My Mother’s Story Makes Mine: Reflections on How a Straight Woman Shaped My Lesbian Identity
For mother’s day last year my partner made a gift for her mother. It was a list of all the nice things her mother had done for her as a child and all the ways her mother had contributed to the outstanding woman she’s become. Her mother cried. She read it over and over. They both think I should do the same thing for my mother this year. And I should.
But whenever I focus on the project of creating the letter, the same thing happens over and over. I sit down to write and I begin: Dear Mom, You’ve made me a lesbian. I realize that this is probably not what she wants to hear. Of course I don’t mean what the general public would assume-that she did something wrong/that she failed in teaching me how to become a real woman/that I am placing blame on her for an identity I don’t want to own. Really, it’s quite the opposite.
She was the first woman I ever loved. I remember a commercial for father’s day that ran a few years ago: the scene opened with an aging man reading a greeting card alone in his kitchen; the card apologetically stated that although his daughter was getting married, she would always remember the first man who stole her heart-her father. That idea (that the first love of a straight woman would be her father) is logical and sound in the minds of the public. What is illogical in our cultural imagination is positive first-love relationship with parents of the same sex. I’ve sat witness in women’s studies classrooms when we discussed Cherrie Moraga talking about how her mother was her first love. No one likes it. It sparks ideas of incestuous dyke sex-fiends misinterpreting their heterosexual mother’s innocent affections for explicit sexual encounters. That’s not what I mean and I don’t think it’s what Cherrie Moraga means either. What I mean is that my mother taught me what love between women was like. She showed me how to depend on women, how to trust women, how women can create safe spaces for each other. Even if I explained it like this, it is probably not what she wants to hear.
My mother is the sweetest, most purely good person I can imagine, but she is not the radical feminist I am. She’s not even all that liberal. Wanting to write her this letter and realizing the reasons I can’t has made me think deeply about my relationship with her and the ways in which we fail to hear each other.
There’s a rift between us caused by reasons larger than my lesbian identity: we grew up in different times that are attached to different family, class, and gender experiences. I’ve realized recently that to fully understand the woman I’ve become would mean sorting through my mother’s life. Her body created mine and her life story exists in pockets of my body that are totally unseen to the people I encounter.
When I was growing up and kids my age asked me about my grandparents I would always tell them that my grandmother lived with us and that my grandfather had died before I was born. When they asked, what about your other grandparents? I had a prepared response my mother asked me to tell: that they died in a car accident when my mother was little. She designed this lie (which she told everyone except our family) to keep them from knowing that she was raised by the state because her parents decided they didn’t want her. As an adult it’s difficult to piece together the actual events. I think that the reasonable thing to believe is that her parents were too poor to raise her and that they believed she would have a better life if they let other people raise her. This isn’t the way she tells it. She tells me that her sister still has the letters from her mother to her father that explain the whole thing. She says that the letters say that her mother hated her and that if her father “got rid of her and her sister she would come back to him. My mother was less than six months old; her sister was four.
My mother grew up in what she calls an orphanage where catholic nuns beat her and she had to get up at the crack of dawn to do chores before she went to church and then to school. She was fed poorly while the nuns ate extravagant meals. Once when she was about 10 years old she recited the rhyme, hay is for horses, moo is for cows, pigs like you aren’t allowed to a nun who beat her with fists and the end of a broom stick. She can peel hundreds of potatoes in thirty minutes. She learned to protect the little girls who wet their beds by hiding their soiled sheets. She told me every year, when we would go to buy my Easter dress, that each year as a child she got to pick out a new dress for Easter-everything else was always secondhand. When she was too young to be cooking she had a terrible grease fire accident that left a tiny scar by her right eye and under her wrist.
She never hit me. She tells me that she has never loved anyone in her life except for my father and me. She tells me that she would do anything for me. I believe her.
Whenever she would tell me stories like this, my father would wince and say, Why do you tell her those things? She would quickly end the story, looking embarrassed that she shared part of her past with her daughter (whose life was so much better). I remember even from a very young age thinking that it was ludicrous that my dad thought her stories could hurt me. After all, my mother lived through those things, why should I be sheltered from hearing about them?
When I was little she always told me to marry rich. My father was a lawyer and she always told me to marry a doctor. In her mind, doctors were far ahead of lawyers on the social and economic ladder. Always marry someone, she told me, who can afford to get you a maid. I’m sure that we could have afforded a maid, but we didn’t have one. This wasn’t all she said to imply that I wouldn’t have a career and that I would be legally heterosexually married. She used to force me watch her cook because she said I’d have to know how to make (fill in the blank) for my husband one day. (I’m a fabulous cook now, but I use my skills to woo women.) It’s important to understand that neither of my parents ever identified as feminists. When I was little, though, my father would always tell me to get an education before I did anything else. He would point out the woeful work of his secretaries and tell me, See that, you want to be the boss, m don’t you? You want to be the one telling other people what to do.
It’s remarkable that my (some would call anti-feminist) dad encouraged me to become a boss 1 in the mid 1980’s when I was growing up. For him, it wasn’t a gender issue-he didn’t want anyone pushing around his little girl. Being the boss was the best thing he could expect for his offspring. He never mentioned a future partner suggestion once. My mom, on the other hand, wanted me to get married because it was the best thing she could imagine for me. This was an early lesson in how women can oppress their daughters, even with the best intentions.
When I was a teenager I went through a phase where I thought it was great to shop at thrift stores. I would come home with bags full of finds and my mother would angrily shake her head and say, I don’t know why you’re so set on looking poor. When I would leave the house she would beg me to change my clothes. Every morning I would hear some combination of: Do you want people to think that you’re poor? Do you want your friends to think that your father and I can’t afford to buy you nice things? Do you know that what you wear reflects on this household? I thought that she was crazy, that she had some insane vendetta against poor people. I actually thought that I was better than her for not caring if people thought I was poor. What I didn’t understand until very recently is that I had the privilege to not care. She had worked her whole life to disassociate herself from the poverty she grew up in and I wasn’t being appreciative of the life she created for me.
I came home from my first year of college to have a discussion with my mother. I felt an educational divide shifting us to either side of the fold. She had a high school education and I was the first woman on her side of the family to go to college. We were driving to the mall together and when we stopped I held her hand and recited my prepared speech: I want you to know that I’m so thankful that you and dad are sending to me college, but I also want you to know that the actual piece of paper doesn’t mean anything to me. The smartest people I know aren’t college-educated people. I’ve learned all of my important lessons from you and you are still the smartest lady I know. She held my hand while tiny beads of tears swelled in her eyes. She closed them and they dripped down her cheeks. She whispered, thank you, you don’t know what that means to me.
As a graduate student who studies feminist and GLBT social movements, I’m a little worried about finding a job once I have a Ph.D. I’ve complained to my parents about this: “All this education and I’m going to make $40,000 a year if I’m lucky.” My mom always replies, “Yeah, well look at me-I bust my butt and make $20,000 a year.” This is where my dad chimes in: “Yeah, but she’s talking about having a Ph.D., that’s a little different.” My mom looks so embarrassed. She isn’t talking about our educational worth, she’s talking about our worth as people. To her, if we both bust our butts, we both should have something to show for it. Although it’s what she’s always wanted, it’s hard for her to accept that her daughter is worth more money than she is.
When I think of my mother these are the stories I think of. I also think of her turning up “Wipe-Out” on the radio and forcefully shaking her head up and down while she tells me that she always wanted to be a drummer; our recent feminist conversations where she nods along with me when I tell her that women are oppressed (she really seems to agree); her secret dream of becoming a famous race car driver; and all the times she’s told me that she is incredibly proud of the woman I’ve become.
I don’t think I’ll be able to tell her about this essay because writing down the stories she never told anyone else feels like a betrayal. It is in some ways, but it’s a necessary project to uncover our interwoven lives. All I can tell her of my project is what I’ll say on some future mother’s day: I’ve listened to every story you’ve ever told me, my children will hear your stories, and I’m incredibly proud of the women we’ve helped each other become.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. May/Jun 2005
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