If you’ve read my memoir, you may recall that I had a conflicted relationship with my mother. (If you haven’t read it, it’s still available to order anywhere books are sold and at libraries.) But right now, I would like to share with you some better memories of my mother and some of what I feel she gave me in terms of traits and ethics.
First, as background, or a refresher, she was born in 1908 and I was born in 1947. May as well have been different centuries. She came of age in the 1920’s and had joined the Mormon church as a teenager. Her parents taught her “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” even though she told me late in life that she sometimes cried alone after she beat me or my siblings with wooden paddles or coat hangers. I thought, “Well, thanks, but, you could have just stopped if it was hurting you emotionally; it hurt me so much emotionally that you separated us from the kind relationship so many describe with their mothers.”
Mother had me because she thought my dad, her second husband, should have a child. Turned out he paid more attention to me than to her, especially after I had polio. Then he died too early in their marriage, and left her with this handicapped, disabled girl to raise.
I came of age in the mid-1960’s, with all the freedom and creativity and wildness and rebelliousness that era entailed.
So all of that was a difficult chasm to breach: being disabled and growing up without a father, with a mother who loved my dad more than she loved me. Mom was within the Hera goddess archetype; they place their husbands above them and above all others, totally devoted. I fit more into the Artemis archetype, the independent woman of artistic bent.
Mother wrote in my sister’s baby book that she hoped LaVonne would grow up to be “the kind of woman I want you to be.” She wanted to mold us after herself. Well, that just wasn’t gonna happen.
Mother loved babies. She used to hold me on her lap in the mornings, wrapped in a baby blanket, until I was about three or four, and I loved that. I’d call out from my crib for her to come get me and “wrap me up in the blue blanket.” She’d sit and smoke and drink her coffee (yes, these are not okay in the Mormon church, and she felt guilty but was addicted) and alternate between singing to me and reading me storybooks. And so I became an avid reader as soon as I was able, with not only storybooks that she’d buy for me but classics as well, and I always loved to sing. I inherited a little musical ability from both my parents, who each had excellent pitch.
She was not as crazy about children once they started realizing they had some will power, but if you were willing to be babied, things were good. She told me they used to take me to the horse races in Southern California before I was three, and that I loved them and would bob up and down and say, “Horses, horses, horses.” I have no recollection of this, but I have always loved watching horses run. I don’t like to ride; with a paralyzed leg, it’s very hard for me to hold my bottom off the saddle.
She came daily to the hospital where I was essentially imprisoned for polio rehab for six months. An hour a day. I’m not sure what she did the rest of the day, because she wasn’t working, and my parents had moved to an apartment near the hospital in Santa Monica. Sometimes she would put me in a Taylor Tot stroller and push me out on the beach, either on compacted sand or grass. She would hand me a salt shaker and tell me we were going to chase the birds until we caught one by my shaking the salt onto their tails. I was gleeful, and always believed we’d catch a bird.
After the hospital, she did twice as much physical therapy with me each day for one year as the therapists had told her to, because she wanted to try to get me back to normal. This wasn’t going to happen, but I did gain enough strength that within three years I didn’t have to wear a heavy brace or use Kinney sticks anymore. That may have happened if she’d stuck to the presciption, anyway, but I am grateful for her commitment to the therapy.
But it was always, and still is, tiring for me to walk without assistive devices. She had me walk home a mile from grammar school each day, with the same aim; she thought it was good for me, but in fact, this is the kind of thing that actually wears out polio-fatigued muscles. But no one really understood that well at the time, or if the doctors did, she wasn’t telling them she was pushing me to do a lot in hopes of making me more normal.
She had a big birthday party for me when I turned six, inviting many of the neighbor kids and my new friends from school. She had been a professional baker and I think she made a yellow cake, maybe with chocolate frosting. This has never been my favorite (I’m a devil’s food girl), but I always appreciated it when she baked, and she passed some of that skill on to me, teaching me how to roll pie crust and bake cookies when I was old enough. Generally, she didn’t like to teach me anything because I was a little nervous then and she was not patient. So anything she was willing to teach me was a treat. I got sewing lessons at Singer when I was out of middle school; she said she wasn’t going to teach me to sew, nor to drive when I was old enough, but she made sure I still learned to do both, from others.
After my dad died, she was deeply and constantly melancholy for about thirty years, through two more marriages. She did take me to church every Sunday and encouraged me to go to their extracurricular activities, and also to join Bluebirds and Camp Fire Girls. But she didn’t make friends easily herself; I don’t remember anyone ever coming over for coffee.
She took me to Ringling Brothers’ Circus a couple of times when they came to our area, and this was very special; I loved seeing all the animals and the performers. She took me to carnivals and county fairs sometimes, and in one instance, asked a midget family if it was okay for me to come look into their caravan home to see them. I was fascinated, but afterward, embarrassed that we were gawking at this family because they were unusual physically. It didn’t set well with me and I felt that my mother had been intrusive. After all, I was different physically, too. But to her, it was just a curiosity she wanted to share with me.
I was allowed a lot of freedom. I could leave the house whenever I wanted, stay at friends’ homes all afternoon and right up until dinner time, especially in the summer. She’d call around to the homes and ask the mothers to send me home. I never hesitated to go, with the threat of a paddle if I didn’t comply, at least until I was eight, when she stopped hitting me.
In fact, the last time I got a heavy spanking was because of this: There was a mean girl in the neighborhood who was big and bullying, and did a lot of hitting and made nasty remarks to nearly all of us. So one afternoon about six children got together and drew dirty pictures and naughty phrases and strewed them all over her front lawn. A friend’s mother came with her daughter to our door to tell my mother what we’d done. I was the only one who was punished. Everyone else just got a talking to. It didn’t matter to my mother that Kay had “had it coming,” and in this, I later knew she was right. She may have even said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” She was full of platitudes, more than actual practical advice, and these sayings roll through my mind too often. But I did learn that reacting to someone who is unkind with another unkind act is not a good practice.
Whenever I had a friend over, I was not allowed to eat in front of them unless I shared my food. This was how she taught me that you always share, and I have shared so many, many meals and treats with so many, many friends as a result. So if there was one cupcake, my friend got half of it. If we were about to have dinner, my friends couldn’t come in the house, because she never made extra unless she knew way in advance. Now that I think about it, there were often leftovers, so I think this was more a budgetary issue (leftovers = lunch) than a lack of generosity, although she didn’t like to entertain anyway.
She made all my clothing when I was little, and it’s clear to me that she especially wanted me to look nice since everyone stared at the way I walked with my eventual two-inch limp. At least people would know this disabled child was well cared for. She did my hair in meticulous ringlets, but I can’t say having my hair done was a pleasure. I appreciated how it looked, but I hated having my hair pulled back so tight that it hurt, and her fingernails tracing across my face in the process. But I sure got a lot of comments on my beautiful hair. Doing my hair has been an issue for me my entire life. It’s rarely manageable.
We always had balanced meals, and when my dad had been alive, we’d had a big garden. Fresh or frozen vegetables (although boiled) and fruit always had a place in my diet. Never canned food, except spaghetti, beans, creamed corn and petit poi peas. Now of course I also have a garden, although it’s become hard for me to tend. But I’ve grown a little food nearly every place I’ve ever lived and I like vegetables even more since I learned to cook them in more interesting ways. So I was always well fed with a balanced diet.
I can remember her saying, “I don’t think that’s fair,” describing things some unkind children or adults had done. Like the time we all put the dirty words on Kay’s lawn. So I had both a sense that I should treat others fairly—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, not do unto others as they do to you,” she’d say—and also an expectation that life should be fair, which clearly it isn’t, without a lot of collaborative effort. It certainly is not fair to have a disfiguring disease as a toddler. There have been times when I’ve said unkind things to others, partly because I had a strong sense of the unfairness of life in my early adulthood, but I hope I have made up for that in some way. I make an effort to apologize, something my mother never did. Even if life is unfair, we can treat others fairly. Kind of ironic coming from Mom, but still a good practice.
Mother loved to dance, except for a hiatus during her marriage with my father, who didn’t dance. She was an exceptionally good ballroom dancer and a couple of years after Daddy died, she started going to Arthur Murray dance lessons. I only saw her dance a couple of times, which I now regret. She may have asked me to come watch her at some point, but I think she also liked having that escape from being a mother. She especially loved the rhumba. Hard for me to imagine my mom swinging those religious hips, but there was nothing preventing dancing in the Mormon church, as long as you weren’t too very sexy about it. But the rhumba? Go, Mama!
She was sad and sorry when my first serious boyfriend (senior year of high school and a little beyond) broke up with me; he was manic depressive and I thank the universe I didn’t marry him. But at the time, I was heartbroken. I appreciated that she cared about how I felt. I later learned that what was behind his departure was that a new girlfriend was willing to have intercourse; I had been “saving myself for when we get married.” (That attitude didn’t last much longer in terms of boyfriends, for better or worse.) I think part of why Mom felt for me was that she knew what it was to lose one love relationship to divorce and one to death. Also, I know she was really concerned that no one would ever want to marry me because of my limp. Easy to see how someone who loved to dance would think that. Ironic because I think I went to nearly every dance I ever had the chance to attend from age 13 to probably 35.
She used to tell me, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” another platitude. This is not true, of course, but the principle of setting your mind to a goal was not lost on me and I took it in deeply. In high school, I concentrated on getting the best possible grades so that I could get a scholarship, go to college, leave town and establish a career for myself somewhere else. She was very encouraging that I have a career; I had thought it was because she had to work after my dad died (and you never know when you will be left without a husband), but it was also because she thought I should not count on a marriage support system in the first place.
After I left home, I visited her several times a year; I lived a few hours away so would drive up and stay with a friend and go by her house once or twice a day. Often when I went to visit, we’d be sitting in the kitchen talking, her smoking (me coughing), and she’d get up and go in the other room. I’d wait for her return, and it wouldn’t happen. I’d find her in the living room with the TV turned up high so she could hear it. Just like the friends she never invited over, I don’t think it meant a lot to her to sit and talk with me. She did feel it was my obligation to visit, but when I did, she didn’t want much intimacy. There were many things I learned about her and her family after she died (and some of those will be in my next book, historical fiction based on my mother’s family of origin; some juicy stuff in there!).
When she died, I grieved deeply, but it was partly because we never had the kind of relationship I saw some of my friends having, where they could tell their mothers anything, and they were friends as well as blood relatives. But I think she didn’t expect that kind of relationship, anyway. She wanted me to be more than I ever was; to be an artist (I realized that you had to live in a city to do that in the 1960’s and 70’s), not an accountant, which was where I eventually got my BA; to be married and have children, who she hoped would treat me “as badly as you’ve treated me,” as she said on those few occasions when I hurt her feelings with some remark or personal perceived failing.
I loved her very much, and she loved me too. But we loved, I think, even more, the idea of who a mother and a daughter should be.
But thank you, Mom, for teaching me to be fair, to share, to sing, to stick with my goals, and to bake.