For five years my mother couldn’t get pregnant. Being pregnant was fashionable in the late fifties, Having a home and a husband and dinner every night with meat, a starch and a canned vegetable was in vogue.
Having babies was fashionable, like purses that exactly matched the shoes.
The old ladies sat on the stoop in Fish town while my mother paraded home from work in high fashion – pencil thin skirts and strappy shoes and hair glued into place with Aqua Net hairspray – thick lipstick and eyeliner. They clucked their tongues at my mother who had a waist the size of a nickel and who truly looked like Elizabeth Taylor. And they whispered “where are the babies?”
They assumed my mother was barren, the word used then for women who couldn’t have children. They went five years without children and then the three of us came, referred to in the neighborhood as Irish triplets.
A baby almost every year.
And perhaps when I was about five my mother had the abortion.
It took me well into my twenties and my mother’s sister to tell me the truth, because in my family, secrets were locked into drawers and tucked under hooded eyes and they had a wall of shame built around them, so they were hard to break into.
It was 1966 and even so, her doctor admitted her to the hospital where we all were born and gave her a safe abortion, and we all waved to her from the parking lot of the hospital. I wasn’t even sure if I saw her or my father’s unwavering love for her.
And for a while after that my mother disappeared from all of us.
Before the abortion was when my parent’s arguments started on the other side of the wall my room shared with theirs.
I remember my mother saying, “I finally get to go back to work”.
I remember her saying, “she’s finally in school.”
Until then I never saw my mother as someone who wanted anything but to care for us, but from that day forward I started paying attention to her as a person who was also separate from me.
I studied the way she looked out the kitchen window when she was washing the dishes, past the crab apple tree, past the half acre garden with zinnias and petunias and roses.
And sometimes now I stare out my kitchen window, and I think of my mother and all the women, staring out their kitchen windows and the difficult choices we have to make with our bodies.
And I think of my daughter staring out her kitchen window at the feral kittens and the wild pigs.
There was no support for women then, only the Catholic church, which after that shunned my mother.
I don’t know if she made the right choice for herself because I never got to ask her. I know that after that, she couldn’t stop writing. Words flowed out of her into books and the carriage return was a rhythmic slam in the middle of the night that was like a word train in my dreams, and most times in the morning we made our own breakfast because we could never wake her.
And she built her own life separate from us. She published books and she went on book tours. And I loved witnessing the woman who wasn’t only a mother.
And one day, when I was twelve and writing in my black composition book, she was staring at me, and I looked up at her. And she said I know you will write about all of this.
And she was right. But first my career and miscarriages, and my daughter and cancer. When my mother started losing her mind to dementia and she could no longer write, I realized that’s when I began to write
I picked up where she left off.
Elizabeth Gilbert gave a talk recently and asked every woman in the audience to raise their hands if they don’t want to turn into their mothers, and EVERY woman raised their hand. Every. Woman.
And today I was looking out my kitchen window. And I thought it’s so f*ing hard to be human, and even harder to be a woman, to make those hard decisions and then move forward when they are over, not knowing if it was the right decision.
And how so many of us have to stop wanting to NOT turn into our mothers and recognize we became who we are because of them. The good and the bad. And we take the best of them, because parts of them weren’t supported or nurtured.
And I can tell you I never wanted to turn into my mother either. I would have raised my hand a few years ago. But my mother gave me story. She gave me words. She gave me the path to healing.
Writing is a balm for our grief, it’s a way to understand and make sense of our lives.
And as women we all have kitchen sinks like a portal – and some of us have windows over them, and even if we don’t, our hands are the same water as our mother and her mother before her, and we are looking out, rinsing toward the truth of who we are and where we came from and where we are going.
And this is why your words matter and your stories matter and reading matters.
And your mother matters. Because
And I’m so glad you are.