Let me assure you I don’t remember this picture. I’m told the dog, almost off-camera is Vadia, a dog I never consciously met. In other pictures, there’s a look of the Pit to her, but she was a mut and we never knew a cross of what. Vadia means “Stray.” She showed up one day — if like other dogs, she followed dad home from a ramble — and simply never left. This happened a lot when we lived at grandma’s (in an apartment cut out of the house) which we did at the time. Grandma had the big neon sign saying “sucker” over her front door and every stray cat, dog, goat, turtle in the neighborhood knew there would be a free meal and she didn’t even give them a sermon.
The young, serious gentleman next to me is my older brother. I can’t swear to it, but I think my infant self was trying to figure out how to pull his hair. I truly was an awful trial to him.
The person holding me was my mother. She didn’t know it and thought the worst was over — my having been born extremely premature, by this age (I’d guess 5 to 6 months) I’d attained normal weight if not quite a bit over, and was clearly “normal” — but as soon as I was weaned a host of auto-immune issues set in from eczema to asthma, to a weakness of the lungs that led me to catch pneumonia at the drop of a hat to… just about anything that crossed the village or even waved in the wind would come and pay a visit.
Mom spent the next six years of her life battling for my life and becoming far too closely acquainted with doctors and hospitals. I wouldn’t be here without her. And I suspect I wouldn’t be a writer without that history, either. I am by nature short on ability to stand still, and if I’d been healthy I doubt I’d ever have spent much time reading. And if I hadn’t been sickly at a time when antibiotics were still new enough in Portugal not to have penetrated the general consciousness — and therefore at a time when quarantine was strictly observed for even the most trifling cold — and hadn’t I spent a lot of days in a room which didn’t even have a window, in other words, hadn’t I been bored out of my gourd, I doubt I’d ever have got the knack of telling myself stories — which means I’d never have thought to tell OTHER PEOPLE stories.
A lot of you are mothers, most (some I’m not too sure about ;) ) had mothers, a few of you are about to be mothers or will be mothers eventually.
From my own experience, it’s a terrifying thing. It’s far worse if you imagine you have control over exactly what your child will be or will become.
Give that idea up right away. You don’t have control. You have influence — and don’t give it up when you see the kid going astray — if I hadn’t fought like a madwoman, #2 son would be 6th grade drop out.
I try not to consciously throw my weight around too often. Only in things in which I think with experience they’d make a different decision and might once they’re older. Things like “get an education. Make it stem.” Or “Don’t get a tattoo, certainly not before your mid-twenties, and if you must get one, get in a place you can hide it with clothing for business interviews.”
For me to put my foot down and become exercised it needs to be something pretty important, like “If you’re driving to Denver, take your own car, I don’t know how those other kids drive.” I also do the mother thing and demand they call if they’re out after 10 — just because I can’t go to bed till I find they’re all right.
On the other hand, it’s amazing sometimes how much influence I have had without meaning to — particularly in matters of books and writing and art. Though the question must be begged here “is this influence or genetics?”
I don’t know.
And that’s a mind-relieving thing. Sure I influence them a lot, but there are a lot of other things — genes, circumstances, the time and place they live in — that will influence them more. The rather strange idea that mothers can shape a kid absolutely is exactly that, a strange idea.
Humans are more complex than that. There’s nature, there’s nurture and there’s something else. The something else was expressed to me by a friend as “In the end, we all raise ourselves.” This might not be true for everyone, but it’s true for most people worth knowing. Sooner or later we take responsibility.
Mom couldn’t have made me a writer if she tried. And she wouldn’t try. She still doesn’t read fiction. She will listen ad nauseum to history programs, or how things work, and she’ll read political magazines and newspapers and religious polemic, but she doesn’t like fiction. Dad reads fiction all the time, but other than mystery — his secret vice — it’s usually worthy books, the kind that win literary acclaim.
So, how did I turn out as I did? Who knows. Genes, boredom, illness, and, oh, yeah, in the end I discovered science fiction and fantasy, and I found my mental home. (As opposed to a mental hospital, though some would say…)
How much this was influenced by the woman in the picture below, my paternal grandmother, who was a second mother to me and my brother and my cousin Natalia (in picture) I don’t know. She used to tell me stories with shape shifters, see? (Mom disapproved.) I suspect it was more her genes than her influence which made me a writer, but her influence did form a great part of who I am. When in a pinch, I often hear something she used to say. Did she mean it that way? Perhaps. She was very close to her mother and grandmother, from whom I guess is where she got her aphorisms.
But what she gave me most of all were things she never said. Grandma was never still. From waking to sleep, from the time I met her — when she was 63. At least that’s the first age I remember for her — till about three months before her death, there was always something to clean, someone to cook for, some animal to rescue, some child to console, some crop to grow, some story to tell.
From her I learned that if you want to do it, you do it, you don’t moon about it. Being a woman is no excuse for not doing things and not trying things: if it’s what you want to do, you do it. If people talk, they will — you can’t stop people’s mouths.
From her I learned that you shouldn’t be too meek. She did tell me that “The more you bow, the more they see your slip” — but actually what I learned from her actions was that it’s okay to be meek and appeasing if you have to be and it gets things to happen faster. It’s only when principles or self-respect are involved that you should stand on your dignity. A lot of people who put on airs of power and dignity in fact have neither.
The most important person is the one who does what has to be done. And most things just take a lot of hard work. And no work is too hard. And you weren’t put in this Earth to spare yourself and let other people go in need whom you might help. And if you can’t give money, or solve someone’s problems, you can always lend a sympathetic ear. And cats should not be allowed to go in need of food or care either, because they’re cats, and you should look after them. And no animal ever deserves harsh treatment because they’re dumb brutes and will love you with just a little encouragement. And other people’s business becomes your business if you can help/improve their lot (by this I mean, if you can bake them a cake when they’re sad, look after them when they’re sick, listen to them in distress. The idea of offloading these things on government was UTTERLY alien to grandma.) But most of all, you do what you have to, and you bear what you have to, and you don’t cry and you don’t whine. Life is work and until one is done the other won’t be. But thank heavens, there are people we love and who love us along the way — and that makes the work joyful and makes it all worth while.
She never told me most of this, understand. But as I followed her around through the day (I remember I used to hold on to her apron strings) I soaked a lot of it through the skin.
Things such as my storytelling, my capacity to take physical pain, my mystical turn of mind might be genetic as might (sigh) to an extent my wretched metabolism. BUT my understanding of self respect and respect of others? That comes from watching how grandma interacted with people, and how she lived her life.
So, to the two women (one living) who are responsible for my being here, and for my raising myself as I did, and for my being who I am, Happy Mother’s Day.
And the rest of you, go enjoy mothers, or children, or “adopted” children or grandchildren, or nephews and nieces. A lot of you might not be biological mothers, but you still have a hand in shaping the future, by what you say, by what you do, and simply by being. Raise yourself as best you can. You might be raising other people, unknowing.