This week, for reasons unfathomable, I’ve been thinking about my mother. She died some years ago, age 85, and left us enough money for a downpayment on our house. I’ve been thinking what else she left me.
A pile of photo albums: the family in front of the Christmas tree, the family in front of the car, the family in front of the house. endlessly. Oddly, we’re always smiling, and it wasn’t forced, except on visits when we had to watch the Lawrence Welk show.
And when I hit the teen years and discovered my own, we had many tempests. Yet she could bend—not with a boss or a salesclerk or some honcho in charge, but with me. Having struggled for money all her life, she was deeply anxious about my going into theatre rather than engineering, but finally it was, “Whatever you’re happy with.” Same with my marrying young. Same with my leaving professorship for taking a chance on a rag-tag theatre troupe. She’d worked all her life at drudge jobs—from bookkeeping to riveting B-29s to assembly line at a meatpacking plant to driving a dynamite truck—and simply wanted me to do what I wanted to do.
What I didn’t inherit, to my regret, was her confrontational instinct. I hate conflict. I hate my own anger. I don’t like it in others, but I could use a bit more of it myself. As a playwright, I’ve rarely worked well with other directors of our work because I’m too compliant. I can’t bring myself to complain about the neighbor’s dog. On the other hand, it’s perhaps contributed to my high creativity in finding compromise.
As a writer, I look first at my characters’ incongruities, and much of that, I think, comes from trying to comprehend her. She would certainly have supported Trump’s policies, but she always voted—or didn’t—on whether or not she liked the guy, and her assessment of him might well have been “big fat blowhard.”
For a time she had been dirt poor, with the challenge of being a single parent, but she had no sympathy with anyone on “handouts.” She would have been appalled at the current family separations, but would have blamed the mothers for putting their kids in danger. At family gatherings our kids would hear their loving Grandma spout racial epithets —“The niggers are all over North Omaha”—and we would have to explain, “Grandma’s just that way, and you’re not going to change her,” as I knew from having that fight many times. We’re each a menagerie of personae.
She had a capacity to accept the inevitable. Two failed marriages, but while she was dead honest with me about my deserter dad’s faults, she was honest about her love for him. When she was courted in elder years by a nice man with what was, to her, absolute disqualifiers (a farmer, a Catholic, and with strong family ties), she married him—in large part, I think, to provide for her old age without being a burden to us. When she was seriously ill, receiving regular transfusions, as soon as it became clear to her that she was beyond recovery, she died rapidly—an iron will turned inward.
Odd to think of that as a survival mechanism, but it was for her and it is for me. Shit happens, and my head goes instantaneously to, Okay, what do we do? It’s a challenge to realize that I need to precede that by an appropriate allowance for grief or rage, and I try to be mindful of others’ emotional timelines, but it serves its purpose for my own process to proceed on, Damn, that’s life. What’s next?
I’ve always thought that my father, through his negative example, gave me an almost pathological sense of responsibility. But maybe in a roundabout way, my mother contributed. “You’re the man of the house,” she told me at the age of five, and I was painfully aware of my inadequacy for that role. But a little guilt goes a long way. I was no better than any only-child at taking on the dishwashing or lawn mowing that would make a difference, and I married someone with a technical bent that made “man of the house” irrelevant. But traits kick in at various levels. If I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it.
It was always that. In my own life, I can only claim that for three people, my wife and my children. Love for and a stake in many friends, but for me “unconditional” for only a few, and it’s as literal as my mother’s love for this little brat who stomped on her boyfriend’s shiny shoes.
Lots of genes that I wish hadn’t come from her, and lots that didn’t, but I’m grateful for what she gave me.