April 24th would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. Our relationship was complicated, and tough to navigate. She was a very physically affectionate woman, and quick to say “I love you.” But her own life had been complicated by the death of her mother when she was two or three years old, and the loss of her father at age 13.
She was the definition of Irish temper, and Catholic guilt, a difficult combination. On the other hand, I see from this vantage point that many of the things she said were said in an effort to protect me, as it never occurred to me that I would encounter the prejudice against women that I did.
When I look back I realize that it was my own Irish temper that gave me the grit to withstand things like being told women shouldn’t go to college, much less law school, by my college adviser; having the pre-law adviser ask if it was okay with my husband if I went to law school (I wore a wedding ring to ward off other stuff); having a judge tell me that he didn’t like “women’s tricks” when I won a case on a technical issue of service of process; or being patted on the butt by the sheriff as I walked up the stairs to the courtroom. I could go on, but I am digressing. Mom knew and tried to warn me, but I saw it as “old-fashioned” and believed she “wasn’t liberated”.
Mothers and daughters. That column has been done and done again. But something happened shortly after my mother died that has come to have more and more meaning to me as I age, and I wanted to share it. Sitting in my mother’s living room after her funeral, my sisters and brother and I went through a huge box of photographs we found in her closet. Some of the pictures were taken in 1947. It was a new, and odd, glimpse into my mother’s life, and possibly the first time I saw her as someone ‘other’ than my mom. She loved tennis. She had an old autograph book from when she was 13 (1930) with cute little limericks written by her friends. There was a picture of her laughing as she took back a crying infant (my sister Kathy) from a young girl with a horrified look on her face. She was always, always dressed well and fashionably.
There were pictures of her with my paternal grandfather. Her first nursing job was caring for him through his final illness. I wish I could say that the picture gave me a newfound respect for her, but that would be overstating the case. They just made me sad that the struggle she and I had over my tomboyishness, lack of interest in clothing or appearance, my sullen silence, and her ever critical eye, had defined our relationship.
Shortly after I came back to Colorado, I had a dream that was so realistic I had a hard time distinguishing it from reality. In it, my mother appeared to me as a younger, healthier version of herself. She told me she had come back to apologize; that she had thought it was her job to form me into the woman she thought I should be. From where she was now, she explained, she realized that all she could do was put her knowledge into the river of knowledge and hope that I would drink from it.
I have to admit that dream informed my thinking. As a lawyer, I was in the habit of telling people what to do, and that certainly spilled over into my personal life. The realization that my responsibility ended at sharing my knowledge was both a relief and a burden. It wasn’t just a matter of changing my way of believing, but my way of being.
It is unfortunate that my relationship with my mother wasn’t healed before her death. I do hope though, that if consciousness continues in some form after death, I will have a chance to thank her . . . both for the apology, and for the knowledge.