One day I was thinking about my mom and how she would so often tell me and my sister we could achieve anything we wanted. Her worry that her two daughters would be kept from their dreams because of being girls seemed to consume her. She would use any opportunity to reiterate her feelings about what we could achieve in our lives. Maybe she had a gut feeling she wouldn’t be on this earth for long and she found it important to encourage her daughters while she had the chance. Who knows? Regardless, she gave us a wonderful gift of strength and power.
When I was a child I remember Momma would tell us stories of when she wanted to go to college. She was smart and very capable of getting into an ivy league school but because she was a girl, she was restricted. Her dream was attending Vanderbilt but her father felt investing in a daughter’s education was like throwing money out of the window. My grandfather was of the generation that daughters were to find a man who would care for them financially (not for love), marry him and invest her life in carrying for him. Oh yeah and raising a family. But, that was not what Momma wanted for her life. She was adventurous and intellectual. Sitting around and contemplating with friends the meaning of Friedrich Nietzsche or the philosophical similarities between Buddaism and Judaism was where she thrived. College was her dream- learning was her love.
She was able to convince her dad to let her go to college but he’d only agree for her to attend the state school. Even though Momma was disappointed she was elated by being allowed to go. As Momma attended her state college she grew increasingly frustrated with the tracts of study she had to choose because she was a woman. Her choices were teaching, secretarial, nursing and her least favorite of all, home economics. After two years at college she was on the Dean’s list. She loved her history courses and enjoyed taking the more “male subjects”. However, after two years it was time for her to declare a major and to begin her more socially expected journey. Continuing to take “male subjects” was no longer acceptable and would give a sense of disrespect to one’s family back home. Being Momma though, she figured if she didn’t select a course of study, she could delay her time and continue taking the subjects she loved.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for my grandfather to tire of his daughter’s procrastinations and to catch on to Momma’s scheme. A little over two years at college Momma was given an ultimatum. If she wanted to stay in school she was to declare a socially acceptable major or she had to move back home to begin working (which was code for looking for a husband ). Momma being the stubborn woman she was and not wanting to be forced to conform, she chose to quit college, return home and work. Instead of finding a man like her parents wanted though, she worked, traveled and enjoyed her freedom. However, Momma could only fight against her societal and generational current for so long before she tired.
When Momma was 25 years old she met my father and married him a few months later. Nope, that’s not a typo. She met him and quickly married him. At 25 years old she was considered old. I can only imagine the pressure she was feeling from not only society but from her parents. Back then when getting married at that age it was considered frivolous and absurd to have a big and fancy wedding. After all Momma was late in starting her family so making babies should be top priority. My sister and I want to believe Momma married Daddy for love but we will never know. It’s so hard to tell when there was so much pressure put on her to do what society expected.
It is crazy to think of the pressures Momma had during those days. If she didn’t marry her family would have been talked about around town and possibly could lose some of their societal standing. Today, it is such a foreign way of thinking but back then a very real burden Momma carried.
Once married Momma played her role like a professional. One would have never have known she once rebelled against marriage and the placement of the wife. She did all of the household chores, fixed breakfast (lunch and dinner) and always served Daddy. She played preverbal housewife and did it for many years. To say she did it well though is questionable. I say that with a big smile. Momma did have her own quiet way of rebelling. Once she was ironing Daddy’s work shirts. She had the ones that she said had already been ironed hanging on her bedroom door. When Daddy walked into the room he noticed the shirts hanging up were still very wrinkled. When Daddy asked her if those had already been ironed, she said yes. That’s when he took the iron from her to show her how it was to be done. It’s unclear as to the details from this point on but Daddy did his own ironing since that day. I found out many years later Momma had set up that situation. In awesome Momma fashion she was able to manipulate Daddy in such a way where he ended up volunteering to do his own shirts. It’s really crazy that back then a wife could not simply refuse to do a job her husband needed done. However, those were the unwritten rules and Momma always seemed to have her way of getting out of it while smelling like a rose.
So, back to my dawning moment. I had always wondered how it was she could preach one thing to her daughters but live differently in her own life? Looking back though I get it. No matter what she did it always reflected on her family. That must have been so hard for her which I understand. But for me when I was younger her contradicting lifestyle versus her personal beliefs made it difficult for me. Momma in essence was giving me permission to not conform to her way of life and to stand up against it. I literally stood between two worlds. It was especially difficult after Momma died when I was 15 years old. Daddy expected me to take on the household duties as the “women” of the house. I was to not only clean the house, do the laundry and cook but I was to remember little tasks like pouring his juice in a specific cup the mornings. Being young and unable to ascertain what were simply life skills I should have learned anyway, I rebelled by doing nothing or doing a chore really badly (which sadly was not pretend).
My parent’s societal roles were truly foreign to me. I understand Momma felt if we didn’t know her world, we’d have a better chance to stand up against it and not be sucked back into it like she was. And yet our example was her as the preverbal mom serving her husband. As a child it was a contradiction that was hard to decipher.
I realize today there has to be a healthy balance and I can teach my son to be a good person and husband through knowing how to do laundry, clean and cook. The difference between my son and my mom in regards to those chores is that my son will not see them as gender specific duties. Instead, he will see them as duties that simply have to be done. But, I have to remember from where Momma was coming and how every aspect of her life was gender labeled. Twirling all of these thoughts around it was then I had a dawning. It really made me understand Momma.
I realized good or bad we are all products of our own generation’s expectations. If those expectations follow our own personal goals and beliefs we have it made as we are able to breeze through life fairly easily. But, if they don’t follow our own desired path one can find themselves very alone and fighting against the current of the majority. And continuously swimming against a philosophy embedded in every aspect of life becomes exhausting and costly. It becomes easier to conform and as a result makes it difficult to make societal changes. Many wonderful people have tried but discovered it was difficult to fight against their upbringing, societal expectations, and more importantly their our own fears. Thinking about the society in which Momma lived I know she was trying to pave a new road for herself but without support especially from her own parents, it was impossible for her to follow through. She had no choice but to conform on a certain level. What amazes me about Momma is how she chose to make those changes. She understood she alone couldn’t change her society and I believe she knew she had her own limitations she couldn’t change either. However, Momma had the foresight to teach her own children beyond those limitations allowing us to be the walking and talking change she had so desired. We were clean slates who didn’t have any of the same burdens she had. She had high hopes that as a result me and my sister would choose that road she tried to pave so many years before but this time knowing we had her support, we would be able to stay on that road (unlike her). And as the parent Momma took on the responsibility to teach us beyond her own fears and singlehandedly gave us the strength to never accept the complacency of our own generation. Now those teachings didn’t come without flaws but I have to remember from where she was coming and understand her own limitations. And even with all of that she was able to make a difference so that her two daughters would not know the world she lived.
Thank you Momma wherever you are for giving me such a gift. Because of you I am not fearful but fearless in my desire to make change happen. Unfortunately on some level I understand the years of frustration and loneliness you must have felt because I have a struggle with my society too. I want my family to have all of the same rights as others. I am hopeful because of what you taught me and I proudly pass the torch of change to my son. May he too be fearless in his ability to make change so that he may continue to pave the way even farther on the road you started.
I love you!