Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Mother's Friends

My dad, the family kidder, used to ask my mom why she didn't wear pearls and high heels to clean the house like June Cleaver did on TV. She would sputter and puff ... and then laugh. Actually, other than the fact that she didn't dress like a TV mom, Mom's life was a sort of stereotypical 1950's blue collar mother's life. Her world revolved around home and church and a couple of community organizations. The women she worked with on her committees were all homemakers just like her. They were efficient and effective community activists (who would have died of mortification at the very thought that some one may have seen them that way) who always managed to be home from their committee meetings in time to have supper on the table when their husbands came home from work. They might not have dressed in pearls to clean the house like June Cleaver, but they had an impact on their worlds that Mrs. Cleaver never dreamed of even attempting.

In addition to her wide circle of colleagues, Mom had an inner circle of close friends who were very interesting. I am not sure how they got acquainted. They seemed to have virtually nothing in common. Maybe that was why there was such magic between them.

One of the women went to our church; I think that is how my mom met her. After her children were grown, she became an EMT and volunteer ambulance driver. She smoked like a chimney and chewed gum constantly. She was a very funny person; she loved dirty jokes (really, really dirty jokes). I liked her a lot, but I liked her husband even better because he was quiet, had a very dry wit and was not nearly so intimidating.

A second friend was the wife of a mid-level executive for a large corporation. To my knowledge she had never worked for money. Her children, too, were grown and lived far away. She had a really nice house (by my standards) which she had decorated herself. She was rather flamboyant in her manner and dress which both attracted and repelled me. She, too, smoked like a fiend (and had a heart condition because of it). She was very rough around the edges and she swore like a sailor, but I liked her the best of all Mom's friends. She acted rough and gruff, but her kind heart showed through despite all her efforts to hide it.

The third woman in the group was much younger than the others. She was a practical nurse who worked in a long-term care facility that cared for incurably ill people. She was quiet, gentle and kind; simply being around her was soothing and comforting. I always thought she must have been a spectacular nurse. She made me feel better just sitting at the table drinking tea with her. I don't think she had children of her own, but I think her husband had grown children. She lived in a trailer with her husband who, I think, was a truck driver. She was a native American and she had the most beautiful long black hair I have ever seen. She smoked a lot, too. The thing I remember most about her was how freaked out she was when she turned 40. The other women were very kind to her. They had all passed that hurdle and they were determined to help her through it. [I am both amused and freaked out to think that all of those women were younger than I am now. Hmmmm. ... moving along now.....]

What my mother, the ultra-religious Southern gal with late-life small children, had in common with those other three, I have no earthly idea. I do know they loved each other and got together often for lunches that involved massive quantities of coffee and overflowing ashtrays. (My mom didn't smoke but she never complained about the cloud of smoke she lived in from the people around her who did.) A couple of times a year they would go out to a restaurant for dinner. They were not regular drinkers, but their evenings out tended to involve a few cocktails, so one or the other husband would take them to the restaurant and another husband would pick them up, pour them into the car and deliver each one safely (but often somewhat green around the gills) to their respective homes. I remember those times because the women had such fun, and because the husbands were such good sports about it.

Occasionally when I wasn't in school, Mom would take me with her to lunch with the girls. My main purpose in being there was to baby-sit my sister who was a toddler at the time. I typically managed to park her in front of the TV or make her take a nap so I could sneak into the kitchen and eavesdrop on the girl-talk.

One particular lunch conversation stands out in my mind. I had just read The Feminine Mystique which was the "it" book that year. Only one of the women had read it but they had all heard of it. The woman who had read it explained the concept to the others. Two of the other three nodded and agreed. They said they understood exactly what Friedan was talking about, and proceded to provide examples from their own lives. My mom said nothing through the entire lunch. After the conversation calmed down a bit, one of the women pushed her for her opinion. Mom shrugged and said, "I can understand what you are talking about, but I do not feel that I have given anything up. I always felt that I had a choice to be a wife and mother or not. I chose the life I have. I would not do anything differently. I love my life."

They pushed back, trying to get her to admit that sometimes she felt oppressed. She refused to budge. Knowing my mom, I am pretty sure she was being totally truthful. I know she believed there were always choices in life. The fact that she chose the most common path did not make it any less her freely chosen one. Mom had no regrets (then or now). What an amazing accomplishment that is!

That day stands out in my mind for many reasons. First, because I had a chance to hear from my mother's friends what I expected to hear: the "Feminine Mystique" was every bit as real and every bit as suffocating as Friedan described it. Secondly, it stands out in my mind because my mother's staunch refusal to be railroaded into saying that she felt something she didn't feel, no matter how "popular" the notion, made me understand that not everyone shares the "majority" opinion. Thirdly, and most importantly, it may have been the most intimate conversation I ever heard those women engage in. It was my first experience of "deep" girl-talk. I have been hooked ever since on that kind of relationship with other women.

What I took away from eavesdropping on my mother and her friends was that women (people) do not have to have a lot in common to love one another. They simply have to care about one another and be willing to listen without passing judgments.

Years later when I found myself briefly blessed to find myself in a circle of chain-smoking, coffee-drinking women who met frequently for lunch and conversations on deep subjects, I could sometimes close my eyes and feel our connection to the larger Sisterhood of women who had gone before and who would come after us. The feeling of empowerment was amazing.

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