A Better Life for Ma
My Mom would never have been accused of being an especially happy person. In her defense, I probably wouldn’t have been either, had I had to deal with her cultural circumstances. She lived for just 52 years and died in 1971, to give a historical perspective. Women’s Lib was just getting underway, and she would have been a staunch supporter; she was, after all, smart, independent and outspoken. She wanted a career, but didn’t get to have one, other than mom and wife, which is a laudable path, but, unfortunately for her, not her desired one.
She ended up having 5 children: one, a son, born to a man I never met. She raised him to be 18 years of age, then divorced his dad and had the rest of her life ahead of her. Then after WWII, she met my dad, and early on, he must have been one charming motherfucker. I say that because my mom didn’t want any more kids, but she and my dad managed to churn out another 4 of us. In my more benevolent moments, I like to think of her as a “reluctant mom.”
It was post-war 50’s: I get that; it was a different time. Interestingly, a time that some think we should return to. Me, I’m thinking, “not so fast.” Both of my parents were first generation Americans, born here of Russian immigrants. Needless to say, if you know anything about the Russian culture, there was alcohol in our home at all times. There may have been times at the grocery store when we had to put items back at the checkout counter because there wasn’t enough money, but there were somehow always funds available for booze.
Dad was generally a happy drunk, Mom was not, which I guess in turn made him violent. That may be an unfair assessment of the dynamic, but it’s kinda how I remember it as a kid. What little I do remember, that is. But I am getting too far into the weeds on the drinking thing; what I wanted to focus on was ma’s unhappiness.
Early on, as was the custom of the day, to discipline us, she would beat us. She had “The Strap:” a strip of leather cut from an old belt that hung on a nail on the wall. At some point, it didn’t even have to be wielded anymore; its mere presence was enough to have the four of us kids cowed into submission. Yes, we were “well-behaved.” In some of her unkinder moments, she would rail on about how she “wished I never had any of you.” We would call her “Ma.” She hated that. Yes, she was a reluctant mom.
There are stories that my dad physically abused her. I have no memory of that, but that's true of a lot of my growing up. I do remember defending my sister from him once when I was 13 years old. He was drunk and my sister (who was just slightly older than me) had taken my mom’s place in an early, early morning harangue with him. One thing led to another and my dad went after my sister and I stepped in, punching him in the chest repeatedly until he slumped into a corner.
Shortly after that, he threatened to kill all of us, so Mom gathered us up and we stayed with a cousin for a couple of weeks until Dad promised us that he “didn’t mean it,” and of course, it wouldn’t happen again.
These were the people that I had as role models for what a relationship would look like. Well, them and the Cleavers and the Andersons and all the other scrubbed-clean families from 50s and 60s TV that looked nothing like what most people were experiencing at home.
But sometimes our most valuable lessons come from being exposed to how we DON’T want to be ourselves. So, I thank Mom and Dad for their sterling example of how NOT to be in relationship. I knew I didn’t want to fight like they did; that was front and center. What I hadn’t been consciously aware of until fairly recently is that I have spent most of my entire adult life trying to create a better life for my mom. Not for her specifically, of course, she passed away in the summer of my 18th year, just before I went away to college. No, not for her, but for her gender.
A few years later I got into a relationship with a woman who was nine years my senior. She was a radical feminist, and she read me the riot act about a male-dominated world. I got the message. I was able to see how this had impacted my mom, and other women of her generation. I took forward a paradigm of women as fellow human beings and have strived, in every relationship I have ever been in to have it be an equal partnership. It’s a lofty goal, and often a delicate dance. As often as not my stance was taken advantage of, not so much out of malice, I think, but because they could, finally, in some small way, have the upper hand. And I, in my small way, could take away some of the sting of my own gender’s heavy-handedness.
Fast forward to this time in our country’s history and culture; some of those seeds that were sown in the 60s have not only sprouted, but have flourished and are bearing fruit. There are those that want to go back to a time when America was “great.” The patriarchy is rasping out its final wheezy breaths as old paradigms give way to a new evolved culture where gender plays much less of a determining factor in an individual’s eventual path in life.
I’d like to think we are on the brink of a new era that allows for a freedom of choice that we have not been witness to before, not just here in America, but around the world, as women come to the table as decision makers and we work towards a sustainable balance going forward.
So, yeah; Mom was angry. But back then, she didn’t have much of a choice. She wanted a different life and while she could have chosen one, it would have been a difficult path. She was pissed off, and had every right to be.
In her wake, I’ve watched women of my generation have to fight and scratch and claw just to be included in the conversation, and then still be readily dismissed. We’re not there yet, but, oh, we are getting closer. For women, equality is within your grasp. And for us men… for us men, it’s about time we realized that sharing the reins represents its own kind of freedom.
Evolution… it’s finally, at-long-last-fucking finally, come to this.
Are you in?