Oh, Mother!

The writer as a small blob.

The writer as a small blob.

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.




33 responses to “Oh, Mother!

  1. Sarah, when is Portuguese Mother’s Day? Yoli could give a rat’s ass about American Mother’s Day but should I or the kids forget December 8th there’d be hell to pay.

    • It’s… complicated. It USED to be December 8th also, which I think is one of the Virgin Mary-associated holy days. EEC has changed it, so I just gave up, because I simply never know. Mom and dad adopted the new ways, which means I call them on the American days because at least I remember it. They just act puzzled! (Because we’re in the middle of packing to stage the house, I’m finishing a novel, Dan is doing some accounting thing or other with my business, because when we move he needs to have everything up to date tax wise, and the boys are about to go into finals — as well as Robert graduating with a double biology/chemistry degree — I doubt ANYONE remembers mother’s day this year. It’s okay, because Dan thought it was last week and took me to the Greek Diner in Denver. Maybe if I can clear the decks a little, we can take a walk later today, though it’s supposed to snow.)

      • It USED to be December 8th also, which I think is one of the Virgin Mary-associated holy days.

        Her conception. (Although a lot of folks confuse it with Jesus’ conception, because…. I don’t know. Immaculate sounds god-like?)

      • He forgot, did he? Yeah, I brought Yoli breakfast in bed on the 8th of May. She looked at me strangely, got up, brought it to the kitchen table, and ate it there. Only then did she ask, “DId you get mixed up about Mother’s Day? Again?”

      • The EU says the second Sunday in May, unless that coincides with Pentecost, in which case Mother’s Day is the first Sunday. (I know this because I got caught up in a cold, restrained, but determined, fight: liturgist and the choir vs. a preacher. It was a strange Sunday.)

      • Germany’s Mother day is today. I just happened on that fact today.

  2. Respect. Sounds like your grandma taught you respect.

    Not the fluffy, “do what I want you to!” stuff that blowhards demand– but the give-each-what-it-deserves-by-being and then a bit more because you are good sort of respect.

  3. That’s a lovely article (post, whatever). I wish a happy Mother’s Day to you and all the mothers out there in the world. As someone who’s just in the tangential surrogate-motherish role, I have a lot of appreciation for those of you actually earning your stripes every day.

    Enjoy. 🙂

  4. Happy Mother’s Day–
    For me I didn’t connect with my mother or my grandmothers. I did connect with my great-grandmother Jane, who died around the time I was 21. Still my mother would vet all my letters to her. I learned from her that I could be myself instead of what was expected of me.

  5. My mother is currently at Roncesvales, on her way to Santiago Compostela. With Dad Red. I think she’s rooting for the Basques again. 🙂

  6. Ditto on the happy Mother’s Day to all of us who didn’t know what we were getting into. 😉

  7. A bit off-track: If anyone would like to poke a stick in the eye of our cultural betters who think motherhood is something to be fought free of, go see “Mother’s Night Out” It’s a silly, fun, clean movie about motherhood, and the critics hate it. It’s apparently sexist. I mean, a woman choosing to stay home with her young children. Eww. And people talking about God non-ironically. Double eww.

    Don’t worry about the silly dad meme, the trailer plays it up, but it’s more a fevered fantasy on the mothers’ parts 🙂

    • Look, “Mothers’ parts” is a terrible image.

      (Runs ins a zigzag to dodge the carp.)

      • Look, I’m still reeling from a week spent in the company of women. The chocolate overload hasn’t worn off.

        Coherency is overrated anyway.

      • You must have seen Cakewrecks on the 10th, then. No, I’m not linking. The images may not be safe for: work, homes with small children, homes with sensitive individuals, and/or people who don’t like seeing bad depictions of anatomy.

    • name of movie is “Mom’s Night Out”

  8. A beautiful article. I wish I could say my family relationships had carried that much respect, in the classic, earned sense of the word.

  9. Happy Mothers Day.

    I remembered about 1 o’clock this afternoon, luckily I hadn’t seen my mother yet today. 😀 So I stopped at the store on my way through town and bought a card for her and my grandmother (who is currently visiting my parents), I had actually bought a present for mothers day a couple weeks ago, but hadn’t bought a card. So I stopped by my house and picked up moms present and delivered, with freshly bought card, and nobody the wiser.

  10. Happy Mother’s Day. My Mother died slightly over four years back; she was 86, and had been married for 50 years. She had been a music major, an acting student, an actress, a writer of advertising copy for a department store (Macy’s, and yes she did take part in the Parade at least once), student and then teacher of History, and an Architectural Historian.

    She taught me that each character in a book has a different voice, that buildings have style which will tell you their age, that cities are wonderful opportunities to explore. She made sure didn’t leave her house without learning how to cook, and did her damnedest to see to it that I knew how to dance (it isn’t her fault that at that age I was a gawky oaf). And I actually got her to come to an SF convention with me, and she had a ball.

    The day before she passed, she told me that the night before she had dreamed that my Father’s first bulldog, the one he’d had when they married, had come to see her. I like to think he was there when she passed over.

    When I went to Cons, I would listen to my fellow Fen talk about their families and the mutual lack of understanding they lived with. I had to tell them that my Mother had been an actress, my Father held the Lynn Thorndike Chair in the History of Magic and Experimental Science, one Grandfather had been a Methodist Minister with the Call, and the other had tried to reconcile the stock market and sunspot cycles.

    I’m a third generation nut.

    • Eh. Most of us are our family’s embarrassing secret. 😉 BUT I like to think grandma would have understood.

      • I’m pretty sure my mother started out Odd, but, not being very outspoken, submerged it. But still, it WAS her copy of a couple of the Lensman books that were my first introduction to Science Fiction.

        • My dad. He started out Odd but hid it. As I said mysteries were his guilty pleasure. Mom OTOH continued odd but she’s an odd’s odd. I mean, no fiction?

        • I’m pretty sure my mother started out Odd, but, not being very outspoken, submerged it.

          My mom’s dad was a Makes Stuff Odd, and my dad’s mom was beyond classification. Mom is definitely an Odd. All three outspoken, but it sure looks to me like they applied Sarah’s “the pink monkey is king” trick to their lives.

          If you can watch some of the older Odds– or just the ones that were able to grow up without kids setting the dance, it seems to me that the old style manners stuff is easier to “learn” enough to be acceptable– I think that there seem to be a lot more Odds in part because we CAN’T submerge ourselves in markers that change with fashion. This came about when I started thinking about how some folks with Autistic kids have had good luck using classic manners to help smooth social interactions, coupled with realizing how seldom folks have to deal with a specific other person to get something they want. (All three of those folks did useful things, and amazingly well. Aaaaand now I’m thinking of the recluse blacksmith or wise woman in stories, which would be one heck of a deal for an Odd, no?)

          I think the Pope Emeritus is an Odd, with a focus on religion; just look at his face in interviews where he’s talking about Jesus.

  11. Hell, my Father INTRODUCED me to Science Fiction. Also to Hammett and Chandler. And, come to think of it, Kipling. He was that rarest of beasts, a Conservative humanities professor. He got away with it because the Usual Suspects were scared to death of him.

  12. Science has shown that people who never had mothers tend to not have children, either.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that.