Yesterday I was at my doctor’s office for a small procedure, and instead of seeing the person I normally see, I saw the head doctor, who also happens to be one of my mother’s old and dear friends. (Which would also explain why I have been driving to Wyomissing to see her and her staff since I was sixteen, no matter where I was living ~ clearly still the case, as I drive from Philadelphia now and have not once considered changing doctors).
Whenever I end up seeing my mother’s friends I am almost instantly transported back to our first kitchen in Reading, with white blue and pink flowered wallpaper and all the women from her club ~ the Berks Women’s Network ~ gathered around the table coallating the pink pages of their newsletters. At the time, I am one hundred percent certain that I had no idea the significance of this to me, and how it would help shape my ideals, my morals, my world view.
I have to take a step back, and say that my mother is the strongest, smartest, most resilient, incredible, charming, capable woman I have ever met. Or, I truly believe, ever will meet. She has faced down lions and demons in her life, and she always manages to emerge on the other side completely unphased, totally together, classy and composed. I’m sure she has had dark times ~ she’s human, and no one could have emerged from the hells she’s walked through unchanged. But she does it with such style, such self-possession. I am absolutely certain that if I am ever half the woman my mother is, that will be quite an accomplishment.
We moved a lot as I grew up and I am sure that took a toll on my mum ~ always having to uproot, change jobs, meet new friends. When I was about five, we moved to Reading for th first time, Jennie J moved in with us, and my mother went back to work. She’d done stay-at-home-motherhood and it just wasn’t her thing. Luckily (in some ways) my grandmother was able to move in with us. In a lot of ways, she was our (Dave & my) second mother.
I was young when all this happened, so my memories are hazy, but I remember going shopping with my mum for new work clothes ~ I remember some of the women from the Berks Women’s Network ~ I remember when my mother was given the opportunity to head up the at-the-time revolutionary Women’s Center at the Reading Hospital and Medical Center. I remember her office, too, and the waiting room with its dark plexiglass playhouse and the educational rooms with fake breasts to help women feel what breast cancer tumors would be like. I remember my mother’s boss, Jeannette, who was in so many ways a hero to me, and, I believe, a hero to my mother. Jeannette gave my mother that opportunity at the Women’s Center, and since then, my mum has never looked back. She has had a very successful career in spite of the relocations and all the obstacles associated with them.
The women from those days stayed in my mother’s life even as we moved to New Jersey, and then to Pittsburgh. And then, just after I turned sixteen, we headed back to Reading. Things had changed ~ obviously. Everything does with time. It was the nineties then, not the eighties, and women’s place in the workforce was evolving. Back in the early days (as I remember it) I was surrounded by strong professional women, but I really had no idea how hard they had worked to get there. Jeannette had been the President of the Reading Hospital — the first female president ever. And she’d made huge personal sacrifices to achieve her success. I didn’t understand that when I was five, and I could only partially grasp it when I was sixteen. But I fully appreciate it now.
I mention her because she died a few years ago, and when I found out, it felt as though my heart had been ripped from my body. I hadn’t realized it until she was no longer around to tell, but she had been my role model, a woman who believed in helping other women, in promoting the careers of women in a positive way and being a strong example of a professional woman. When she’d had her first and only child – a daughter- at the age of forty (I believe), she’d said with confidence that her baby girl would be the first female President of the United States. I still remember things about her with crystal clarity, and I wish I could have told her what she meant to me.
Jeannette was just one of the women I was exposed to at a young age ~a tender, impressionable age ~ and they all left their mark. A doctor, a business entrepreneur, a hospital President …. I never knew any other world than the world my mother showed me, with strong, smart, independent, savvy women. I know now that not all women are built like that ~ not all small girls are given the gift of those magnificent role models. As I chatted with my doctor yesterday, all my memories came rushing back, and I suddenly understood the significance of the kind of mother my mother chose to be, and how she chose to raise me. I believe it must be a huge and terrifying burden as the mother of a daughter to teach her the joys and drawbacks of life without cynicism, and give her the tools to succeed without utter pessimism. I applaud all the mothers out there doing their best to teach and shape and mold and support and then release their daughters. I can’t even imagine what a job it must be.
What I do know is that my mother will freely admit she probably wasn’t cut out to be a mother. She has no qualms admitting it was tough. She loves us ~ there is no doubting that. But she’s not afraid to be honest and admit her short-comings (even if I think she’s bananas because she did a great job). That, to me, makes her even more remarkable, because she does it without the undercurrent of self-pity or self-loathing. She is, was and continues to be incredible, amazing, inspiring. To me (and in the words of Mary Poppins) she is practically perfect in every way. She is my friend, my confidant, my sounding board, my gauge of reason … my mother. I can’t imagine being the person I am today without her and without the gifts she gave me as I grew up.
So thank you, Mama. If there were better, stronger words, I wish I knew them.