My Two Mothers
One of them nurtured me and helped me grow. One didn't.
My mother never taught me how to cook. Did she want to keep me dependent on her? Quite possibly. She also knew how to sew, make clothes, and do small repairs around the house, but she never taught me how to do any of those things, either.
At 58, I still don't know how to sew a button, mend a shirt, or change a hem, and I'm not great at hanging pictures, either. And I've never put up a shelf, or changed a washer in the faucet, and it was only — yes, really — in my 40s that I learned how to plunge a toilet. I did finally teach myself to cook at 43, but that took great effort, because I had grown up believing that if you weren't a fully formed chef by age 10, your chances of learning how to make dinner from scratch were the same as piloting a spacecraft.
When I was living on my own at 23 and tried to wash the floor for the first time, I didn’t realize that I needed to use soap. Perhaps it was that my mother was eager to have me escape traditional women’s work? But she never taught me the important “masculine” tasks either, like using hammer, nails, and a screwdriver, or how to balance a checkbook. I did learn how to do the laundry and dust, because those were the chores she wanted me to do, starting at around age 9 or 10. But I did not learn that you had to pay credit cards on time, or how to clean my shoes, or even how to wash my body so it was no longer dirty (more on this later). I got one pair of shoes at a time, which I would wear till it was filthy and falling apart, and then we would go to the cheapo shoe emporium Fayva to get me a new one. She did tell me that when you moved into a new apartment, you were supposed to bribe the super. (This was New York City in the 80s.)
On the other hand, she did teach me how to do one of the things I enjoy most in life — read books. Okay, I don't know if my mother taught me exactly, but she definitely encouraged me by reading me books and encouraging me to love them. I have a powerful memory of her reading to me and with me, sitting together and enjoying my favorite book at the time, Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice.
I told you once
I told you twice
of the year
for chicken soup
I remember reading it together every night before I went to bed. We also read his and Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear. I liked Chicken Soup with Rice better — I couldn't believe there was a book where every page was about the delights of eating.
What I do know — by the time she enrolled me in nursery school at the age of three, I was already reading. To help pay my sisters' and my way as scholarship students at our Jewish private school, my mother volunteered to organize the school library every afternoon, sitting me down next to her with a tunafish sandwich, a pickle, a Coke and a book. While she worked on the library, which had not been organized in years, I read. Often what I read was a book she had found in the scrum and thought I would enjoy. That is my childhood memory with the most security and pleasure — my mother's arm around me, the deli tuna salad with celery on rye in my mouth, a book in my hands.
The book I most remember from this time is one about a woman farmer who brought her vegetables to the market each week to sell. I have searched for that children's book in vain for 40 years, because my passion for it knows no limits. I think the farmer brought her vegetables to the potato man, the carrot man, and the turnip man to sell at their stalls. Or maybe they bought her vegetables for their own cooking pots? However it was, they were fellow farmers who liked her and who she liked. It made me feel so calm and sweet to see her sell her spinach, or whatever it was, to the friendly man in the red overalls, and the bald man in the brown jacket. This would have been something of a radical volume for the time, the late 60s.
My mother gave me more books as I grew. When she went back to college — she was 35, and I was six — she brought me home a book about Poseidon that excited me. He was agreeably scary and fierce on the cover, did people really think he caused earthquakes? Then there was Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology, with so much juicy stuff I couldn't take it. Zeus, coming on to the maiden Europa in the form of a bull. Dionysus, outfitting Pentheus in drag so he could watch the Maenads in what he thought was safety! Next were science fiction books, starting with Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Then Colin Turnbull's anthropological classic about a short-statured tribe in the Congo, The Forest People.
When I started writing (bad) poems in 5th grade, she praised them. She always praised my schoolwork and my mind, and when I grew up and became a writer, she saved clippings of all my print articles and tried to read everything I wrote.
In the interim, she'd had me read her grad school papers on Hegelian and Marxist philosophy, and discuss them with her. And, um, both of her dissertations. We started when I was 12. Earlier, she'd occasionally taken me out of 5th and 6th grade to attend her grad school classes with her. All of this was both wonderful and terrible. I loved having this special bond with her that apparently neither of my older sisters had, and I loved that she thought me capable of understanding Professor Emeritus Theodore Gaster's lectures on Zoroastrianism.
In another way, I think she was just trying to make some more time for us to spend together. Like all grad students, she was crazily busy, and didn't have much time to spend with me when she was home. Also, this time period was just a couple years past a traumatic separation I had had from her as a little kid, when she'd had a lengthy hospital stay for cancer treatment.
However. Doing advanced, grad-school level philosophy with my mother made me feel special, but I felt odd about the kind of special that I felt. It felt weird to have this intense, hothouse intellectual bond with my own mom, and to spend so much time and energy reading and discussing her academic writing on Hegelianism, alienation, praxis, and philosophy of religion. For six years, all the way until I went to college, I proofread and gave notes to my mother about her incredibly sophisticated and difficult papers on 19th century German thought. Her papers also, yes, excited me. I did learn from them, and they gave me a grounding for what would later be some of my most important political beliefs and intellectual first principles. And I loved that my mother thought that I, at 12, was smart enough to understand them.
I also think I was a little mirror for her, reflecting back to my mother her own brilliance, her own gifts. I was starstruck, confronted again and again with my mother's genius and her spectacular ideas. I told her how much I adored and admired her, again and again. And I really did. As for her, she puffed up like a popover on my adoration. She told me that she herself was brilliant, and that I was. It was a red-hot intellectual romance.
Pedagogy was another of my mother's subject areas, and as I learned from both her theoretical writings and her practice, Mom had some odd ideas about kids and education. She told me that she saw children as “little adults,” that is that they had no truly different needs than adults, or requirements for different care. One of our favorite games when I was little was what we called “Smart Baby,” where we would pretend I had just come out of her womb and I was a baby who already knew everything. I knew astronomy and political science and world history, I was a baby who knew French and German and who could do advanced math, and needed no education whatsoever! I could already do everything. From her, I needed nothing.
The strangest thing to me now about our relationship is how she combined the cultivation of my mind with the neglect of my person. I have mentioned that she might have been remiss in teaching me personal hygiene. My mom stopped bathing me when I was around seven, but no one ever really taught me how often I should be bathing myself. So I never showered more than once a week, and sometimes went for longer. I also had the idea that I didn't really need to wash the parts that weren't noticeably getting covered with dirt, so that I seldom washed my neck, my belly, my ears, or my back. Neither of my parents monitored my cleanliness. In fourth grade there was a period when I kept getting some kind of green fungus on my eyelashes and mites embedded in my ankles, and my mother registered these things with interest and did nothing.
Long ago, she had told me not to use much soap around my genitals, so I thought it was wise to avoid soap there entirely. Also, no one in my family ever suggested that I clean my butt, and it was a notion that never crossed my mind till long after I had passed into adulthood. I mean, wouldn't the area soon be getting dirty again anyhow? No one looked at my body to see if it was clean enough, no one cared, and no one said anything.
Some of this neglect stemmed from the time of my mother's hospitalization for cancer of the larynx. When I was getting my third-grade class picture taken, I cried because a school aide asked me, "Doesn't your mother ever comb your hair?" I cried because she was at that very moment in the hospital and no, she hadn't been combing my hair lately. (My father, it's important to say, hadn't been either.) But even after my mother recovered and came home, she seemed to have decided that every aspect of my physical body was now my responsibility. Okay, not every aspect — she and my father still paid for food, although they didn't make it for us. My sister and I usually made dinner together out of canned vegetables and Campbell's soup.
But every other aspect than feeding was my concern and mine alone. In sixth grade, it was a cold winter, and so I sometimes wore five different blouses or shirts together at the same time, one over the next. The other kids asked me why I did it. "Because I'm cold!" My mother never noticed.
She mostly didn't register when my father hit me, either, although it was the most frightening thing about my childhood. Although she did register: the straight A's on my report cards. The nice comments from teachers. The award I got for academic excellence from the American Legion (funny, given our politics). My mother, my father and I all went to the award ceremony at the American Legion, me trying to look conventional for once in a denim skirt, pantyhose, and 1970s platform sandals. My request to go on a spending spree at Barnes & Noble for my birthday (which she granted). The fact that I began to study Latin in seventh grade, proudly walking in my mother's footsteps. I had been her beaming acolyte when she took a summer intensive course in Latin at the CUNY Grad Center several years earlier. I'd been so in awe of her for taking Latin and reading Cicero and Horace. And she'd shared Catullus's fabulously dirty poems with me long before it could possibly have been appropriate. I must have been nine or 10 and she was joking with me about his poem that begins "I'll fuck you both right up the ass." Now, when I was 11 and 12, we shared her copy of Catullus back and forth now that I could actually understand the Latin.
I'd had braces to correct a terrible underbite, but I would go to the orthodontist by myself and my mother never sent along a check for him. As a result, he removed my braces long before my crooked teeth were corrected. He asked me, a sixth-grader coming to the office alone by bus, and I said "Fine! Go ahead and remove them." I thought my teeth were fixed already, and we had gotten one over on the dude. My mother never said a peep.
In adulthood, it took me a while to realize I was a kind of baby when it came to practical matters. Specifically, to caring for myself, my objects, and my home. I did eventually learn, in my late 20s, how to keep the house clean. I started showering every day when I went to college, because I had intuited you were supposed to, but I will not tell you how many years it took (including the intervention of a kindhearted doctor) to learn how I ought to wash my body to keep it in fine fettle.
I've tried for years to understand why my mother taught me about this (Latin grammar) and not that (washing the floor), why she spent a lot of time enthusing with me about Brutus's orations in Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" and not showing me how to wash my butt. For a long time I thought she wanted to keep me infantilized, to keep me coming back to her to hem my pants and fix my faucet. And there may have been some truth in that. She certainly was afraid I would stop needing her and stop wanting to see her as I grew. But now I think that she just taught me those subjects that were most fun for her to teach me, that her main concern was pleasure, and also finding a companion with whom she could discuss intellectual matters, reading, and the whole exciting category of words. And have her own capacity in these areas reflected back to her. (My mother didn't have many friends.)
I've often wondered why she didn't teach me to paint, draw, or sculpt, as making visual art was as important to her as writing. (She had a prodigious output of excellent oil paintings, watercolors, papier-mâché, clay sculpture, fiber art and found objects as well as poetry, fiction, agitprop, and academic writing, as long as I knew her.) I think she didn't because I had no particular talents when it came to visual art, so it was much less fun for her to do them with me, even as a young mother with a toddler. I wish we had had years together sculpting in metal and yarn, years of her teaching me to draw, just for the hell of it. I now know — in this moment — why, until my 30s, I always felt it was shameful for me to do anything I wasn't already great at.
I avoided science, visual art, building things, fashion and style, cooking, dancing, making anything by hand — just because I'd internalized that it was deeply embarrassing to try your hand at anything if you weren't already amazing at it. I believe my mother thought it was. She never put my first grade drawings on the refrigerator, never commented that she liked the purple tree in my painting. She loved to put together furniture, assemble machines, do physics problems, and play chess, but she never showed me how because, I think, she never found it ravenously exciting — or ego-affirming — to do these things with me. In my mother's teaching, in her nurturing, she was all about the ego-affirming and the ravenously exciting.