This being Mother’s Day, I posted a photo of my Mom on Facebook. I found myself remembering mothers I once knew. Of course, we’re talking about the Father-Knows-Best/Ozzie-and-Harriet era, when moms were always there for you, always had wise answers for the young, and always resolved conflicts in a sweet, brilliant way. Need I say these things didn’t really happen that much?
My Mom, Edie, actually was there for us, all day, every day. And as the oldest of five siblings, I know they would all agree she was the sweetest Mom we ever knew. But one or two others did come close, I’ll admit.
There were a few real ‘characters’ in that group – not at all like our collective ‘memory’ of suburbs in the fifties.
One of my favourite Moms was Mrs. O’Connor, mother of six unique characters as well. I remember her on at least one occasion, in the living room in her bra and pants (in the fifties, mind you!), smoking a little pipe, watching television. She did not do housework, and made sure we knew that. An early feminist?
Am I even remembering her accurately – or has she too become one of my internal myths? To me, she was fascinating. She made me think. We felt welcome, never judged – ‘free to be’. I found it a downright exciting atmosphere – at 12 or 13, I had the feeling that just about anything could happen there at any moment. The fifties were ‘the fifties’ because most people wouldn’t dare behave unconventionally – which is why the O’Connor home was such a great place to be.
Remembering the O’Connors helps me see things more clearly. I long attributed my teenaged misery to ‘suburbia’; but I would now have to acknowledge the role of my ‘family culture’. Mom would have been freer, more spontaneous, but for our little critical-judgmental sub-culture. This was my father’s family culture dominating. (Would that be the notorious ‘dominant male’ phenomenon?) This kind of family culture tends to erase individuality and creativity, replaced by learning how to ‘measure up’ and ‘do the right thing’.
When I think about all that, I often find myself searching for a blame-label: was it “Scottish Presbyterian” culture? Was it “Protestant ethic”? And deep down I understand that it’s not healthy to be looking for a label – that’s like easy answers.
Looking back at the O’Connors, I am forced to admit that it comes down to individual ‘family cultures’, and theirs must have been relatively unconcerned about what others might say about them. Ours was far too concerned.
And after all is said and done, 53 years on, I can’t even say how they might have ‘turned out’. I can say that each of the five children in my family was profoundly affected by our family culture.
We five could probably debate ad nauseum about the details, so I shall speak only for myself. I can say that I was 70 before I began to leave behind the critical-judgmental internalized voice I carried with me always. The same voice that prevented me from speaking in front of groups, or any kind of visibility really; I quit my beloved peace movement because after eight years, I was becoming slightly visible. That voice filled my soul with shoulds and shouldn’ts of every variety, always reminding me in a whisper that I was supposed to be self-conscious, embarrassed, shy, humble. That voice never let me thrive. I’d bet my bottom dollar the O’Connor kids don’t have voices like that. I’ll bet they’ve thrived.
I was 70 before I began to understand that I had as much right as anyone else to be totally imperfect and just enjoy the pleasures of living. My family culture had – however unintentionally — reinforced a belief that I had some kind of moral obligation to aim for perfection, and try to hide my flaws.
Mom was a kind person, who welcomed differences. But in my family’s belief system at the time, one was “born” kind, not bred to be; and the same would be said for other character traits. So we were not taught to respect each other, to be kind to each other, generous, and so on. It was just assumed we were each a certain way. Nothing we could do about it. Later most of us realized that we did have some choices in this life, and my own belief is that the awareness of choices, and then the choosing, is the beginning of personal power.
I’ve had conversations with siblings about this over the years, and we’ve reached a stage of mutual affection and appreciation. Interesting that in my 70s, in my evolving, gray-haired radicalism, I’d love to sit down with those O’Connors and chew the fat over how it was then, and how it is now. All this, from thinking about mothers.