My mother would have been 85 today. But she didn’t come anywhere near to that age, dying of accelerated Parkinson’s disease on the last day of 1997.
I’m wondering now what a daughter can say about her mother’s life. What do I know, really? Everything, nothing, too little, too much. She insisted she was happy, but I never believed her. “I’ve had a very happy life,” she told me when she was in her sixties — a decade I’m about to enter myself. “I’ve loved being a homemaker. I’ve had a happy marriage. I loved having children.”
We disagreed about this — as we disagreed about most important things, like values, politics, religion, feminism, women in the workplace. She saw my beliefs as being a rejection of her and my father. At some level, she knew that, more than anything, I was afraid of being like her: of being dependent and clinging, frequently depressed, of never finding work I loved or a life outside the home. I saw in her everything I didn’t want to be, which is a terrible thing to say. But it was true.
Still, it’s far more complicated than that. She was also sensitive, caring, smart, funny and irreverent. She could be incredibly charming. She made and nurtured close friendships. She tried hard to be a good person, a good Christian. She was many things I admired.
More than anything, I think, she was part of a generation who lived in a difficult and impossible time for women. They lived through their husbands and children, they cooked and cleaned up, they were never taken seriously as human beings, they drank, they got depressed, they became — oh, what the hell, why not say it? — toxic to themselves and everyone they loved. They wanted to draw us closer, but they succeeded in driving us away.
I know this isn’t true of all women of my mother’s generation. But I’ve seen it in too many women of her age. When society changed, when their daughters became feminists and their sons married women with careers, they were furious and hurt, because they had been betrayed. I also know my own generation wasn’t blameless in the way we acted — or at least, I wasn’t. I could have been kinder.
After Mother died, my sister said she viewed Mother as freed, finally, from the despair and desperate struggles and haunting disappointments of her life. I don’t believe in an afterlife, as my sister does, but I hope that she’s right.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about what men just don’t get about women