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Mothers Days on Dirty Laundry

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2012

This year I’m spending Mothers Day without cigarettes, having quit at the beginning of April (4th I think). It’s put me into an even crankier mood than usual…yet while I’m most often complaining about having to celebrate, this year I’m worried my son hasn’t planned anything, and might not. What’s wrong with me?! My friend Christine says I’ve confused my kids with my Mothers Day rants, and I ended up fighting with her, possibly the first time ever. When we hung up the phone I went through all my M Day blogs to see if she’s right. I decided she’s not. The reader can judge for him or herself. Here are my Mothers Day posts, going backwards, for as long as I’ve been blogging. I’m afraid some of the links no longer work. And, a  small amount has been cut, nothing important.

2011

The World Mothers’ Index

Every year around Mothers’ DaySave the Children issues a report on the State of the World’s Mothers, an analysis of the quality of life for women and children, taking into consideration access to resources; nutrition; rates of infant mortality, and more. According to this year’s report, the best place to be a mother is Norway, while the worst is a no-brainer–Afghanistan.….The USA comes in at #31 – not terrible, but shouldn’t we be nearer the top?

Dirty Laundry’s Mothers’ Index

Last year I conducted a short poll on DL asking mothers how they felt about this holiday… here are a few of readers’ remarks…

It was always my mothers birthday around Mother’s Day…but now I have to defer to my mother-in-law, which of course I resent. So on Sunday I’ll be eating take-out with her in her apartment…after all, she is 90 years old, and my husband’s mother and my son’s grandmother…

Hate it! I hate being dragged to a crowded restaurant where everything is tense and rushed and so f**king pastel and with other people’s children running amok. Why can’t I have a Father’s Day kind of day – sleep in, wear crappy clothes, and grill something?

Love it! Breakfast in bed. Flowers. Schmaltzy but fun.

I am not that happy on Mothers Day, since I lost my mom on that day. It’s been many years now, and while I still miss her, I just smile for the sake of my children and grandchildren…

 Now that my children are parents, they kind of forget how important this day can be for me. It’s a hard day…

Finally, in my recent review of Susie Bright’s memoir, {as I point out} both of our mothers lost their own mothers at an early age.


Mothers Day Poll

I’m wondering: You mothers out there, do you like Mothers Day? Is it a relaxing day for you, or is it a burden? If you do like it, why? and if not, why not? This is purely to assuage my curiosity, but it’s possible I’ll want to write something if the answers get interesting; if I do, I won’t use anyone’s name. So please be honest. This is, after all, the Age of Transparency (you know, like the Age of Aquarious. Sing it out!).

Do you enjoy Mothers Day? If so, why? If not, why not?

Yes. It’s relaxing.

No. It’s a burden.

Neutral.

Vote

2009

Here we are again, people. Another year, another Mothers Day.

The truth is, I’ve never known exactly how I myself feel about it. When you have a feminist analysis of the world, everything becomes some sort of conflict. And Mothers Day, which is about…the primero women’s issue, is rife with conflict. When I first rejected all conventional wisdom four decades ago (ouch!), my perspective on this day was cut and dried: we’re oppressed as mothers all year long – hard work, no pay, no respect – and then they give us one lousy day…

Unfortunately, this analysis leaves no room for reality. It doesn’t take into account the children, or any familial dynamics. I mean, what do you say to a ten-year-old who carves “MOM” into a wooden block  and presents it to you as a gift? Do you refuse the burnt toast and watery coffee they ceremoniously deliver to your bed Sunday morning? Grumble about oppression and the patriarchy? Of course not: like every mother, conventional or not, you wipe the tears from your eyes, force down the toast, and plant the MOM paperweight on your desk where it remains for the rest of your natural life…

… Because I don’t work a 9-to-5 job, from which most holidays bring relief, I pretty much hate all of them. I kinda like Thanksgiviing for the food, and Passover for the celebration of freedom (and the food), but in general I find holidays intrusive. With the media amped up…there’s no escape from awareness of an upcoming holiday … You have to do… what everyone else is doing…Otherwise you’re a grouch, a curmudgeon, negative, a traitor … and if you manage to avoid doing whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing… Don’t think for one minute you’re going to feel liberated. The culture brainwashed us long ago, so we feel guilty if we choose not to participate. And if, say, you have nobody to spend the holiday with, you feel sorry for yourself. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want to go to a crowded restaurant tonight…if neither of my kids wants to take me, I’ll conclude it’s because I’m a wretch…

But do have a lovely day, ladies, how ever you choose to spend it.

PS: Somehow I neglected to mention another difficult aspect of this day: the billions of people whose mothers are no longer on the material plane… holidays bring a sharp reminder of who’s not here, a list that grows longer every year.

2008

I’ve been a mother all my adult life. I’ve been a feminist almost as long. I’ve always felt conflicted about Mothers Day. This doesn’t seem to be true of most feminists anymore, if it ever was; it’s my nature to find conflict under every chair and bed – still, I don’t see how any woman today can feel a hundred percent comfortable on this fakokta holiday.

The public expressions of sentiment alone are enough to make you barf. This morning one of NPR’s personal odes began “A mother’s heart is as big as the world.” What bullshit! I’m old enough now so this crap rolls off my back – but as a 21-year old mother of two who felt overwhelmed, inadequate, and burdened, that kind of stuff made me feel guilty and freakish, and I’d bet anything that young mothers still react to stereotypes of motherhood that way.

My son took me out to dinner last night rather than tonight, at my request: I can’t stand going to restaurants crowded with ladies in polyester dresses and corsages. Now who’s stereotyping? But the truth is, depending on the restaurant, they do tend to attract homogenous populations. In slightly upscale places you’ll find big prosperous families, with the eldest mother wearing a pink suit and the inevitable corsage. The hip Berkeley establishments are full of kids in strollers and high chairs, the women dressed casually, not a corsage in sight. The dim sum place on the water in Emeryville will be mobbed for brunch, with a combination of young and old matriachs and offspring, alike in ethnicity and wearing their finest. Oakland mamas down on Jack London Square wear big hats and bigger corsages.

I wouldn’t know which group to join. It’s just me and my son; my daughter down in LA dislikes the day for her own reasons…I’ve never pressured her to spend it with me. I think they do a big lunch thing for his mother. I don’t really want to know: typical for schizoid people like me, I’d be jealous. I don’t want to go out, I don’t want my kids to feel obligated—yet I’m jealous if she’s doing something with the other mother.

My own mother died a little over three years ago. When she was alive I dutifully sent cards—we’re a card-crazy family—and, when I was flush, flowers. She was in Florida, and there was never a question of spending the day together. Since her death I’ve continued to send cards to my aunt, my daughter, and my sister, but this year I didn’t. I just didn’t have the energy or motivation or whatever it takes…My younger grandson’s card arrived, but none from the rest of the family: a postal fluke….It’s the one thing I do like and want on this day–Grandma cards.

The trouble with this holiday is you can’t come out as politically opposed, you’ll just seem like a bitter crazy curmudgeon (ahem). Besides, what’s the political agenda? Wages for Housework? Nobody’s marching for that anymore.

So go call your mother—even if she’s a feminist. Or even if she’s a bitter crazy curmudgeon.

2007

As the media does every so often, CNN yesterday reported the latest calculation of what mothers would earn if they were actually paid, in cold hard cash, for their labor. That number today would fall somewhere between $117K and $149K per year, a figure arrived at by estimating the average hourly wage for the various tasks involved in mothering: cooking, nursing, chauffeuring, etcetera. Of course, this “news” was delivered by two giggling anchors: they didn’t take it seriously, or expect their audience to either. Mother’s work is done purely out of loooooove.

Never mind that we pay nannies, nurses, housekeepers, day care providers, even the teenager next door for babysitting. And never mind all those studies proving, pretty definitively by now, that women lose income over the course of a lifetime when they spend years mothering. Or that they’re sometimes left to fend for themselves during hubby’s midlife crisis, if not sooner. We seem, as a society, to be terrified of this issue. We seem to think that if mothers were paid for their work, the family as an institution would crumble.

Back in the 1970s the International Wages for Housework Campaign, a network of women in Third World and industrialized countries, formulated a list of ambitious demands “for the unwaged work that women do to be recognized as work in official government statistics, and for this work to be paid.” More active in places like Australia and England than in the U.S., the movement never went anywhere, and today it’s all but dead: an Internet search dug up articles that were either decades old, or in fringe publications promoting things like socialism or anarchy.

In 1990 the International Labor Organization estimated that women do two-thirds of the world’s work for 5% of the income. In 1995 the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report announced that women’s unpaid and underpaid labor was worth $11 trillion worldwide, $1.4 trillion in the United States alone. No doubt these figures are much higher today. Even more mind-blowing is the system by which governments compute productivity. In If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics, Marilyn Waring explains the complexities of our economic system, which “counts oil spills and wars as contributors to economic growth, while child-rearing and housekeeping are deemed valueless.”

Motherhood isn’t devalued in monetary terms only. In the early 80s I enrolled in Empire State College, part of the State University of New York, to complete the requirements for my Bachelor’s degree. ESC was a school of independent study, and…life experience counted for credit… School policy excluded mothering as a field of study (of course), but my mentor thought that raising a child with a disability, and what I’d learned of the medical and social work systems as a result, might be credit-worthy. So I wrote up papers for credit in that and a number of other fields. Here’s how I did: For writing : a whopping 32 credits. For public relations: 9. For fundraising: 12. For political activism: 15. For raising a child with a disability (after a debate on whether to allow it): 3. No comment!

I don’t know why…people think wages for housework is a ridiculous concept…All I know is, whenever some idiot anchorperson laughingly tells me what I would have earned as a mother if my work had been deemed monetarily valuable, I go into a violent rage…

Happy Mothers Day.

 

2006

During the past few days a lot of people have been landing on my blog as a result of searches for anecdotes on motherhood. It must be confusing—here they are, trying to find something nice or funny to put onto Ma’s card, so they google Erma Bombeck, and find themselves in the middle of one of my rants.

I feel obliged to say a few words on this, er, sacred day, given how much I write on the subject of motherhood. This isn’t easy, since I am, to say the least, ambivalent about Mothers Day… Could any day arouse more confusion in a feminist mother than this annual mawk fest? Of course we want recognition for the job of mothering—but setting aside one day a year … is like Black History Month: we’re so neglected the rest of the year we need a special time to get noticed.

And the way we get noticed! Flowers, hearts, perfume, candy—name something sweet and frilly, chances are it’s a Mothers Day gift. The sentiments on Mothers Day cards are enough to make any mother, feminist or not, sick. I just saw a TV commercial that said moms “always love us, are always warm…” Nobody on the planet loves another person one hundred percent of the time. Nobody is always warm. It’s too much hype to have to live up to.

Well, it was too much for me, anyway. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I liked my kids, sure, but I did not like my role as a mother…sometimes {now} I look at young mommies who’re having fun and regret that I let myself miss out on it. More guilt, more regret, more shame….

I sent my kids mixed messages about Mothers Day, the result being that they never knew how to deal with it. If I hated the day so much, they were afraid to acknowledge it. If they didn’t acknowledge it, I felt worse. My daughter, now a mother herself, seems to have figured it out: she sends me a card, sometimes a gift, and always a card from the grandsons, which is the thing I most treasure. My son’s still so confused I have to issue direct orders: today I’ve asked him to take me to the movies…

Happy Mothers Day Everyone!

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Mothers Day 2011

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Happy Mothers Day!

The World Mothers’ Index

Every year around Mothers’ Day, I’ve just discovered, an organization called Save the Children issues a report on the State of the World’s Mothers. This is an analysis of the quality of life for women and children, taking into consideration access to resources; nutrition; rates of infant mortality, and much much more. According to this year’s report, the best place to be a mother is Norway, while the worst is a no-brainer–Afghanistan.

I’ve noticed lately that in a lot of these quality-of-life reports the Scandinavians seem to frequently come out on top. Iceland is ostensibly a divine place to live—who knew? I guess you’d have to like the cold, though; maybe a better quality of life is compensation for living through long hard winters. I’d love to visit Iceland…but I digress. According to this year’s Index, the USA comes in at #31 for las madres y ninas – not terrible, but shouldn’t we be nearer the top? (Actually, that number is a slight simplification – they change with each category). Read fascinating facts and figures, plus essays by champions of women worldwide like Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times.

Dirty Laundry’s Mothers’ Index

Last year I conducted a short poll on DL asking mothers how they felt about this holiday. Since many responses came in way after the day in question, I saved their answers for this year; here are a few remarks I found particularly poignant:

I usually get my plants for the season on Mother’s Day.  It was always my mothers birthday around Mother’s Day…but now I have to defer to my mother-in-law, which of course I resent. So on Sunday I’ll be eating take-out with her in her apartment…after all, she is 90 years old, and my husband’s mother and my son’s grandmother…but I’m still getting my plants! Happy Mothers’ Day!

Hate it! I hate being dragged to a crowded restaurant where everything is tense and rushed and so f**king pastel and with other people’s children running amok. Why can’t I have a Father’s Day kind of day – sleep in, wear crappy clothes, and grill something?

Love it! Breakfast in bed. Flowers. Schmaltzy but fun

I am not that happy on Mothers Day, since I lost my mom on that day. It’s been many years now, and while I still miss her, I just smile for the sake of my children and grandchildren. Now that my children are parents, they kind of forget how important this day can be for me. It’s a hard day…

Finally, in my recent review of Susie Bright’s memoir, I mentioned that both of our mothers lost their own mothers at an early age. I wrote about this awhile ago, as part of my own memoir-in-progress, How Little We Know.

Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Mother

Once, in my late twenties, I invited my mother, Rhoda, to attend an off-Broadway play created and performed by friends of mine. It was unusual for me to include her in this sort of thing; I didn’t like being in daughter mode, in which I often felt powerless, around my peers. As we rode the downtown bus to the theater, I became increasingly anxious at the prospect of introducing my mother to my friends. Would she like them? Would she disapprove? Most of all, would she embarrass me? Even when I was a kid, my mother seldom mingled with my friends, so this was unfamiliar territory for us. My mother was a judgmental woman; should she disapprove of the play, or be critical in front of my friends afterwards, I would be humiliated.

My mother was oblivious to my concerns: from her point of view we were simply going to the theater, something we’d done many times before.  Suddenly I experienced a flash of illumination: because my mother’s mother, Lily, died when my mother was a child, Rhoda had never been in my position. She had never been an adult daughter.

This revelation struck me with such force, it was as if my mother suddenly stepped out of shadows and into light. Although Lillian Lichtenfeld’s death by pneumonia was a known piece of family history, I had never seen my mother’s loss as part of who she was, especially in her role as a mother. For the first time I understood how this intelligent woman could be so clueless in her behavior towards my siblings and me.

When Hope Edelman wrote Motherless Daughters, she spawned a national movement of grief and support groups. “Losing my mother at a young age,” one woman posted on the book’s Amazon.com site, “…was one of the strongest factors that shaped my life… unraveling that event is a process that will forever be with me.”

Edelman followed up with Motherless Mothers, in which she identified common threads among these women: they lived in a state of constant alertness, awaiting catastrophic loss. No matter how long ago their mothers died, memories and feelings surfaced when they themselves had children.

My mother was of the generation that tended not to explore their feelings, particularly around death. When Lily (who, I’ve just discovered, I cannot seem to call grandmother) died, my grandfather told Rhoda and her sister, my Aunt Janice, “You are never to speak of her again.” Not only did they obey him, but for the rest of their lives they didn’t question his orders. Only I, some eighty years later, am furious on behalf of those two little girls.


Knowing my mother’s experience, I am sometimes reluctant to name her sins. The first time I saw a therapist I could hardly utter a word against my mother without feeling it was a terrible betrayal. It is only since my mother’s death six years ago that I’m free to write about her; were she alive I’d rather die myself than risk the possibility of hurting her with my words.

It isn’t just her absence that freed me: during the two weeks that she lay first in hospital, then in hospice, I reached a place of forgiveness – at least temporarily. At one point she briefly emerged from semi-consciousness, lifted her arms, and pulled me into them. That one gesture eased the conflicts of our past, and by the time she died my anger at her had vanished: all that remained was the love.  (As I said, this was but temporary: over the years my anger has repeatedly reappeared, though tempered by much more compassion.)

Emotional abuse, say the experts, can be as difficult as the physical kind, in that it’s harder to identify. It took me a long time to name my mother’s behavior towards me. She spoke to me, more often than not, in a tone of contempt and dislike. She told me to “shut up” as casually and as frequently as some mothers say “I love you.” She repeatedly called me stupid, clumsy, and too sensitive. Sometimes I remember these things, and I wonder, Why did she hate me so? That’s how I felt: hated.

I’m  even more amazed when I recall her utter lack of involvement with me. My existence was wholly separate from my family, first as a daydreaming child,  later as a rebellious adolescent. When I got pregnant at eighteen my mother said, with bitter contempt, “I thought you were a nice girl.” Of course she was stunned: she had no inkling of who I was or what I did when I wasn’t right in front of her. Not once had she ever mentioned sex or birth control to me. If she had any expectations for my future, I have no idea what they might have been.

It’s no accident that as a mother I was inattentive: I’d never learned otherwise. But then neither did my mother—she’d been cruelly left to navigate motherhood on her own. If she was deficient, it was a deficiency for which she cannot be blamed. In later years she hinted at having regrets: she said she wished she hadn’t been so “strict” with my sister and me, strict being her euphemism I suppose for abusive. Except for this last-minute soul-searching, my mother had never, as far as I know, seriously examined her life, never tried to figure out why she was the way she was.

I, like most of my generation, have examined my life—some might say a bit too energetically—and hers as well. If I can see that she acted out of the condition of motherlessness, and can forgive her, you’d think I might forgive my own parenting mistakes. Ay, but there’s the rub: self-forgiveness doesn’t come easy.

I don’t know if my mother was able to forgive herself in the end. I do know she never stopped feeling motherless: on her deathbed she cried out for Lily. I hope my presence helped in some way: she may have lived and died motherless, but at the very least she did not have to die alone and daughterless.

Big Sex Little Death: Review

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Susie with Cocktails at Bruno's in the Mish

Big Sex Little Death
A Memoir by Susie Bright
Seal Press  2011

I wasn’t certain I’d review Big Sex Little Death, Susie Bright’s long-awaited memoir, since I’m too close to some of the material to be purely objective — but as it turns out, I just can’t stop myself.

 

Full Disclosure: Susie Bright was one of the first people I met when I came West from New York some 25 years ago, and one of my first acts as a San Franciscan was to submit my sex stories to her Herotica collection. Shortly afterwards, I joined the On Our Backs staff as Susie’s assistant, a year later became their fiction editor, and, finally, was second successor to the editorial throne. Shadowing Susie didn’t end at OOB: I assumed editorship of Herotica with the #4 volume, when Susie moved on to more lucrative projects. I told her I  seemed to be following in her footsteps; she replied with her radiant million-dollar grin, “I’ll just keep warming up the chair for you.”

 

That charm and generosity are quintessential Susie, and they permeate Big Sex Little Death, her journey from childhood to teen socialist to feminist to sexual activist and public figure. I was familiar with much of this history, but seeing it all together in one place, I recognized, for the first time, how much Susie and I have in common, beginning with abusive mothers who lost their own mothers at an early age. Being a “motherless daughter,” I’ve recently learned, can affect a woman more profoundly than any other aspect of her life; it particularly influences the kind of mother she becomes. My mother was emotionally abusive; Susie’s was mentally ill (apparently undiagnosed), and  physically abusive:

She pinched the top of my arm and dragged me out the door. I remember her grip on my arm—and her disgust at my blubbering. I was pathetic, I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. I could see in her eyes how loathsome I’d become.

All this because Susie missed her cat, which her mother had unceremoniously abandoned.

I know all about that look in a mother’s eyes; that Susie was on the receiving end of it makes it that much more astonishing that she grew to become such a strong powerful woman. Lest anyone foolishly credit such experiences with helping to radicalize a person, it was not her mother’s abuse but her father’s love and support that pushed Susie forward. He stood proudly behind his teenage socialist firebrand, and he welcomed her home when the fires went out. Both parents – Mommy dearest was not all bad – were “braniacs; they were language, poetry and music fiends; they took enormous pleasure in big ideas and the power of word. They were literary sensualists.” Not a bad heritage for a feminist leader.

Susie took a dollop of this and a plateful of that from her parents. She incorporated socialist ideas into feminism – and took feminism even further, insisting that female-centered sexual representation and expression were its logical extension.

I wish she’d probed a little bit deeper into her life as an active Socialist. As her one-time editor, if she had asked for my opinion I would’ve urged her in that direction. Some of her anecdotes of life among the Commies aren’t reflective enough to satisfy, and while I loved what I read, I wanted more.

One of the major differences between Susie’s journey and mine is timing: I was a young mother when I first became, as I see it, conscious — while Susie seems to have been highly conscious from birth. I don’t know of many teenagers who can be as confident as Susie seems to have been in her beliefs, especially since they ran against received opinion.

The first time she stands up for women and their bodies is, appropriately, the day she first bleeds. Late returning to school after lunch, sent to the principal’s office, Susie marches right in “like a mad bear,” protesting, “This is not right…My period just started at noon, and I had to figure out the Tampax all by myself….and you can’t discriminate against me just because I’m menstruating…” The mortified principal nearly passed out and practically begged her to leave his office, showing her the power of her sexuality in one fell swoop. She has continued to confront sexual ignorance and patriarchal privilege ever since.

Although I ate up the first two sections of the book, I was, naturally, in something of a hurry to get to the part about OOB. Reading Susie’s account of each incident, from the founding of the magazine to its change in ownership, I kept receiving little shocks of recognition with every turned page. If this was a comic book, light bulbs would be hanging over my head, popping off in every panel, so faithful is Susie to what happened, at least as I remember it. For those who weren’t  close to the scene, I direct you to the book. It’s a helluva story; maybe someday I’ll have enough distance to write more about it myself.

Big Sex ends on a positive note – the day that Susie and Jon and baby Aretha move to Santa Cruz to begin family life anew. That too I remembered….then I eagerly turned the page…and was confronted with a page headlined “NOTES.” I could not believe I’d reached the end! And more than 15 long years ago!

Now,  I have been waiting since the day Aretha popped out of Susie’s belly to see what kind of American girl/child/woman Susie Bright’s daughter would become. As a mother who feels that I fucked up the sex education along with everything else, I was dying to see how Susie did with the hardest job on the planet. Unfortunately, a veil descended and I didn’t find out.

Susie has a right to put in or leave out whatever she wants from her memoir – but as a reader, and as her friend, (and as an editor) I wanted more. I especially want to know what happened in the years since the time of this book’s ending. I want to know about her mothering: how did being raised in an atmosphere of, or at least lip service to, sexual freedom affect Aretha and her attitudes? What about their relationship? My daughter is still angry about some of my sexual openness; what’s the story with Susie’s? More than most people, I understand the delicacy of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the desire not to violate a child’s privacy – but surely some of Susie’s story can be told without inflicting damage. This is not just idle curiosity, either: I honestly believe that Susie has something important to contribute to  this other area of female experience that’s been historically shrouded in darkness.

Because of this and a few more minor gaps, it doesn’t feel like Susie’s story has been fully told. Then again, nobody’s story is ever fully told, is it? Still, Susie has a lot more livin’ to do: I’m looking forward to a sequel.

Spanglish Spoiler

Spoiler Alert: I am about to discuss the ending of Spanglish, having just seen it for the third time—so anyone who doesn’t want to know “what happens” better cease and desist or accept the consequences.

Spanglish is a film that provides a whole new angle on the mother-daughter relationship. The movie is primarily about the immigrant experience, but the mother-daughter dyad is a major component. Writer/director James Brooks has set up an almost too obvious contrast-and-compare of the familial pairings—the American Bernice (Sarah Steele) and her mother, Deborah Clasky (Tia Leone), and the Mexican Christina (Victoria Luna) and Flor Moreno (Paz Vega). Extra spice is tossed in with the character of Evelyn, played by a sardonic Cloris Leachman, as Deborah’s mother. The ending, however, throws obvious out the window and saves the film from the realm of cliché.

In the typical immigrant story, the second generation defects from their parents; to achieve personal success, they must necessarily distance themselves from their cultural roots and, subsequently, their families. In one complex, event-filled, life-changing summer, Christine Moreno takes her first steps into American success. She almost makes it to the starting line, but before the opening shot is fired, her mother, in an act of supreme confidence and bravery, slams on the brakes.

After spending a summer at the beach home of the Claskys, her mother’s employers, Christine gets a scholarship to Bernice’s fancy LA private school. This comes about from the meddling of Deborah Clasky, who wants to “help” the intelligent, charming girl. On the surface it represents an unprecedented educational opportunity, but when Flor visits the school she rightly suspects it will turn Christine into a slice of white bread. Even Bernice’s father, played by an uncharacteristically subdued Adam Sandler, says he worries about what the school is doing to his kids. Thus, after quitting her job with the Claskys, Flor delivers the bad news to Christine: she’s not going to let her attend the school.

During their walk and bus ride home, daughter confronts mother with the usual tears and accusations. Christine has more of a case than many daughters in rebellion—this is, after all, about her education—and surely some members of the audience are outraged by Flora’s actions. She won’t budge, however, not even when Christine literally pushes her away with that most American of all clichés, “I need space.” Me, I wanted to cheer when Flor stuck her face into her daughter’s and said, “Uh uh, between you and me is no space!” A few minutes later Flor poses the question at the heart of the matter: Do you really want to become someone so different from me?

For Christine, it’s as if she’s been struck on the head with a hammer: she wakes up and makes the decision that will set the stage for her future. She recognizes that she does not want to become other, does not want to leave her mother and her culture behind in the flotsam and jetsam of what passes for American success. This represents a stunning new twist in the immigrant story. Flor deviates from the maternal script to want her daughter to do “better” than herself. Flor refuses to “sacrifice” their relationship for some dubious better future for her daughter.

This term, sacrifice, is used all the time to define the essence of American experience and the American family. Frankly, it’s a concept I’ve never understood, and about which I’ve often felt guilty, wondering if I’m missing some essential parental gene. But if every parent sacrifices for the next generation, when do people begin to live on their own account? When is it okay to simply live one’s own life? According to the American Dream, not only are individuals expected to sacrifice, but whole generations are expected to do so. Everyone is supposed to struggle and strive. When does anyone get to relax and enjoy their lives?

In specific terms of the mother-daughter relationship, when have we ever heard or seen a daughter who wants to be like her mother, a daughter whose every move, breath and action isn’t intended to separate herself in some way from the hated maternal figure? I can’t recall ever seeing a film or play, or reading a book, in which any daughter beyond the age of puberty wished to emulate her mother. The perfect emblem of this denouement is Stella Dallas, in which a mother parts forever from her daughter so she can marry a wealthy man without being embarrassed by her lower-class roots. Think of the values touted in Stella Dallas: the mother-daughter relationship is far less important than material gain!

If ever a fictional mother prevents her daughter from “bettering” herself, she’s portrayed as deeply neurotic, clinging, and overbearing. Flor is anything but neurotic: it bears mentioning that she’s a role model worthy of emulation–a gorgeous, smart, kind and loving woman who strives to make her life and her daughter’s life function at a fairly decent level without sacrificing herself entirely.

Virginia Woolf, writing of female friendship in A Room Of One’s Own, posed the question of what the world might be if, in a novel, women actually liked one another, if, as she put it,“Chloe liked Olivia.” What would happen if mothers and daughters were portrayed liking one another, if daughters admired their mothers so much they aimed to be like them? What if the prevailing American values were more in keeping with those of Flor and Christine?

I wonder if we’ll ever know.

On a somewhat lighter note, I must mention that one of my favorite things about Spanglish is Tia Leoni’s performance. She is hilarious, an absolute gem and a pleasure to watch. Given the stunning looks of Paz Vega and Victoria Luna, and their wonderful performances, whoever played Debora Clasky had to be really special to stand out here—and Tia Leoni is.

Portrait of My Mother

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Below is Chapter 5 of my memoir, which was part of another blog I took down about a year ago. I’m still working on it. I think this chapter stands alone — at least I hope it does.

A Smart, Funny, Joyful Lady.

That’s the inscription on my mother’s tombstone. Most traditional-minded people would probably find it odd: no Loving Mother or Devoted Wife or even In Loving Memory. My mother, who regarded conventional expressions of sentiment with deep contempt, would have adored her epitaph—which is one of the qualities I loved about her. In that same spirit, she would have been pleased by the poem I chose to read at her sad little funeral.

Braggart
by Dorothy Parker

The days will rally, wreathing
Their crazy tarantelle;
And you must go on breathing,
But I’ll be safe in hell.

Like January weather,
The years will bite and smart,
And pull your bones together
To wrap your chattering heart.

The pretty stuff you’re made of
Will crack and crease and dry.
The thing you are afraid of
Will look from every eye.

You will go faltering after
The bright, imperious line,
And split your throat on laughter,
And burn your eyes with brine.

You will be frail and musty
With peering, furtive head,
Whilst I am young and lusty
Among the roaring dead.

Not everyone understood this side of my mother. My father’s family attacked her viciously for the simple epitaph she had put on his headstone: A Wonderful Man. She fled in tears from a Thanksgiving dinner where his mother and sisters attacked her for what they saw as cold afterthought.

After the many toxic words I’ve spewed about the absent, defenseless Rhoda, it’s only fair that I give equal time to her brighter side. Any picture of her would be incomplete if it didn’t include the moments of joy, the fun I had with her when the crazy stuff wasn’t in the way. Like most people, I loved my mother just because she was my mother—and sometimes I even loved her for herself.

That wonderful man, my father, used to poke fun at her, in a tone of boastful affection. She played Lucy to his Desi, Gracie to his George; I cannot watch reruns of Desi and Lucy without seeing my mother in her. He kept people in stitches with tales of her exploits and quirks. The subtext of these stories was of Rhoda as a delightful eccentric, a unique woman of superior intellect. He was proud of her and loved her madly…and I’ve no doubt he would have preferred a more conventional wife.

On one of my adult visits to my parents, we were walking along West 70th Street, my mother and I catching up on news and gossip, my father walking slightly ahead of us. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but something got us going and we started cracking up. Soon I was laughing so hard that tears rolled down my face, and I had to grab onto my mother’s arm for balance on the icy street. I shrieked with abandon, with a hilarity I rarely experience anymore. As we crossed West End Avenue, a large black woman dressed snappily in blue suit and flowered hat was crossing from the opposite side. “That’s right, ladies,” she said, nodding and grinning as she passed, “go on and have a good time.” It was the equivalent of today’s You go, girl!

That woman gave me a wonderful gift by reflecting the joy I experienced with my mother. It was a side of our relationship at least as significant as the emotional abuse.

Most people who knew Rhoda as a person, not as someone’s wife, sister or mother, did not just like her in an ordinary way; they were crazy for her. Whenever I’d meet someone who knew her outside the family, they’d gush, almost always mentioning her intelligence—but also her kindness. I was stunned to hear about this kind, sweet woman I didn’t know. Obviously they’d never met my mean, sarcastic Mommy. I couldn’t help but wonder if she behaved differently out in the world than she did when she was with us. The older I got, the clearer it became that Rhoda was a very different person than Mommy. I’m glad I got to know that person a little, even though I didn’t know I knew her until she was gone.

As much as people cultivated her friendship, she constantly rebuffed their overtures. She’d complain that this one or that was always nagging her to go places with them—the movies, a cocktail lounge, a cruise. Though she had old friends to whom she sent birthday cards for more than sixty years, in later life she seemed to want no part of friendship—an aspect of the aging process I’m beginning to understand. Still, people continued to be drawn to her.


She never told me if there were men in her later years, but I suspect, from hints and an occasional male phone caller, that she got her share of attention from Florida widowers. Years ago, sitting in the Café de la Paix in Paris, my sister, mother and I guzzled wine until we got to the True Confession stage of intoxication. After Linda and I each confessed something scandalous, I prodded my mother to tell us about her sex life–or at least if she even had one. She refused to answer, and finally put an end to my questioning with, “Marcy, I don’t care how drunk we get, we are not going to talk about this!

Another time she stated the obvious: “Why on earth would I want to remarry?” If she hadn’t liked being married to A Wonderful Man, she certainly wasn’t going to like it with someone who was not so wonderful…and she knew that most of them aren’t.

Offers of friendship continued until her death. Only one woman from the assisted living facility came to her embarrassingly small funeral, but that one woman was devout. When she wrote to me later asking for a memento, I sent her one of my mother’s whimsical pieces of costume jewelry. She’d probably be mortified if she knew the way my mother talked about the residents. “They’re dim,” she told me when she first moved to the facility.

Compared to Rhoda they were dim. While she subscribed to The New Yorker and Time, most of them never even looked at a newspaper. They rarely ventured out of doors, and expressed little interest in anything beyond the walls of the facility other than their grandchildren. She was up and fully dressed each morning in black leggings and oversized, boldly colored blouses Linda continually sent her, in contrast to the other residents hunched in their bathrobes in the front hallway. Occasionally she’d go down early for lunch and sit with them.

“What do they talk about?” I asked.

“Whoever’s not there,” she said, laughing at her own joke.

Before she moved to the facility, where she spent her last four years, my mother lived in a condo next door to her Aunt Minnie, three miles from her sister Janice and not much further from my brother’s house in Fort Lauderdale. She lived in Florida over twenty years, having left New York a few months after my father died. Once a year I flew down to see her; at first these visits were excruciating, but gradually they improved, until I sometimes had more fun than on any other vacation I could have chosen.

One of our better weeks occurred at a time when I’d been experimenting with personal ads, all the rage back then (this was pre-Internet). When I told her about it, she was predictably horrified, thinking it a dangerous way to meet dangerous men. Even aside from the element of danger, the idea of meeting a mate through a newspaper ad repulsed her, as it did most of her generation. One day I dressed for my morning walk on the beach—my mother never joined me; she hated the beach. (I know: how can you live in Florida and hate the beach? You’d be surprised how many Floridians do.) I put on shorts and a blouse, a pair of sandals, and, of course, a pair of headphones attached to my indispensable Walkman (this was also pre-iPod).

She looked me over critically. “Why are you wearing that thing?” she demanded.
“To listen to music.” Duh.
“What if someone wants to talk to you?” she asked.
I shrugged.
No wonder you people need personal ads!”

Then there were the Trivial Pursuit years. In the 1980s my brother, mother and anyone else who happened to drop by—several distant cousins and relatives live in Florida—played the game every night during my stay. My mother would drink her Chablis—rotgut she bought by the gallon in cardboard containers—and after one or two glasses she’d begin a running commentary on the game that kept the rest of us in stitches. I wish I could remember some of her one-liners, but unfortunately the only one I recall concerns airplanes crashing into the Empire State Building—a somewhat prescient joke that is no longer funny.

Like most mothers of her generation, Rhoda didn’t go out to work for the first twelve years of my life. When we moved to Long Island she used the excuse of mortgage payments to take a job as a supermarket cashier. Within a few years she managed to climb the retail ladder, to the hosiery department of Abraham & Strauss, considered an upscale department store back then. Wherever she worked, she gave a thousand percent, both in skill and friendly workplace banter, and as a result she was relied upon and well-liked by her colleagues. After we kids were out of the house and my parents moved back to the city, she found her dream job: front-desk receptionist in the American offices of the British Broadcasting Company. Celebrities wandered in and out of the place: Alistair Cooke, Diane Keaton…she even met her heartthrob, Marlon Brando. She had a record with a song titled brando by Dory Previn, a somewhat obscure singer-songwriter she’d discovered and turned me on to:

Of course I always told myself—
You know how women get–
I bet I could have handled him
If only we had met…

The day he came into her office, my mother phoned me to report, “I could not have handled him—and neither could she!

When my father died we received dozens of cards and fruit baskets from the people at the BBC. She resigned shortly afterwards to move to Florida, and they published a notice, in the London Times no less, headed BBC’s Deep Ongoing Love Affair With Rhoda Sheiner. After her death I found a scrapbook of the farewell party they’d thrown for her: there she was, standing beside a cardboard blow-up of Robert Redford, another one of her heartthrobs. Their farewell gifts were precisely chosen for Rhoda and her many passions, proving they knew her well.

I can hardly believe it, but my mother was younger than I am now—just sixty when my father died. He’d been sixty-four, a few months too young to qualify for his company pension. She had his monthly Social Security checks and a decent chunk of change from the sale of their New York condo, so she didn’t have to work—but that would’ve been unthinkable. She was barely settled in Florida when she found the exact job she’d set her sights on, a secretarial gig in the office of the Diplomat Hotel less than a mile away. She worked there for six years before everyone was laid off for massive renovations.

By now she was in her late sixties; undaunted, she hit the pavement. On one interview she was waiting to see the big kahuna when she heard him tell his receptionist, in a carelessly unmodulated voice, “I don’t want someone that old.” She was crushed. She didn’t think of herself as old, barely paid attention to the whole aging process. She took the remark personally, and was deeply injured. She never worked again.

With a mother so enthusiastic about work, and an extended family in which everyone fondly referred to their office as my place, I grew up believing that work outside the home, particularly office work, was great fun, a privilege even. Damn, was I disappointed! The first day of my first secretarial job I saw that I had failed to inherit my family’s work ethic. I felt confined, limited and oppressed. I suffered every hour—and there have been many—spent in an office environment. This was something none of my relatives understood about me: when I complained, or–gasp!--quit a job–they thought I was just plain lazy.


Having read somewhere that the sense of hearing is the last to quit, I made CDs of my mother’s favorite songs and set up a player in her room at the hospice center. During the weekend of her funeral, as we sat around my brother’s house, I tried to play her music, but he and my sister went berserk: they despise, but really loathe, Barbra Streisand, Broadway show tunes, and even Frank Sinatra (who loathes Frank Sinatra?!) My brother once confessed that he relished blasting Eric Clapton or the Allman Brothers whenever he drove my mother around, getting revenge for all the years he’d been made to “suffer” in the back seat of the family car listening to my parents’ “garbage.”

My siblings didn’t want to hear music anyway; they wanted to watch football. I sat at the dining room table doing crossword puzzles while the two of them hooted and hollered at the television screen. I couldn’t help thinking of my father’s funeral, when the whole family had come over to the apartment and looked through the photo albums, interacting with more love and honesty than was customary among my relatives. Almost all those people were now gone, and I felt alone and bereft. When I could no longer bear the isolation I broke into their damned football game, blurting tearfully, “I want us to talk about Mommy.”

The look on my siblings’ faces may have been astonishment, or it may have been guilt. “O-kay,” said Linda in a slow, careful voice, as if speaking to a mental patient. “We can talk about Mommy.” (And then you’ll just take this pretty pink pill like a good little girl, won’t you? ) I’d give her the benefit of the doubt and say her tone was one common to older siblings—except that it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. She’d used loony tunes before in response to my expressions of emotion.

It was too late now—the conversation was too forced to be anything but artificial. Soon they went back to their game and I went outside. As I stood on the sweltering suburban sidewalk, a liberating thought popped into my head: I never have to see them again. And I never have to come back to Florida. A weight lifted—but my relief was short-lived when I remembered that every time I’d visited my mother I’d told myself the same thing–yet every year like clockwork I had returned. I had never known why.

Now I know I returned because I wanted to see my mother. I genuinely liked being with her. True, I hated Florida, and some of our visits had been grueling—but when they were good they were very very good.

But I have not seen my siblings in the three years that have passed since my mother’s death. Linda moved to Florida, buying a house near my brother. Neither of them have ever invited me for a visit, but then, they must know I wouldn’t come. Try as I might, I cannot summon up a shred of regret. It’s pure relief not to deal with those people who constantly told me I was crazy, or warped, or too sensitive, or any of the other charming adjectives they used to describe me.

In the weeks of my mother’s dying I discovered that I knew her far better than I’d thought. It was only when she was gone that I acknowledged the depth of our bond. Because my mother was so detached and unemotional, our relationship didn’t look like what is customarily thought of as intimate. Compared to touchy-feely parent/child relations, ours seemed more detached. She never told me she loved me, not once, until I said it first on the telephone about a year before she died. I rarely told her anything about my life for fear of being judged. This wasn’t empty paranoia: whenever I slipped up and told her anything of substance, she invariably disapproved. If I mentioned any discord between myself and another person, she always, without fail, took the side of the other, a stranger to her. And yet, as soon as she died I realized that what we shared went deep, perhaps even deeper than relationships among touchy-feelies.

Yup. It’s a lesson too late for the learning.

I miss my mother every day. I miss my father as well, more than two decades after his death. And yet, my profound wish for every adult is that they get to spend part of their lives without their parents on the same planet. Living as an adult orphan is teaching me lessons about life and death—not all of them too late for the learning.

During the last few years of her life my mother began to talk to me about her fear of death. She told me she was scared she’d be punished for bad deeds. I poked and prodded to uncover just what these bad deeds were. I could have listed them myself, but mistreatment of her children wasn’t what she had in mind. It was, she confessed, something to do with my father, but beyond that she wouldn’t specify. It was totally crazy-making: she kept bringing up the subject, asking me what I believed about the afterlife, or if I believed in it. She was sure that my father now “knew everything.” What’s “everything” I asked. Was she generalizing, realizing that she’d treated him badly in their day-to-day lives? But she made it clear this went beyond that.

I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d cheated on him. Her favorite song was “It Was Just One of Those Things,” a song whose lyrics leave little to the imagination. I asked her outright, but she wouldn’t say one way or the other. Still, she kept talking about it.

Didn’t she know she was torturing me? Any child would go crazy learning of a juicy secret in their mother’s background, but not precisely what it was about. I was moved that she’d confided in me something so significant, and I wanted to help her come to terms with whatever haunted her. When she said, “Daddy knows everything,” I replied, “Yes, and he forgives you.” I think I managed to convince her of that, though of course I have no idea if it’s true. I just figure, if the dead are so omnipotent as to “know everything,” then they have to be evolved enough to forgive.

Just One of Those Things” sung by Peggy Lee is on my iPod, and every time it comes up in Shuffle mode, I become more aware of its significance to my mother. But I’ll never really know for sure what it meant to her.

As my mother-in-law Sylvia used to say, Everyone carries their secrets to the grave.