The story begins with a mother, like the stories of daughters often do: the mother who bears, holds up, molds, prods, pokes, who, goddess-like, makes her daughter, maybe not in her own image but in the image of the life she never lived. This is the danger and the joy in sculpting with human clay: it cracks, it gives too easily or not enough, and someday it starts off on its own to form and re-form itself. It becomes evident that the product will always be unfinished, will always have certain fissures. And that’s where the story trickles in. Without motherhood, without birth, there would have been no story: but who was she to mold and shape? And again, who was she not to?
She graduated with her Bachelor’s in English in 1973 and went to secretary school, got a job at some local business, married her college boyfriend. They traveled around the country, living in Florida, Texas, D.C., Boston, while he pursued his dead-end dream of becoming a professional golfer. They ate pasta and kept the heat as low as they could tolerate, and subsisted sometimes on checks from her parents.
She was desperate to get out, she said. She looked at English graduate programs, but didn’t apply. She would have liked to study Chaucer. Anything looked better than pasta and office work.
She got divorced. She kept on bouncing around from job to job, graphic design, sailboat sales, social work school then social work itself for several years. She got married again and had a daughter and a son, at the same time. She says confidently that it was the best, most transformative experience of her life.
Above all, she wanted them to cherish learning, especially literature. She taught them to read before they learned how to in school; she made reading out loud as a family an essential tradition, assailable only by the later demands of homework, orchestra, dance, newspaper, all the things she encouraged her daughter spread herself over. There was a children’s book that retold the story of Chanticleer–she still remembered her love of Chaucer.
But her employment history embarrasses her sometimes. “I’ve never had a career,” she says, “just jobs.” She’s at peace with her choice, birthing other people’s stories instead of one that is selfishly her own, but that doesn’t keep her from wondering what might have been.
She wants something different for her daughter. No meandering or bouncing off things like a runaway golf ball: instead clarity, precision, direction. Talk of years off makes her uncomfortable. She and her rather opinionated mother-in-law, who got married and pregnant instead of entering and English literature Ph.D program, agree on this: Are the foundations we’ve given her shaking? Will she compromise, put something ahead of all that shiny promise? They wish hard for her, hard and deep and long.
She is confused but a little pleased when her daughter declares an English major: like mother, like daughter, ties them together a little more tightly. But she also resists– “Honey, why do you want to be an English major when you could do anything with your brain, anything you wanted?”–implying, my brain is different from yours. Perhaps I studied English by default. Maybe Chaucer was a fluke–but reading Anne of Green Gables and The Sword in the Stone and Tom Sawyer out loud with the kids certainly wasn’t.
She is a force to be reckoned with, take my word for it, as someone who’s been reckoning with it for 22 years now. She’s a community activist, an advocate for the environment, an organizer of concerts and a diehard Rachel Maddow fan, a lover of singing and a woman who insists that we all sit down to dinner as a family when we’re all home together.
You are a mother and a mortal, and therefore you don’t always know the marks in the clay that your presence makes.
On my first big trip away from home, to camp in New Mexico, you sent me those cheery letters, changing the font and the type color to translate your eternal optimism onto the page, to transmit it to me, your bashful daughter.
You don’t always send things in the mail. Often, it’s intuitive. You gave me your boundless confidence in me, which you maybe don’t have in yourself. Your praise encouraged me to be relentless in my pursuit of goals, including leadership, listening, a spotless transcript, and integrity, and this taught me single-mindedness. My need to please you drove me and drives me still. You say that you’ll love me anyway, whatever I do, but sometimes I’m afraid to put that one to the test.
You’re loving and curious and supportive; you pry, you ask the tough questions, you write too many things to me on Facebook: you’re everything a mother should be, really. But I think I’m only just beginning to understand how deep you go, how many threads there are to you, my familiar old mother. For instance: when we talk about literature, there’s a note of regret in your voice, as if that study is so far away from you and forgotten that you’re shy talking about it.
I am the daughter, and this is my shaping: my melding of the elements, my playing with the clay, hers and mine, that brings me to this:
I feel the pressure of her hope for wholeness, for coherence, her unsettled-ness, her doubt, but I remember her confidence and her love.
I come from my mother’s relation to literature, but I also come against it.
I am the product of her story, but I am also mine: together we are the threads, the weaving, the fabric, the text, the clay.