The Legacy of My Mothers

2:19 a.m.  The six-month old lets me know he wants to be fed…by chewing my hair and purring like the first clunker that started the Industrial Revolution.  In a daze, I spill a few kibble into the bowl.  I return to bed, serenaded by the hissing of sibling rivalry.  After a few moments, there is peace: the cat snuggles in on the left, the kitten tucks in on the right and I lay like a tenuous truce in the middle.  They sleep.  I stay awake. 

I’m one of those crazy cat people.  The cat has been with us since he was 5 weeks old.  We nicknamed him Garou–as in loup-garou, the French word for werewolf.  It’s also a play on the word Guru.  Having a cat that sticks his head in the shower every morning, abhors all cheese except provolone, and lives to sneak hot coffee directly from the mug, his presence is a reminder to not take life so seriously.  To enjoy the simple things.  The kitten is Squeegee, or Squeege Monster, which is more appropriate as the four-inch long scratch on my wrist (Squeegmata) and the scratch along the corner of my mouth (a GlasSqueegian Smile?) will testify.  Because both of them came into our lives when they were little, they’ve imprinted on me and my husband as Mamma and Daddy; and I guess I’ve hugged them with my own maternal instincts.

I can’t have children.  I may be able to conceive but I cannot chance it: my body makes blood clots.  All of those birth control commercials that talk about risks of blood clots and strokes–I’m one of those risks.  It happened 10 years ago.   For a long time, I was grateful to be alive, to have survived my illness.  I wasn’t even ready for kids but when I was told that pregnancy equaled a death sentence, I mourned.  Truly mourned.  During the worst of it, I challenged my body and declared, “I’m just going to take my chances; damn the consequences!”  Two days later, a 22-year old woman from our Air Base died.  She had the same tendency (I hate to say disease because I’m not sick now and haven’t been for a long time) to make blood clots.  The doctors advised her not to get pregnant; when she did, they recommended an abortion.  At seven months pregnant, her heart and lungs filled with blood clots and she died.  Her baby was born via C-section; I don’t know if he or she survived.  That is when I began to surrender.  I still mourned.  I was angry.  And disgusted with myself: I began viewing babies as parasites.  For awhile, I even shunned holding them.  But I made peace.  After nearly a year of feeling badly, of allowing the Catholic guilt I was raised in to condemn me, I had an epiphany: maybe God or Fate wanted me around for a different reason.   Because if I hadn’t been on the Pill, if I hadn’t honored my timeline, then I would have been the pregnant girl whose heart and lungs filled with clots.  And that was a truth not constructed to make me feel better but a cold, clear realization of knowing in my soul.  In that moment, I chose to let it go.

Yet, I still felt destined to be a mother: deep in my soul I knew I had to mother myself. 

Like most women, my relationship with my mother vacillates between frustration, guilt and compassion.  Twenty-eight years ago, when my parents divorced, our lives became one of continuous loss.  My mother never really got over that time.  Her grief and anger were not connected to my father–never to him–but to the loss of self, the loss of self-esteem.  No doubt about it, Mom was better than Dad.  She was better looking, more motivated, more alive.  For someone who was better than the man she was with to lose everything to him and because of him had to be absolutely devastating.  For that, I have the utmost compassion but I wish she could choose to simply let it go.  It colors everything.  My mother is beautiful but she will never see it; instead, like an adolescent girl, she is incredibly mean to herself picking away at things no one else can see. 

In my worst moments, I am also like that.  Interestingly enough, so is my grandmother.  Where did this come from?  In the quest to mother myself, I looked back.  Way back.  Thanks to my precious great-aunt who has since passed on, I became intimately acquainted with several generations of women:  

My great-great-grandmother was sent from Italy to the United States to marry a man of her parents’ choosing.  She ignored her parents’ wishes and married another Italian immigrant.  They settled in Ohio, and raised their children, one of whom was my great-grandmother.

Great Grandma was a pistol.  Before the 1920’s started to roar and my Great Grandpa was still a suitor, she cooked him breakfast in her bathing suit just so he could see her figure.  But her parents were against the marriage: Great Grandpa was not Italian.  They caused so many problems that my great-grandparents moved to another state.  There, they raised their children, including my grandmother.

Grandma has always lived by the mantra, “We’re having a par-ty!”  When Grandpa asked my great-grandparents for Grandma’s hand in marriage, they refused.  My grandparents eloped but returned to their respective parents’ homes.  For six months, until Grandma became pregnant with my mother, my grandparents kept up this charade.  Mom arrived when Grandma was only 19; after she gave birth, Grandma cried that Mom wasn’t a boy.  Maybe she got that from her mother; even though Great Grandma sounded like a hoot, she was mean to her daughter.  So much so, that when she died and Grandma was given her ring, she said, “I guess Mamma did love me.”

Then there’s my mom.  The oldest of six, she married my father “just to get out of the house.”  As Grandpa walked my mother down the aisle, he offered her money not to marry my father.  She probably should have taken it.  But after a year of marriage, Mom had me.  And she doted on me: she read to me, cheered for me, made clothes and costumes and food.  I was sickly from the start and I hung onto her like an angel.  She was the pretty mom.  The cool one.  She bowled, skied, played softball, made ceramics and was the leader of my Brownie troop once.  She rocked out to Janis Joplin, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  Television was limited; books and music were not.  She was vibrant and even went back to school but my father loomed like bad Karma.  Sometimes I wonder if she hadn’t had me and then my sister, if she could have just gotten away from my father before she was labored with responsibilities, then she could have become the person she wanted to be. 

But here I am.  Like the four generations of women before me, who made marriages against their parents’ wishes, I followed the pattern.  I eloped with a man nearly 7 years my junior who swept me away from my family to become a military wife.  But unlike them: no children.  No daughters.  An oddball.  The woman that many who are mothers cannot relate to: if I am not here to raise children, then just what is my purpose?

Perhaps this: to draw connections.  It is not lost on me that the four generations of women before me were all dynamic in their own way and a bit before their time.  To an extent, risk takers.  But maybe settling in and sometimes settling for what a woman was supposed to do killed some of that dynamic spirit.  So much so, that when daughters arrived, it was a special heartbreak.  Being a girl meant becoming a woman.  And becoming a woman meant sacrifice for husband and children.  It meant the death of dreams.  So maybe when these women had their daughters, they were meaner than they should have been, less supportive than they could have been, killing those dreams before they could even be imagined.  Perhaps what seemed hateful was only protective.

This is the legacy I cannot pass on to anyone.  Sure, I could adopt but I still feel unseasoned and my gut knows it is not for me to become someone’s mother.  When I get that maternal itch, I can reach back through my family history and hug every women in it with compassion and understanding.  I can hug my nephew and my friends’ children who call me Auntie and Zia.  I can hug the Garou and the Squeege Monster.  But most importantly, I can hug myself.  Mother myself. 

And create a new legacy.

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