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Developing Individualism and Character: Part Three

Circ. 1981

Today would be my mother’s 100th birthday. Mother and I were never close. We never shared secrets, hopes, dreams. We danced around each other like boxers in a ring, taking an occasional jab just to test the opponent. We had to teach ourselves to hug one another.

She’s been gone for 22 years—nearly a quarter of a century. It has taken me that long to come to terms with all that I was never able to say to my mother. She was a woman of vast inconsistencies.  Born into a tumultuous climate of death and destruction in London, her very existence was at odds with world events. The country of her German father was at war with the country of her British mother.  She learned to speak English with her mother, only to be ripped out of that environment at the age of five and plopped into the Grimm land of dark fairy tales, where her words no longer had merit, her presence a reminder of defeat and humiliation. Six eventful years later she was once again uprooted and plopped down in the land of the free.

Much as she wanted to be free, much as she often behaved in ways that perplexed and defied her parents, her friends, and even her children, I surmise that she was never free of the inner conflicts that pulled her in multiple directions.

As stubborn and hardy as she might appear on the outside, inside she was awash with nervous anxiety. Like her own mother, I believe she suffered physically from the challenges that life threw her way. She was at once high-strung and excitable and then calmly accepting of the inevitable. Her anxiety lodged in her gut, making food and nourishment a battle zone. So many things upset her digestion; I never fully grasped her odd food regime. Later, her nerves robbed her of her prized mane of thick dark hair which fell out in gobs, transforming her into chemo patient without the chemo. When the hair eventually returned, to her dismay it came in baby fine and white as snow.

But my mother kept her fears and disappointments carefully under wraps. Few of her many friends knew or understood the hurts she covered over with gypsy-colored clothing and jewelry, verbal audacity, and prescient activism.

Mom aboard sister's stallion 1960

Circ. 1960


p>For over 16 years, I resented my mother. She was the odd-looking Babushka who tottered into my elementary school with a paisley scarf cinched over her head, her back bent in an upside down ell from the weight of mammoth bosoms and a suitcase for a handbag. As if her appearance weren’t bad enough, mom’s verbal audacity took over as she proceeded to instruct my teachers on what I should be learning and what I was not learning, thanks to their ineptitude.

I so longed for a svelte, blonde mum dressed in a pencil skirt below a cashmere twin set, beautifully coiffed hair, and L’Oreal make-up, a mom who would treat my class to home-made cupcakes and praise my teachers for their wisdom and patience.

But mom was my lot in life. It was years before I understood the social pressures that wore at her and which she continued to rebel against. It took decades for me to embrace mom’s dare to be different, to understand why her friends, as well as my friends, worshiped her. She was an enigma, with a story to cover all bases, and—as I’ve come to understand—a slightly different version of the story for each telling. She dared to challenge the status-quo, to be a single woman, to buy and sell property, to drive the back roads, to walk down the street with her head held high despite murmurs of gossip that trailed in her wake. She was a feminist before the word was burned into our lexicon. Her presence on the planet spiraled in surprising directions, rippling through families, and waking numbed brains. She was someone whose life made a difference.

If I live to be 100, I will never match my mother’s ability to move and impact the lives of those around me. But as the years have piled up, I have come to appreciate my mom’s wild streak, as well as her frailties. She was head strong and complex, and in spite of myself, she turned me into the Rock of Gibraltar, unafraid to push myself in new directions, even if that behavior is unsettling to those around me. Thanks Mom, for always being there, even when I was too dumb to know you were. Thanks for being a woman with a spine, a woman of courage and determination. Happy Birthday!IMG_1730