I’ve written three memoirs and usually I can predict people’s reaction to what I’ve written. I don’t mean whether they will like the book or not , I mean their reaction to the characters in the memoir. However, there is one character that always proves to be a wild card and that is my mother. I have given hundreds of talks and am continually surprised by how much attention my mother garners both positive and negative. In her life she was quiet and unassuming; yet, she propels people into orbit at my mere description of her. I wrote about her as the fantastic mother I thought she was—if I could be half the mother she was to me I’d be thrilled. That is why I am stymied when people find her cold, distant and neglectful. Is that the mother I portrayed? Was there an unconscious leakage of rage in my description of my lovely, pretty, mom?
As described in Too Close to the falls, My mother never cooked a meal.; therefore, we ate in restaurants. She only used the oven for drying mittens. When I, an only child, was four, I was so rambunctious that the paediatrician said I had to work full time. Since no one would ever hire a four year old, I went to work in my father’s drug store delivering drugs with the black delivery car driver named Roy. I went out to breakfast with my Dad, the pharmacist, and the Rotary Club and then sold the morning papers at 6:00 a:m. The rest of the day was spent delivering and dining with Roy and then I rolled into home around 10:00 p:m. It was a charmed life of innocence and fun with most of my time spent on the road. I developed self confidence, because let’s face it, when you deliver drugs, people are happy to see you.
When I went to catholic school, I acted up, on a regular basis, speaking out of turn, questioning religious doctrine, and trying to be amusing which was interpreted, probably correctly, as disruption. When the principal, Sister Agnese, called my home to complain, my mother just listened and after hanging up said to me that the nun had no sense of humour and suggested I save my routines for her when I got home. When people said I was too loud or too brash, she told me I was blessed with a big personality that may have been too big for the town. She suggested I ignore my critics which I found a satisfactory solution. My mother and I had a lot of fun together. We confided all of our secrets to one another and she killed herself laughing at all of my imitations of people in the town. She encouraged me in all of my endeavours no mater how bizarre.
In, After the Falls, the sequel to, Too close to the Falls , the plot thickened and became a bit darker. When I was in high school , my mother and I were left to cope with a father who’d lost his mind from a brain tumour and his money through bad planning while having a brain tumour. We both used black humour to get us through our darkest times. For example when I was in University and investigated by the FBI at my home, my father, whose mind was failing, thought the agents were Hoover salesmen and got out our vacuum for a home demonstration. Somehow in his ravaged brain he had still retained the association of FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. My mother and I were perpetually amused by that tale. I think it is an Irish Catholic trait to laugh in the face of tragedy. Why not—crying doesn’t help? When she was dying of leukaemia a few years after that she said the up side was no one would expect her to get up early or make a meal.
It is true that she thought my life was my own and if I was going to act up or not do my school work it was my decision. When school called to complain and asked if she was the mother of Cathy McClure, she always said no. As she said, “Well I didn’t act up – you did." When the police came to our house after I painted all the Black lawn Jockey’s in Buffalo white in the night, she said she had to have two Excedrin and go to bed. She never once, in my entire life, criticized me. I am not saying that was a good or bad thing – it is just a fact.
In all the book clubs I talked to most people admired by mother but there are always some who found her aloof, distant, and non-maternal and ultimately neglectful. Some were appalled we didn’t have food in our house. They equated food with love. It seems to me that restaurants are great and why does it matter where you get your sustenance? If food is love then why not love Colonial Sanders? It is true she left me to sort out my own issues. But that seems to me the best way to grow up. Rousseau says benign neglect is the best form of parenting and I’m with him on that one.
People have some unrealistic view of what mothers are supposed to be. ( Especially true in the 50’s when women didn’t work) How long is it going to take to put these shibboleths of motherhood to rest? It seems like whenever you cut one myth to pieces, it rises up and double like the hydra. My mother had a graduate degree in math. She was a prisoner of her time living in an era before women worked. Once she confided to me that she really didn’t like motherhood. She found it a confusing and difficult job with no rules. She said she loved me, but not the job of motherhood. She said it was like teaching. ( She only taught for one day—saying she didn’t know she’d have to teach children.) She loved math but not the job of teaching it. She loved me but not the job of motherhood. I imagine if we were all honest, there would be lots of mothers who would say the same thing.