In thinking about my mother lately, as I approach the 10th anniversary of her death, I’ve been mulling over some of the mixed messages she passed down to me: about speaking your mind but always respecting authority; about following your own path in life, as long as it includes a husband and children; about the evils of money but the value of having enough to tell the rest of the world to go to hell.
What has come to me, in a flash of enlightenment (it’s only taken me 59 years to get here) is that the women of my mother’s generation lived in a world of mixed messages. No wonder they weren’t totally sure how to guide us into the future!
Picture this: you are a young American woman in the late thirties, early forties, going along, dancing with boys, swooning over Rudolph Valentino (this was, at least in part, my mother’s scenario). You have a job, but you probably don’t expect to keep it after you find a good husband (my mother worked first as a home-economicx teacher and then for the Virginia Electric and Power Company, showing rural women who had always cooked on wood-burning stoves or washed their clothes on a washboard how to use and trust their new electrical appliances).
I realize there were more rebellious types out there, going to medical or law school, breaking down barriers. There were also plenty of women working on farms to keep their families alive. But this was my mother’s scenario—and I believe it holds true for a lot of women back then.
Now, picture this: suddenly, a man in a far-away country named Hitler turns your world on its ear.
I can’t speak for all those other women, so I’ll just talk about my mother’s story. At first, things don’t change much, except that now there are lots of handsome, uniformed men in your town (Norfolk, Va), pushing up the romance and glamour quotient.
But then, things start taking a turn for the worse. It’s hard to find gas for your car or stockings for your legs, and there are blackouts and air raid drills. And right at the point where you think you’ve come to terms with this new reality (you’re driving an ambulance for the Red Cross to replace the driver who went to Europe; you’ve collected scrap metal; you’ve danced with British soldiers at the USO; you’re even taking flying lessons), your father dies. Your father, your only remaining parent, since your mother died your senior year in college. Your father, who has always made all the decisions in your family, financial and otherwise.
What do you do then? Well, for one thing, you realize that life is short, so you finally get married to the man you love and have been dating for years, right before he goes off to war. And, for comfort, you turn on your radio each night and listen to the ultimate male authority, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, telling you that you have nothing to fear but fear itself.
But the world is a new and shaky place. And now there is no one to run your father’s successful business, a machine shop producing logging machinery. Your hometown is emptied out of men; your four sisters have their own lives to lead, in other towns. And so, you grit your teeth and step in to run the business. And you are scared because you don’t know how to do it. Your husband is on the other side of the world, in New Guinea, and can’t help you, and your letters get censored anyway. So you turn for advice to the older men in the machine shop, the ones who were too old to go off to war. They teach you the ropes, but they are the workers, not the managers, so they can’t help you when push comes to shove. But, wonder of wonders, you succeed! You not only run the business–you increase sales, fill orders, grow new customers—for nearly 3 years.
And then what happens? The War ends. The men come home. Your husband comes home. It’s time for you to return to “normal” life.
In fact, it’s time to sell or just shut down the business (I’m not sure which happened) so that people can get on with their lives. And you’re more than ready to give it up. You want to have children, be a full-time mother like your mother, put the War and everything about it behind you. And all the ads in all the magazines are talking about how great it is that you can now enjoy being domestic, since your kitchen is equipped with modern conveniences such as a Frigidaire and an electric toaster, maybe even a blender for making cocktails!
And Margaret Anderson, Mrs. “Father Knows Best” is on the radio, happily baking cookies as her husband spouts wisdom. The men have come home from the war to a much-deserved peace. They need to put their feet up and receive a cocktail, while their children are “seen and not heard.” All’s right with the world, and with you.
Except for that little nagging feeling that won’t go away.
My mother told me that her time running the machine shop was one of the happiest times of her life—which was always a little puzzling to me, since it corresponded with Daddy’s time overseas. But I’ve come to see that her enjoyment of that time had nothing to do with my father and was no reflection on her love for him. Sure, she missed him, and she longed for him to be back in the States. But she was also having a blast finding out that she was not only capable of running that business but good at it.
So, my mother’s main war stories were not about the war. They were about everything that happened around “the shop” and the characters who worked there—and how she dealt with problems that came up, including interracial episodes among the workers. These stories had a huge effect on me growing up. They were stories of strength and intelligence and capability. They made me realize that it didn’t matter what my mother was doing at the moment or what choices she might have made. Even at my most radical Feminist stage, I knew my mother was powerful.
Is it any wonder that her messages to her four daughters were a little mixed?
Mama loved all four of us and loved being a mother. We knew we were not something she would have traded and that she genuinely wanted us all to have good marriages, filled with children. We also knew that she wanted something more for each of us, something individual and bright and shining, something that would show us our deepest inner strength, the kind that emerged for her during her years at the Machine Shop.
It’s interesting that my “issues” with my mother revolved around control, around how much control she could take over my life, my writing, my weight. I think now that, since she had so much untapped energy and ability in her, the kind that can run a business and make it fly, energy that she couldn’t let out in her own life – except into beautiful braided rugs or the musical she wrote about Paul Revere and never got published —she had to let it out somewhere. I don’t think she could help over-managing our lives a bit—or the lives of her friends and relatives, even passing acquaintances (my mother was famous for solving people’s problems, even when she wasn’t invited to do so!).
I know that, given the first opportunity to manage something solid again, she grabbed it. When I went off to college, my mother, the new empty nester for the first time in over 25 years, started volunteering for Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. What started as stuffing envelopes led, through rapid promotion, into a position running Humphrey’s whole campaign for Montgomery County, Maryland. When I was home that year for Christmas and during the summer, I worked in the campaign, so I had the privilege to see my mother running a massively complicated operation, with tons of different people, paid and unpaid, working for her.
I was blown away by her organizational skills, her natural ability with people, her strength as a leader, and her joy in her work. She inspired and empowered a whole office full of young college students to put in long hours, travelling around the county making speeches and putting up flyers, shaking hands at traffic lights. I am honored to have had the chance to see her in action.
When I think about all this, I forgive my mother her mixed messages. At least her mixed messages were about trying to do more, not less.
The main message Mama gave me was that somehow I needed to be a stay-at-home, full-time wife and mother and good cook (like her) while also being a full-time writer (because she valued creativity above almost anything else) and do something else, too–something that could bring in lots of money. Maybe run a business?
Even if she couldn’t say it out loud, my mother, by living out her own mixed messages, encouraged all of us to be the best we could be at whatever we chose to do, and, most of all, not to be afraid of change.So, here’s to my controlling, conflicted, powerful, funny, creative, loving mother! And here’s to forgiveness for all the women of her generation who faced down terrible fear and uncertainty. If they put on aprons and baked pies after the War, who can blame them? Maybe it’s time to stop blaming them for their mixed messages. After all, all they wanted was to find some way to keep their daughters– and sons– safe and happy in a world that had changed completely in front of their eyes.