of man who threw his coat over a puddle for me, figuratively speaking, of course. I recall one day after I married my first husband when my girlfriend said, “Michael shampooed the carpet for me yesterday.” When I questioned her, she recited a laundry list of chores that her husband routinely did because he considered her too “frail” for hard labor. Thinking to shame my husband, I spoke up at the dinner table that evening,
“You know, Michael shampooed the carpet for Carlene yesterday.”
“Maybe he’ll shampoo ours too,” came the reply from behind the newspaper.

Now my first husband and I came to a parting of ways, certainly not because of the carpet, but I will never forget going to his apartment one day where he and his current girlfriend were living. I knocked at the door several times before he answered. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you”, says my x. The scene before me was the girl, sitting at the table reading the newspaper, and John, hand still on the vacuum he was running in the apartment. At that moment I realized a great truth. It wasn’t the men, it was me. It started me thinking about my grandmother, hoeing a half-acre of corn in the midday sun, in a bonnet she made from one of her chicken feed bags. I also remember her with an ax, cutting the head off one of those chickens for Sunday dinner. She taught me to scald the bird and pluck the feathers, soak them in salt water, then bread and fry them up on a coal oil stove. She gave me the basics of gardening, taught me how to make soap from wood ash and bacon drippings, crochet fluffy things to sit annoying under lamps and ash trays, and how to keep the dogs away from the rabbits she kept in a pen out back.

Now this was my dad’s mother, and she and her daughter in law had little good to say about each other. My mother could do all those things too, but she was a modern woman, a generation removed from the farm, and glad to see it gone. She had a hatred for dirt and poor housekeeping that gave me nightmares before my children were born, anticipating her arrival in my less than immaculate home. Not that she was afraid to get her hands dirty, which she proved by raising a garden, putting up wallpaper, making furniture, canning and freezing and even bathing a baby raccoon my dad brought home from a hunting trip. When my dad started his business selling auto parts, Mother proved herself an astute businesswoman, learning more about cars and their components than most any man in the county or even the state. She was caught in the odd time warp that occurred between WW II and the woman’s liberation movement. She had never been able to attend college, but she sent both of her daughters with the money she earned running a business in a man’s domain. When time came for us to work, she objected, telling us that our husbands should be able to support us and we really should stay home with our children.

The strange dichotomy that was my mother has haunted me all my life, but in many ways I am the living legacy of all my mother was, and all that my grandmother was too.
My grandmother, born right before the turn of the century into a poor rural family, knew a respectable woman must work from dawn to dusk if she expected to have a good life. Mother came of age in the depression and her image of herself varied strongly with the reality of the person she became. Both of them were pioneer women and my grandmother held to that image even though she had to support her family for a time. She knew that women, the weaker sex, required a husband, so she married and buried three of them. My mother was steel, inside a silk glove, but she believed herself to be more of a wildwood flower. My generation burned their bras and talked about free love, disdaining the materialism that our parents and grandparents struggled so hard to provide for us. Through all generations the tremendous magnitude of the relationship between mother and daughter continues to drive women crazy. We want to please, we want them to be proud of us, but at the same time we hate the part of ourselves that desires that approval. At least that is the way it is with strong women. I don’t really know about relationships between mothers and daughters that are of a compliant mindset. I’m not even sure they actually exist. For years I thought that my father was the boss in our house. I thought that because my mother told him he was with such skill and adroitness that I think she believed it herself at times. Perhaps the women who appear to be frail flowers are actually just cleverer than I. They don’t feel the need to prove anything, so they get their carpets shampooed and the chicken’s heads chopped off without having to compromise any parts of themselves. If that’s true, don’t tell me, just let my daughter know in private and maybe she won’t have to work as hard as I have.

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