Mothers Day is approaching and like many women I have mixed feelings about my mom.
Mom was born in 1917 and carried with her the burdens and adventures of growing up as a woman in the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and World War II.
I resisted her “bossiness” and yet admired her determination.
I complained that she made all of our clothes but liked that she spent half a paycheck on books.
I thought her staunch belief in the respectability of marriage to be quaint, but agreed with her vow never to be fully dependent on a man.
The roots of my mother’s values were not surprising. My mother’s parents were hard hit by the Depression. Her mother went to work as a maid in a hotel in Carmel, California, telling friends she was on an extended vacation.
My mother from a young age took care of her baby brother. Mother was left alone with her brother Richard for hours while her mother worked in the motel.
I can see her at age five with long curls, embroidered frock and a three year old brother in tow.
Neighbors would ask her just how old she was and where her mother was.
Mom told me she put her hands on her hips and said to the “old biddies” that her mother “trusted her to take care of her brother.”
That mix of confidence in the face of what would be called neglect today and her desire to be accepted and respected stayed with her.
She wore gloves and a hat to the store but earned a Masters Degree in social work.
She drank tea in china cups but hiked mountains and sought backwoods paths.
“I joined the mountaineering club at University,” mom told me. “We hiked up mountains at night using candles in jam tins as lights.”
Mother worked her way through university so hiking boots were a luxury. She still had the pair 40 years later, well oiled and worn but usable.
Mother graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1942 and headed north for a job as a social worker.
I found her journals a few months ago and read them, seeking understanding of the complex woman I knew. The dusty, yellowing pages gave me a glimpse of my mom as a person separate from her daughters.
“I did every type of social work: child neglect, finding foster homes, adoption placements, unmarried mothers, court work, psychiatric reports, public relations, public assistance – one social worker over miles and miles of cattle country,” she wrote in her journal.
“The war expanded the work I and other social workers provided. With the onset of the war we provided services to wayward wives and distraught military personnel.”
Years ago I asked mom what she meant by a wayward war bride. She responded that soldiers sent money home to their brides in Canada, but not all the women spent the money on their children or stayed true to their husbands.
Her job as a social worker was to go out, sometimes on horseback, and make sure the women were not “straying” and if they had children, were taking care of them.
I was a youngster when I asked her so the concept of a straying wife was about as vague as other euphemisms used for sexual matters during that era.
“Straying?” I asked, thinking of lost cats and hikers wandering off forest paths. “How did you find them?”
She talked about rural communities and people knowing everybody else’s business. I figured out later, as children do, that she really was talking about women sleeping around, stepping out, or bedding down in someone else’s stable.
Mother was not married when she started social work and had been raised in the Christian Science Church. Sex was not talked about when she was a child except to say it was the “married woman’s duty to her husband.”
I wonder now how she convinced the wayward women that she knew anything about being a wife or a mother as she was neither.
Maybe it was her moxie and belief in acting confident that she learned as a young girl taking care of her little brother.
Mom would say things like “If you don’t know something, look it up.” “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
She probably would have liked the more modern phrase, “fake it until you make it.”
My mother believed women could work and be mothers and wives. I think her fear of poverty and being dependent on someone else was as motivating as her desire to be productive and to keep learning.
First one and then another daughter was born but mom never gave up on her desire to work and learn.
Mother armed herself with education and was, to her death, a lifelong learner. Every salesman that went door to door in Canada peddling books and encyclopedias knew our address.
Mother bought them all . . . The Britannica, The World Book, The Joy of Words, The Real Books and so many more that we had books everywhere in our house.
She never threw them or her magazines away.
The year my parents retired to Oregon to live near us, my husband Bruce had to hire a giant UHAUL truck to move the stacks of books and magazines.
Forty sets of books was not enough for my mom. She went back to University in her early 40’s and earned a Masters Degree in Social Work.
I was in 7th grade that year and the world of girls was still mostly about sugar and spice and baking cakes.
Mom liked to cook but she reminded us there was more we could do.
We could . . .
Make a cake and read a book,
Wear lace gloves and wear a hard hat,
Dress up and wear hiking boots,
Have babies and get a college degree,
Listen to others but speak our mind,
if you don’t know how to do something, learn it.
Good advice mom
My mom died four years ago and each Mothers Day I think again about the lessons she taught me, especially about being a lifelong learner.
You weren’t perfect, mom. Sometimes I really got upset with you; yet you taught much and for that I thank you.
This is me, mom. Like you I keep learning and growing. Thanks for teaching me to not limit myself.