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circ. 1963

My own individuality is as much a mystery as the complexity of the human genome. I know I was born with certain traits, stubbornness, for example. I also started my journey as a shy introvert, deathly afraid of being noticed. Not for me, the bright lights of the stage. No, I wanted to disappear into the wings, behind the folds of the velvet curtain. As a child, I considered myself a freak. I looked like no one in my family. My intellect was inferior. My nose was superior. My hair was thin and lank, as was my bony little body. The mirror at the end of the hall taunted me. I didn’t know then, that most of us felt inferior at that age. There was still so much for our unformed little personalities to learn about the world and about our places in the world. I had no idea of the adventures that lay before me.

As alluded to in previous posts and comments, individuality was mother’s personal mantra. Her childhood journals document the early formation of her identity. In her late teens she wrote:

“I do not need churches and priests. Neither do I need religions…. For I have my own religion. It is the Religion of Nature.… She has no priests for She speaks to me, Herself, without the aid of mediums to interpret rightly or wrongly, her wordless language.”

This rant predated the ERA movement of the 60’s and the Mother Earth/Goddess movements that challenge the patriarchy of traditional religions. Mother detested “group think.” My attempts to defend my screw ups with the explanation, “Well, the other kids were doing it,” sent mother off the deep end. She’d scald my ears about who I was and how “what others did” had absolutely no bearing on my behavior. This was hard medicine. I didn’t understand her logic and I resented the standard she held me to.

I envied the girls with June Cleaver mothers who took their daughters shopping for fashionable school clothes. I cringed when my mother burst into PTA meetings, head wrapped in a paisley scarf, frizzy hair locked in a 1930’s style, and bent at the waist from lugging around a small suitcase in place of a fashionable handbag. She’d screech at my grade school teachers who, in her opinion, failed to push me hard enough. Meanwhile, I sat in class, gazing out the window, completely disengaged.

There was much I didn’t comprehend. For example, how many of those beautiful moms were best friends with their daughters because their husbands ignored them, or beat them, or cheated on them? Being best friends with mom didn’t help some of my schoolmates as our lives grew more complicated—when boys and drugs entered the mix.

It never dawned on me how difficult and unending my mother’s job was. By sheer force of will she sculpted my character and droned her version of morality into my psyche. There were no quiet pleasantries. I don’t remember being hugged and told that everything would be okay. What I remember is being plopped onto the closed toilet seat, having my bleeding parts scrubbed and doused with something that stung like hell, then shoved back outside to resume whatever I’d been doing before I got hurt. “Get back on that horse.” My lamentations about my looks were met with, “That’s ridiculous. You have fine features. Now go do something useful.”

As I teenager, I rebelled, as we all do. Only a steely heart could have withstood my ugly “I HATE you”s followed by a slammed door. When my mother abruptly announced that she was getting married, I was surprised; first that anyone wanted her, and second that she had a life I knew nothing about. I thought I should be indignant that she’d failed to consult me on the matter. But in reality, my mother’s new relationship bled off her energy and diverted her attention away from me. There was great solace in having a kind older stepsister who included me in many of her merry pranks. And low and behold, the mysteries of life began to unfold for me. How ironic that my new stepfather was the former husband of my first-grade teacher, and that he had done extensive work on our house when we first arrived in town? Coincidence? Serendipity? Scandal? Misery? Misunderstanding? Lonliness?

“Let ’em talk!”

Lucky for me, by the time all the pieces of the puzzle began to shift into place, my character was well on its way. I’d seen through the cliques at school and become quite content with being alone or with a handful of loyal friends. I’d recognized the sacrifice my mother made by staying single. She could easily have lived up to the expectations of the small town wives. But apart from an early romance that stumbled before it got off the ground, she’d stood alone, head up, determined, and unflinching in the eyes of a community that was eager to slay an overstepping outsider. She could be counted on to do the unexpected and the controversial. While it made certain necessities difficult for me, I was proud of my mother’s work to initiate a family planning facility in our town. Suddenly, I was 17 and I realized that I’d stopped begging for the car keys. I was now telling her where I was going and when I’d be back. I had become a reliable, self-regulating young adult. The transformation occurred so seamlessly that I hadn’t even noticed it.

My mother placed enormous emphasis on “individualism and character.” She knew it could be a bumpy road. “If people are gonna’ talk, give ‘em something worthwhile to talk about!” And she was correct. Mother’s stature and influence in her town grew. She collected interesting and loyal friends like bees collect pollen. It took a slightly wild and crazy character to make the lonely decisions she made. A woman with less individualism and character would never have followed her dream and tugged me in her wake to benefit from the internal and external landscape.
Character-building landscape