The Mother's Mother's Tale
A Mother's Day story
I recall the moment very clearly. I was six going on seven, flipping through my mother’s old baby pictures on the couch. I paused over one picture and pointed. I said to her, “You look a lot like your mom in that picture!”
I loved Grandma and Grandpa. They lived a good drive away in Chicago, but summertime meant regular visits where they would whisk me off in their old clunker for a windows-down, 70 mph road trip. Our destination was always the zoo. This was Grandma’s passion. She was, literally, the driving force in these excursions. I still have vivid memories of her indefatigably marching us through what felt at the time like every zoo in the Midwest. Her uniform was a flowery dress, socks and tennis shoes. She carried a fanny pack at her waist, stuffed full of quack pills and healthy snacks. I can still hear her cracked, klaxon horn voice plotting our next move, pausing to explain the plight of the endangered species, perpetually trying to recall Grandpa’s wandering attention with an urgent “Harry? Harry!”
That was Grandma. My mom’s mom. A blue-collar, red-letter Baptist woman, wife to a blue-collar, red-letter Baptist man. A man who worked with his hands, never went to college, and was barely literate, though the King James held no terrors for him. The same King James that would proceed out of my mother’s infant mouth as she rattled off the passage in 1 Thessalonians that her brother was supposed to be memorizing. At the time, they said she wasn’t even two. Yet there she was, quoting word for word, “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel…”
I watched my mom hesitate over my innocent remark. Much later, I would realize that I had brought her to a moment of great weight, a moment of truth. And in that moment, she decided. It was time.
She had something to tell me, she said. Something she had never told me before.
I was full of curiosity. “What is it?”
We talked it over. Mom shared a little about her birth mother. She shared less about her birth father, but I was given to understand clearly that he was a really, really bad guy. I became a little teary. I asked what I should call Mom’s “mom mom.” Could I call her “Grandma?” But I had a Grandma.
It wasn’t until much later that I would learn the rest of the story of Mom’s “mom mom.” It came gradually, as I became old enough to receive it. Occasionally, Mom would talk of hearing from her, exchanging bits of family news. She rescued their first contact correspondence from an old server and saved it in one long Word document.
I scroll slowly through that document today, with its walls of Courier New text, its “Received: from…” info dumps swathed in code wrapped in enigma, its equal signs and ampersands littering the text where apostrophes and quote marks should be. But these annoyances are a small distraction from the combined forces of personality that leap off of every page—querying, exploring, discovering, dancing the slow dance of mother and child reunion. It is a strange feeling to realize that my mother was close to the age I am now when this correspondence began. I see her in myself, myself in her.
They are both witty and literate, lovers of language. Without knowing it, they have separately both pursued higher studies in English, and they wander over the canon together with ease. But they also both grew up in fundamentalist homes. They both know what it was to have felt Different, on almost any scale that could be devised. They discover that they are both stubborn, with a special impatience for arrogant stupidity. And they are both fiercely tender, if such a thing is possible.
They are unlike, yet they are very like. They have never met, yet they understand each other. They are separated, yet they are bound together—by blood, by fate, by providence. And I, in my time, in my turn, am bound to them.
I have never told their story before. In one sense, it is not my story. But in another sense, it is. It is hers, and hers, and mine. It is ours.
My mother’s mother always wanted to learn to dance. When she was a child, she begged and pleaded for ballet lessons. But she was refused. Dancing was immoral, she was told. It exposed a woman’s body to public view.
She grew up on an island, she would later say: Christian Island. It was the island her parents built, because they hoped to keep her unspotted. They hoped to keep her safe.
It was the most miserable of times. It was the most wonderful of times. School was the miserable times. School was where she was Different. “Remember,” her mother would say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words…” But words hurt. They damn well hurt, and hurt like Hell.
But if she could only get alone, she could be happy. Curled up in the attic with a book, or tearing through the woods, shimmying up the tallest tree in the neighborhood to get close to a thunderstorm. These were the wonderful times.
Family Worship wasn’t so bad either, she had to admit in hindsight. Particularly the part where her mother read aloud to her. They had a surprisingly wide selection on Christian Island—Beowulf, Dickens, Kipling, and more. It was here that she first learned what literature was, and what it meant to share it.
They called themselves “pre-tribulation Rapturists,” which sounded like some exotic bird of prey. They told her stories of the Hereafter. But she could never understand the appeal. It sounded like Christmas every day. And even at age ten, that sounded like a drag. Like being forced to eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It should have thrilled her soul. But as hard as she tried, her soul was not thrilled.
Then her father died. After that, she calls the rest of her growing-up years “The Fog Years.” She knows she was doing things in those years. This was when she learned how to sew, when she earned awards, when she won a scholarship. She just can’t remember them. They are lost to her.
Then, midway through her college education in San Diego, through a strange series of events, she found herself broke. And so she went to work.
“Work,” for a respectable woman in those days, was limited in scope. She squeaked by with secretarial jobs, at one point living in D.C. with three other girls and “4,327 cockroaches.” Then one day, with savings clutched in hand, she returned to California, determined to get that final blinkin’ year over with and get on with her life at long last, by God.
There was someone at the university she should look up, a D. C. friend told her. He was a visiting writer. An intriguing intellectual, they said. Someone who pushed the envelope. Someone who dared to say uncomfortable things out loud.
Not long after, she found herself invited to dinner, sizing up the man in the flesh—this eccentric character who could sometimes be spotted in late-50s Greenwich Village, glowering in a corner like a podgy Lenny Bruce. If she was honest, she was a little disappointed. He was already graying, old enough to be her father. But while she wouldn't call him handsome, he was, in some indefinable sense, attractive. He was as brilliant as they had said, and hyper-articulate. Words flowed out of him in a never-ending, outrageous stream of conversation. And he was a true believer. He believed he was one of the last fighters for the greatest cause in the world: free love. Free love, he swore, would set you free.
The more they talked, the more fascinated she became. He was Different. And he could tell that she was Different, too. But he didn’t push her away. He pulled her in. He made her feel welcome. He made her feel beautiful.
The signs were always there, she could say looking back. The verbal abuse. The megalomania. The Freudian obsessions. The way he was always a victim in his own story. At dinner parties, he would tell and retell the outrageous tale of how he was swindled out of a fortune on a new scientific method for determining the exact time of a woman’s ovulation, in partnership with Planned Parenthood’s Committee on Maternal Health. Something to do with PH strips and the acidity level of the cervix. The Indian government was looking into it, and their representative promised that it would make him filthy rich. But, so the story went, as soon as the representative realized the idea couldn’t be patented, the scoundrel stole it for free and disappeared. This was not the only story of its kind, but it was a favorite.
Soon, she realized two things. One, it was over. Two, she was pregnant.
There was the predictable intense unpleasantness, followed by the predictable charming apology. There were promises to send money from Paris, where he suddenly decided he needed to be with his dying ex-wife. But she knew better, by now.
She panicked, at first, like so many mothers before and after her. She considered her options. She lived a hop and a skip from the Mexican border. But when she dug further, she heard horror stories, from women who met her firsthand and said Don’t. Do not. So she made her choice: There was no way out but through. In calmer moments, she would come to feel a deep sense of peace, a sense that what she had done, she had to do.
Still, she knew her remaining options were limited. She knew she would struggle to find work as a pregnant woman. She recoiled from her mother’s first suggestion that she contact an adoption agency in L. A., which matched unwed mothers with wealthy families who needed a live-in maid. Eventually, she took the only slightly more palatable option of moving back to the Midwest with some of her own family. But it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to be a successful permanent arrangement. And so she moved on, drifting from temp job to temp job, cleaning, cooking, babysitting. Eventually, she landed with another single mother, living hand-to-mouth, but content in her own simple way.
All the while, her family assumed that of course she couldn’t raise the child herself. And all the while, he wrote her letters from Paris, demanding that she had to. She must not “sell our baby to ignorant strangers,” he insisted. “Any child of ours would have to be extraordinary. No ordinary family would know what to make of him, or her.”
She was told the baby would come in December. Five months into the pregnancy, she woke up abruptly and said to herself, “It’s a girl. And she will be born on the 9th.”
Through summer and fall she worked and waited, tossed and turned. She calmed herself with knitting and sewing. A little hat and sweater. A little dress in white batiste, smocked around the neck and cuffs in yellow and green.
One night, early in December, she had a dream, a dream so terrible she never told anyone what it was. When she woke up, she was grieving. But she was at peace.
She wrote a letter to Paris. The reply came back with a verse reference on the envelope. It was John 2:4, from the miracle of the wine at Cana, when Jesus turns to Mary and says, “Woman, what have I to do with you? Mine hour is not yet come.”
On December 8th, she went into labor. Slowly and manageably at first, until someone gave her a too-high dose of a strong drug that stopped labor. Then things happened very quickly.
The next few days are a blur in her memory. Figures in gowns came and went and talked amongst themselves in tones of hushed concern. Sometimes they stooped close to study her face. She couldn’t figure out why, or what it had to do with her baby.
Later, she would learn there had been some concern about the shape of the child’s skull. A genetic anomaly, they suspected. It left a dent in the forehead, which they took as a possible sign of mental handicap. “Are you sure?” they would ask the young blue-collar, red-letter Baptist couple in Chicago, before the papers were signed. “Yes,” the couple would say. “We are sure.”
By now, she could get up and walk a little. She asked the social worker if she could see the child. The social worker cleared her throat delicately. The received wisdom of the time was that a clean break was kindest for the poor girl. That way she could put the whole thing out of her mind as quickly as possible and move on.
My mother’s mother had never been one to accept received wisdom, and she would not begin now. So she asked again. Gently, the social worker refused again.
At this point in the correspondence, my mother’s mother writes succinctly, in a paragraph unto itself, “I raised hell.” Which, on reflection, she feels is the best thing that could have happened to her in that moment. She was awake again. She had something to fight for.
In the end, she won. She tasted victory on shaky feet, in a hallway full of Christmas decorations. She looked down into the odd little face for the first time, and the last. As she gazed, the baby began to stir and fuss a little. She touched her finger to the little hand. It curled around instinctively, holding tight. And as she bent closer, she whispered the first thing that came to mind.