Tag Archives: mother

A phrase best left in the movies

In his late twenties my older brother went on a solo journey across the country, an adventure trip that took place over the course of about a year. He met a woman and after they’d been together awhile, she agreed to leave her home and come back with him to live in our town. We were all quite curious about who this woman was, leaving her life and job behind to make such a drastic move for a man, and one she hadn’t known terribly long at that. In her car no less!

On the night they returned the family gathered to see him and meet his new lady. I don’t remember much about that evening except that my brother asked our mother rather grandiosely to “rustle up some grub” for his new girlfriend. Rustle up some grub??! Had my brother really said that?! The only place I’d heard the phrase before was on TV, on Westerns. Our suburban family didn’t talk like that. Also, why the hell couldn’t he get up and fix some food or order a pizza or something? As it was he didn’t have to; our mother did indeed go to the kitchen to “rustle up some grub” for my brother’s girlfriend.

The relationship didn’t last – she returned to her home after about a year – and if you ask me there was a major hint in how it would devolve in my brother’s words and attitude that first night. Perhaps he started demanding his girlfriend, a modern, independent woman with her own career to “rustle up some grub” and so on.





Short Thought 205 (mother/daughter)

Many years ago I realized that my mother hadn’t given me a model for how to be a woman. I was largely left to figure it out for myself. I subsequently told this to the man I was seeing. He said no, she had provided a model; it just wasn’t one I wanted. I thought that was insightful and probably more accurate than what I’d said.

Everything is not my job…

I have this thing I do where I assign myself tasks. Jobs. I talked it about it before when I wrote about my blog’s anniversary and how I am always mindful to not make the blog a JOB. I’ve been good about that so far as the blog, but I had to keep the thought in mind; otherwise I slip there too easily. My nature is: “I must,” “I should,” “I better.”

I expect a lot of people live like this, with a list of things in their minds that have to get done. That should get done. That they either are, or feel responsible for. When I was young, in my early twenties and on my own, someone once said to me that life, in his theory, was 25% maintenance. I was impressed. I’d never thought of it like that. Now I think the figure is too low. Because really, when you consider that most people work at jobs in service of maintaining the other aspects of their lives (exempting those people who truly love their jobs – all 18 of them), you’d be including the paid work in addition to all the other tasks one must do to maintain a life.

What I’m talking about, naturally, is maintaining a good life, because sure enough, lots of people don’t do all these maintaining type activities. They don’t work or they don’t take care of themselves, or they live in chaos and squalor. They let things go. It isn’t pretty. We have all seen it. Their homes are in disrepair. Their bodies are in disrepair. Their children are in disrepair. It’s a mess. And we/I think: Jeez-o-flip, I’m glad I don’t live like THAT. Things aren’t THAT bad. And I don’t EVER want to live like that.

People will say, some of them anyway, that these types of “jobs” or “maintenance” or “tasks” aren’t important. It’s just better to enjoy life and if things don’t get done, oh well. They say a happy family is better than a clean house. Or partying with your friends is more important than looking for a job. Stuff like that. I get that we all have different standards, different priorities, but I look sideways at people who live and say things like this; I don’t entirely believe them. Do they really feel okay with a life in disarray?

But back to me. I walk around looking for jobs to assign myself. Oh sure, that’s not a conscious thought. But when I’m honest I see that’s what I do. Out in the world and in my own quarters. Why is everything my job? I ask myself this. I don’t always have an answer. And what do I mean anyway? I mean that I see things that need to get done, or that I think need to get done. And tell myself to get on it. These aren’t necessarily BIG things (like getting a Master’s or traveling to Italy or running for office or starting a business) but it isn’t the size of them that I’m really referencing here but the perspective.

Earlier this year I put this note on my mirror (I since took it down):


Maybe some people look around and think “wow things are great”, or think nothing at all. I look around and notice things that should be done. I don’t want to say this is entirely a BAD trait. I’m conscientious, I follow through, I’m reliable. I’d say I’m “proactive” but that’s not true across the board so let’s forget that one.

I have considered whether I do things so that other people might think or say, “isn’t that nice, look what she’s doing”? And the honest answer is no, it isn’t for other people’s eyes. In fact, I do things despite other people watching, despite a certain degree of self consciousness at times (one that has lessened with age and experience). The standards I am shooting for are my own, they are internal.

To be fair, the standards in my head were no doubt shaped by my mother. My mother saw life as an endless series of jobs. It was all work to her. She (along with my father) went and had herself a big family but by the time I came, she took little pleasure in said family, if she ever had (up for debate), and saw it as a huge source of work. Everything was a job. She even complained about family vacations and trips because of “all the work” she had to do to facilitate them. (Oh yes, this made everything, including trips, FUN for her offspring >>>sarcasm.)

My mother suffered. Oh, she suffered. She made sure we all knew – or at least her later children after which she had become thoroughly embittered on the business of raising a big family – how much trouble we all were. And everything about running the household – which was her primary focus (she had paid jobs mainly when we were older, but not a career per se) – were jobs. Unpalatable tasks.

The thing was she disdained pleasure and had scathing words for those who partook of it or focused on it. So it wasn’t like she’d have been whooping it up but for the big family and the work it entailed. In her view,  people who relaxed were LAZY. Children who played were lazy and spoiled. No, thankfully, she didn’t quote that saying about “idle hands” and the “devil’s workshop” but the point was clear enough.

My mother assigned herself jobs, some seemingly pointless and in fact, by the time I was a teen, I challenged her on it. God knows I’d heard her complain often enough about all the work she had to do, so I figured why shouldn’t she cut some corners? Especially insignificant ones.

One of the rare moments I ever influenced my mother stands out. We had a one floor house with a sort-of-finished basement and, eventually, a full bathroom on each floor (I remember a time when the downstairs bathroom had no shower and a curtain not a door). In the basement there was also a bedroom that was usually occupied by one or more of my brothers. But for the centipedes, crickets, and thousand-leggers who also occupied the basement, it was a pretty sweet set up. There was, in addition to the bathroom, a full size refrigerator (that always had beer in it), a TV room, a washer and dryer, and a “separate” entrance, i.e., a back door. AND it was about as far away from the fighting and chaos that was a regular household feature, as one could get and still be in the house. Not too shabby.

Anyway, my brothers didn’t use that washer and dryer, as it was my mother’s domain, and she washed the towels that were folded and stacked in the basement bathroom for my brothers’ use. She would bring said towels upstairs after washing and drying and carefully fold them on the dining room table. I’d watch this, knowing how she was, and finally said, why do you do that? It’s not necessary. To my shock, even now, after that she started just taking the bath towels out of the dryer and, skipping the hauling upstairs for careful folding routine, instead stuffing them onto the basement bathroom shelf. I couldn’t believe it, this token nod to rebellion and the easy life. It’s not like my brothers were going to care. They had clean towels that magically appeared. So what they weren’t nicely folded. (Trust me, she was never going to make them wash, dry and fold their own towels no matter how old they were.)

My mother did not teach me to look for “jobs”. No. It was obviously something I absorbed. But I took it further, out into the world with me, where she hadn’t. I think, in part, it’s because I developed a much stronger sense of self than my mother ever had, and a willingness to act if I thought it was called for.

The thing about a trait like this is that it’s been good in a lot of ways. I kind of feel like if I don’t assign myself jobs, I won’t do anything. And I get to reap (many of) the rewards of things I do. It’s when the tendency overwhelms me, when I “pile on” in my own mind that it becomes a negative force. I mean who wants to steal all the pleasure out of life? Isn’t the point of maintaining a good life so that you can step up and take the rewards too? I am surely not all-work-and-no-play. Please don’t think that. Far from it. But I am my mother’s daughter: in my unconscious mind, the rewards must be earned first. Chores come first. For me, the real task, the ongoing one, is teasing out which “jobs” really need to be done and which are manufactured in my own head. Everything is not my job.

What older sisters should be

My sisters were all older but they didn’t do the things that I’ve become wise to (over the passing decades) that older sisters are supposed to do. They did not teach me how to put on makeup, or how to do dance steps, or tell me anything helpful about boys. They didn’t give me good advice, or show me how to knit, or teach me to read. They did not buffet me from the chaos and drama that infused our household, or model admirable character, or guide me in how to live successfully. It goes on like that.

But here’s the thing. that’s not the whole story. When I’m looking at the whole scene, I know nobody did all of that for them either; they could not embody for me what no one had embodied for them. Their strongest influence was our mother. It was up to her to show her older daughters how to lead her younger ones, whether by her own example or by instruction. She did not.

But here’s the bigger thing. My sisters loved me. I never doubted that. Whatever else they lacked, wherever they fell short in my eyes, they loved me. That love was something I hung my hat on for a long time. It was love I returned. It made so much difference. When I look back at the gaps and what my sisters were not, I make sure I remember that too.

Stingy times

My mother was always stingy with herself. She grew up in the Depression and came from a large family. Her mother was a reserved, religious person, who although I didn’t know well, I am certain was stingy with herself too. My grandmother was almost 80 years older than me and lived in a phenomenally different time. Our lives would likely be unrecognizable to each other. But I totally see the continuity being passed down.

My mother generally took the crappiest thing for herself even when it wasn’t necessary. She cut corners that didn’t need to be cut. We were a smart-mouth bunch, and there were wise cracks amongst us siblings about hair shirts and ashes. As I grew up I came to challenge how my mother treated herself. I was kind of outspoken about it once I was in my late teens and early twenties.

One time several members of the family were enjoying a cook-out at my grown sister’s house. We were grilling steaks (we did that then). Once they were cooked, a platter of meat was set out. When I saw what my mother served herself I intervened. She didn’t have to take, as I proclaimed loudly, “the smallest, ugliest piece of meat.” It was a line that went down in family lore. And I made sure my mother got a better piece.

I think about that from time to time. My mother served herself the smallest, ugliest piece of meat BY ROTE when there was no need. I think about it because, of all her daughters, I believe I picked up this trait the most. My sisters self-indulged more than I did, at least in specific ways, if not across the board. Between my mother and the religion that was such a huge part of my childhood, I learned suffering and doing without – INDEPENDENT OF ANYTHING ELSE – was laudable and the way to go.

Even after childhood, and the sea changes I experienced in my teen years, I still had the vestiges of this trait. I accepted crap. From other people and in general. I retained this belief that you could have one nice thing (which you should never actually use) and the rest had to be crummy. I allowed other people to short-shrift me. I kept quiet. I was uncertain how to self-indulge and when I did felt uneasy about it anyway. What was okay? What did I deserve?

I want to make clear that I’m not talking about negative self-indulgence. A whole lot of what people do in the name of “treating themselves well” is actually counter-productive. It’s things that harm them, whether in the short run or the long run. A person can be self-generous by treating themselves to a box of donuts or a gambling spree or a big shopping trip or a fourth beer but these are all “empty calories” that have a price. (If I may, this is usually promoted as The American Version of “Treating Yourself.”)

For a long time I waited for somebody else to come along and treat me the way I (secretly) wanted to be treated. Someone to be generous with me. And some people were. I’m not talking here about spending money per se, but about having generosity of spirit. But that’s not enough. (And the people I’m referencing weren’t necessarily good for me on whole or for the long haul let’s say.) It can’t come from elsewhere and change how you see and treat yourself. (No different from when another person wants a loved one to lose weight or stop using drugs or quit drinking. It may have some effect but somebody else’s desire or intentions alone will not significantly change how a person sees themselves or their behavior long-terrm. To Wit: I may have influenced how my mother acted sometimes but I don’t believe for a minute I ever altered how she thought about herself.)

It’s really here in middle age that I’ve made strides in this area. It’s taken this f-ing long. Sigh. I am aware of a tendency to be stingy with myself and I talk myself through it often. I certainly don’t see value in suffering and doing without in and of themselves. I am well aware suffering and lousy times come to you – why create more of them for no purpose? I don’t solve world hunger if don’t eat well. Wars don’t end if I buy myself several pairs of shoes at a yardsale (my thriftiness is a source of pride not stinginess!). Terrible things don’t happen when I am nice to myself.

I get now, unlike how I was indoctrinated, that it’s not an either/or proposition. That is, I’ve needed to shake the false belief that if I am good to myself, that is somehow wrong and I am neglecting other people (or not acknowledging all those who do with less and without, if only by suffering alongside them). In fact, I truly believe now you can’t be generous with other people until you are generous first with yourself. Otherwise the well runs dry. It’s all connected. I’ll leave it at that.