A tale of two mothers

My mother was a chain-smoking, champagne-swilling, braless art mom. My best friend's mother was June Cleaver. They both suffered -- and made difficult choices.

Published May 9, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

When I was a teenager my mother took me for dinner to Bemelmen's, a trendy Toronto eatery. Over a glass of champagne she announced that she'd been remiss in her duties as a mother. She had never taught me any lessons in life, and there were some things that every woman needed to know.

Her own mother, she explained, had neglected to teach her some important life lessons, such as the danger of opening bobby pins with one's teeth. My mother had been opening bobby pins with her teeth all her life, and it was no wonder she had such bad teeth. She wasn't going to make the same mistake with me that her mother had made with her.

"I've got lessons," she said. "Just give me a minute to come up with one." Finally she leaned forward and spoke in the breathy, Marilyn Monroe voice that was, and still is, her trademark. "It's OK," she said, "to date a fat man."

Then she sat back triumphantly in her chair and slotted the cigarette I had rolled for her into a rhinestone-studded cigarette holder, oblivious to the threads of tobacco that dropped on the marble-topped table and secure in the knowledge that her maternal duties had been accomplished. She could now relax and enjoy not just her dinner but the rest of her life.

There may have been other lessons she had intended to share that night, but we were soon giddy with champagne, and since I was about to move to New York, she shifted to advice on more pressing matters: sure ways to bypass the lineups at Studio 54, CBGBs and the Mudd Club. "Just say to the doorman, 'I'm a friend of Michael's,'" she advised. "There's a Michael at every club."

By the time we shared this dinner, my mother already had her own hard-won freedom -- such as it was. A bitter separation from my father when I was 12 (and my brothers 11 and 13) was followed a few years later by a divorce that meant economic privation for all of us. And she ended up with three pissed-off teenagers who were not at all interested in a mother who had decided to follow her heart at the expense, as we saw it, of our family home in Toronto's affluent Rosedale neighborhood.

It would be she, not my brothers or I, who would eventually leave the nest -- first trying a week in New York, then a month in Mexico and, finally, a more permanent move that we kids saw, at first, not as her rejecting a traditional role but as her rejecting us.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that "we think back through our mothers if we are women," and indeed I have often thought back through my mother, and the mothers of my childhood friends. It is their examples, their failures, their strengths and sorrows that have provided the rule against which I have measured my self -- and found that self wanting.

When I was a girl, before I learned to read, my mother used to play a game with me. She would sit me on her lap at the kitchen table, in front of the typewriter, and encourage me to hammer away at keys until the page was filled with odd figures.

Then she would read to me from the story that she said I had written. "This is your story," she would begin softly. "This is what you wrote." "Once upon a time, at the bottom of the sea, there was a little girl ..." and so on.

Since then, her story has been inextricably bound up with mine. She was, at first, a full-service mom. A baker of cakes. A maker of kites. On Valentine's Day our school clothes appeared with felt hearts sewn on the collars, pockets and sleeves, made from stencils found in Good Housekeeping. But at night, from somewhere in a closed room, I sometimes heard her crying.

Now I wonder where this story of mothers and daughters really begins. With
a glass of champagne? With a typewriter? With a heart that suddenly appears
on a sleeve?

Some years ago, my name was published in Chatelaine magazine as part of a
national reunion search for long-lost best friends. At the time, being lost
seemed an appropriate metaphor for my life, and I did not necessarily want
to be found. This initiative was, I supposed, one of those sentimental things that sell magazines along with the idea of happy endings.

I had always rejected nostalgia, just as -- following my mother's post-Good
Housekeeping example -- I had rejected what I believed were conventional
choices. But curiosity won me over and I contacted the editor of the
magazine, who read me the letter my childhood friend, Lorraine, had written.
Lorraine and I had met as 7-year-olds in suburban London, Ontario, Canada, where,
while I attended Grades 2 through 4, my father taught law at the University of Western Ontario. We remained friends after my family moved to Toronto, visiting back and forth until, in high school, we drifted apart.

Lorraine's letter recalled sweet things: our matching bell-bottom pants, our
devotion to roller coasters, chocolate fudge and lip gloss. She was now
married with two children and lived in the same suburban community where
we had met so many years before.

As girls, Lorraine and I thought we knew the women we would become. Now,
via Chatelaine, we were going to learn what we had in fact become. From
what the magazine's editor told me, Lorraine's life had followed the
path we had imagined for ourselves.

My life, by comparison, seemed odd and full of failures. I had associated the unhappiness my mother experienced in her marriage with pragmatic (or what she called "conventional") choices, and I had been careful not to make the same mistakes she had. When she married my father she was a nurse; by the time she divorced him, she was an artist. I had followed if not her advice, at least her later
example. Instead of university -- what my father would have wanted for me --
I went to New York to study acting.

As I wrote to Lorraine, I found myself riffling through a decade and a half
of history in my head, recalling Paris, New York, Toronto, Los Angeles:
some film work, some stage work, some commercials, some running around in
miniskirts chasing bad guys in B-movies, one screen death -- a clean shot in
the head. And as I sorted through photos to send her I saw myself in
bikinis in Mexico, in hot tubs in Banff, Alberta, Canada, drinking champagne in New York. It
was the picture of an ongoing party in which I seemed to be constantly
celebrating with friends, but anchorless, without family or children.

Lorraine would later send me photos of herself with her beautiful children
and stepchildren. And although I was well aware of how adventurous my
life sounded, and indeed had been, when I saw the contrasting images of our
two lives laid out in 5-by-7 snapshots, I realized for the first
time how, without an anchor, liberation from conventions doesn't always
feel much like freedom.

In the letter I wrote to Lorraine, I also had to explain that business about
how my mother, with whom Lorraine had been close, stopped patching our
clothes with hearts and started to paint. At first, she painted the house
in Rosedale: red ceilings, blue walls, purple doors. She painted herself
over. She painted, she said, to save herself. She said she had no choice.

The women's movement had come in the middle of her life. And she had been a
young mother, a nurse, what some more radical women disdainfully called a
housewife -- the enemy.

In the letter, I described to Lorraine how she had moved part time into a
studio in an abandoned, unheated factory in Toronto, and bit by bit kept
moving, until by the time I was 19 she had moved to Mexico, to a town
inaccessible except by sea, without phone service or electricity, where,
completely alone, she could do what she hoped I would never have to do --
find herself. I found the whole thing irritating at first, and hoped that
eventually she'd come to her senses. (She didn't.)

I wrote to Lorraine that I recalled how jealously I had wanted Lorraine's
mother, Lynn, instead of my own. And while I admired my mother, secretly
I still envied what I remembered as the normalcy of Lorraine's family. In
my eyes, Lorraine's mother was perfect.

While my mother was becoming the embarrassing "Home-Rolled Cigarette, Braless Art Mom," Lorraine's mother was still carefully tending her family. She even set the breakfast table the night before; the napkins folded like hands in prayer, the ghostly bowls and cups waiting to be filled, seemed, in the darkened kitchen at night, an almost holy sight.

And once, when I had returned to visit Lorraine in London, I discovered that her mother had borrowed a copy of the 1970s anti-feminist book "The Total Woman" from the library. I read it enthusiastically. The author, Marabel Morgan, advised women to dote on their husbands and, among other things, to keep the spark in their marriages by presenting themselves naked, wound in Saran wrap, to their husbands at the front door.

I returned home and suggested this tactic to my mother. My parents' marriage had failed and I was certain that the problem was simply that my mother hadn't tried hard enough. If Saran wrap doesn't work, I advised her expertly, try whipped cream.

As I wrote to Lorraine, I imagined that her parents' home, a bright matchbox bungalow, was, as always, a study of perfect order, every surface polished, clear waxed floors stretching in all directions. There wouldn't be a speck or streak on her kitchen windows, through which, in my mind, the sun still poured in like lemon oil.

Lorraine wrote back. She told me that her mother's life, too, had taken an unexpected turn. When Lorraine was 21, and her sister just 16, her mother had not accompanied the family for the traditional holiday week at the summer cottage.

Holidays weren't really holidays for Lorraine's mother, as Lorraine now understood. Holidays simply meant more days of cooking, cleaning and sweeping sand off the floor. Instead, for the first time ever, her mother stayed home. She entertained a friend for dinner. The next morning she tidied up, went into the garage and quietly took her own life. She, too, must have felt she had no choice.

Later, Lorraine would tell me that she could no longer remember the sound of her mother's laugh. She herself had two children whom she loved; she had a good marriage and a position as a senior executive with a trust company. And yet, looking at her life -- its stability and its solid community roots, its commitment to family -- she still wondered, had she lived? Had she made choices that were too safe?

Our mothers, we realized, had each felt some unfathomable pressure, but had no role models for how to escape that pressure. Both were born in the '30s, were schooled in the '50s, were married in the '60s and raised families in the '70s that they would, each in their own way, leave in the '80s.

They were two women whose lives had teetered and slid off the edge of the women's movement, women for whom freedom of choice did not necessarily mean freedom to choose -- without dire consequences.

Our mothers were our rocks, our rivers, our constellations. They were the central mysteries of our lives, as bright and penetrating as stars, sometimes just as distant. There is no second chance for life, but perhaps in every life, even in a life that has ended, or a life rived by distance, there is a second chance for meaning. These were two women whose choices were circumscribed by many things -- upbringing, social expectation, conventions -- and it was the difficult lessons of their lives that somehow formed us.

We had been given, we recognized, more choices than they had been; they were perhaps the last generation to marry young, to start traditional families, and the first generation to try to break from that mold. We had every opportunity to become our own "persons" but grew up to realize that personhood is, like womanhood was for our mothers, a mixed blessing, the result of difficult journeys we may not want to celebrate but are forced to acknowledge.

By Denise Ryan

Denise Ryan is literary editor of The Vancouver Sun. Her fiction has appeared in the Journey Prize Anthology.

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