I've been quiet for far too long. I've been wanting very much to write, lately, but have been short on time. This post was inspired by recent news events and controversies, and also by a Gather friend who suggested that I write something called, "Not Just One Way."
I have given it a lot of thought and realized that she was right. So this one is for you, Mary. It's just the beginning. Thanks for your part in this.
I had to edit this a bit because my mother used very colorful language.
The very first time I heard the word “enigma” and looked up the definition, I responded by saying, “Oh. That’s what Mom is.”
She was nothing, if not enigmatic. The oldest of nine children, she grew up in a family which wanted for nothing. Her father owned the only grocery in their small town, and was even elected mayor of it. My mother, Eleanor, had to work hard to earn his approval, and likely that of her mother, as well. She grew up expected to set a good example for her siblings, and after graduating at the top of her high school class, went on to join a Convent.
She didn’t last long, at the Convent. My mother was simply not “the nun type,” as I heard her say, years later. She soon dropped out and went to nursing school in what would later become my hometown. It was there that she met my father, the handicapped and uneducated seventh of nine children in an impoverished family. He’d never even brushed his teeth, when he met my mother, much less received any dental care. His education went as high as the eighth grade, and then he had dropped out to help support the family.
What was it that my mother saw in him? What made her decide to marry this particular man, of all the men she had known?
I know that, now, or at least I think I do. I believe she married him because she refused to do what was expected of her. If she were here to ask, I’m sure she would wholeheartedly agree that was exactly her reasoning.
After giving birth to seven children, in the early sixties, she would take her daughters, of which I was one, to the hairdresser twice yearly. Between those visits, she would trim our bangs when needed. For the four boys, though, she would ask a male friend to come over and cut their hair, using his electric clippers. My brothers had crew cuts in those days.
And then the Beatles happened. Suddenly, my mother decided crew cuts were a bit much. She began letting their hair grow, just a bit, and cutting it herself. She’d had practice on her daughters’ bangs, after all.
Her family frowned upon the longer style. (It was almost to their ears, after all.) Her brothers, my uncles, began calling my brothers “girls” and criticizing my mother for her bad parenting.
My mother’s response was (and yes, this is a quote,) “If they’re going to bitch about it, I’ll give them something to bitch about.”
She stopped cutting my brothers’ hair. At all. Just let it grow as long as they wanted it.
No, it didn’t make her brothers quit complaining, but it did make her point; that no one, but no one, was going to tell her what was an appropriate length of hair for a boy in the mid sixties.
Throughout my childhood, what I noticed of my mother’s interactions with others was this: no one thought my mother was “Okay.” They either adored her, or they hated her. She was not someone you could simply not have an opinion of. She “adopted” all of my brothers’ friends, and at any given time, we had two or three “extras” living with us. One of them only went home to his mother’s house every two weeks or so.
My mother let my brothers go on overnight camping trips alone, by the time they were twelve or thirteen.
When I was thirteen, I got my first job, earning $1 an hour at a local day care after school. When I brought home my first week’s earnings, Mom said, “I’ll make a deal with you. If you buy your own clothes from now on, I won’t tell you what you can or cannot wear.”
I agreed. A few months after that deal was struck, I came home with two halter tops, and showed them to her.
A look crossed her face, which I didn’t recognize. Now, I know the look. (It said, “Uh-oh… what have I gotten myself into?”)
Her lips said something else. “I don’t get it. How do you wear a bra under THAT?”
I looked her in the eye. “You don’t.” I responded.
I watched her. I watched her contemplate a response which would negate the bit of respect she had shown me when we struck our deal. She contemplated it, and then, quietly, she said, “Oh.” And she went on to what she’d been doing; likely, making dinner.
I went upstairs and changed into one of my new tops. I wore it to dinner, fully expecting to feel her wrath. I did not.
She seemed to have accepted that I was mature enough to make my own decisions about what to wear. She did not agree with my decisions, but she didn’t fight me on them.
I think I was fourteen, the day our ex-neighbor and my nemesis, Chuck, dropped by on his way home from work. He had a drink with my mother (who was not opposed to a mixed drink with a friend in the middle of the afternoon) while I peeled potatoes for dinner, and he went on a verbal rampage about the “stupid nigger” he had to put up with at work with that day. My mother told him she didn’t appreciate that kind of talk in our home, but she said it calmly; not nearly the way I wanted her to.
I, on the other hand, stormed out of the room, throwing down the paring knife and even leaving the water running in the sink where I’d been rinsing them. I just wouldn’t be in the same room as Chuck.
Mom didn’t call me back; from the other room, I heard the tap shut off, and Chuck continued his hideous, hateful speech for a few more moments with her quietly protesting it. Then he shuffled out the front door and got in his car to leave. Mom called out to me, to come and finish my chores.
I know I had a look of disgust on my face as I re-entered the kitchen. “I can’t believe you just let him talk like that in our home!” I said. “I hate bigots!”
She shook her head. “Then you ARE a bigot.” She said.
I was flabbergasted. “Me? A bigot? You are so dead wrong!”
“Second,” She continued, “I asked him to stop. I did not LET him talk like that.”
“He’s a bigot and a jerk!” I screamed at her.
She nodded. “I know. But you are a bigot too, and I don’t make you leave, when I don’t like what you say.”
“I am NOT a bigot! I don’t hate anyone except jerks like him!”
I did not let up, and my mother didn’t, either. I was horrified by her allegation, and after that day, had begun to see her in a new light. She was more hateful than I’d ever imagined.
But one day, long after that one, she reminded me of it. I’d begun just walking out as soon as Chuck walked in, on his almost daily visits, so as to avoid his hate speech. She allowed me to leave, but would always call me back in as soon as he left. One day, she again reminded me that in her eyes, I was a bigot.
Again, I was furious and indignant.
“Just calm down, and remember that Chuck helped me install the water heater last week when your Dad was too busy. He’s always been there to help with whatever we need, that your Dad either can’t do or doesn’t know how. He is NOT all bad.”
She then explained to me that I was being intolerant of Chuck (not to mention lumping him together in a class which I labeled with an ugly name) because I disagreed with his beliefs. “That,” she told me, “Is the definition of a bigot.”
I turned and walked back out of the room.
I spent the rest of the day contemplating what she’d said, and realizing that she was, in fact, right. I never told her that, but to realize that I was, in fact, by definition, bigoted, was an eye-opener for me.
I never grew to like Chuck, or even to tolerate him, though I did thank him when he helped my parents with the various tasks requiring his expertise over the ensuing years.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that there were many reasons not to like Chuck. He abused his own family and drank to excess; even fondled my sister, Lily. He was not “a good person.” But neither was he all bad. He was simply a human being, flawed in ways which are different from my own flaws.
Sometimes, even now, when I hear or read something someone states, about a certain “kind” of person… whether it’s a liberal or conservative, a “Muslim terrorist” or a pedophile or a “redneck,” or a thousand other labels people use to set the hater apart from the hated, I think back to that day.
In the past few years, I have come to believe that there are no “types” or “kinds” of people. There are good people and bad people, and the good have bad qualities just as often as the bad have good qualities. The line between good and bad… the one I once thought was kind of jagged and smudged… I now believe, does not even exist.
I don’t think anyone could call me a bigot, these days. I don’t hate anyone for their views, much less for their race, creed, gender or sexual preference… As a matter of fact, I don’t really hate, at all. Sometimes, I have to work at that… but when I have to work the hardest at it, I can’t help but wonder what my mother, the enigma, would say.
I think she would say I learned that lesson very well.