“I finally figured it out,” my mother said when she was eighty, three years before she died. “I like fish. It’s the tartar sauce I don’t like.”
She had been living in a senior apartment center for a couple of years by then, and I assume that she discovered the tartar-sauce-not-the-fish thing by some fluke when eating in the dining room with fellow residents.
We ate very little fish when I was growing up. Canned tuna and fish sticks were pretty much the catch of the day in our house. Shrimp was what you ate when you went to a restaurant – shrimp cocktail or Shrimp Scatter.
I never liked fish sticks. My brothers slathered them in ketchup, but I have never been much of a ketchup aficionado.
Tuna, combined with Miracle Whip, usually appeared between slices of white bread. Tuna I liked, though I did not discover it came any way but canned until well into my twenties.
I ordered Shrimp Scatter whenever we went to Spenger’s Fish Grotto in Berkeley. Deep fried, served with tartar sauce, and plenty of french fries on the side. Shrimp cocktail was okay, too, the taste of the shrimp disguised, this time by the thick sweet cocktail sauce.
I discovered Fish and Chips when I went to college; felt very sophisticated that instead of dipping the fish in tartar sauce, I sprinkled vinegar over the pieces of deep fried fish and chips. Ate it just the way the British ate it.
Today, I can say that pretty much across the board, I like fish. That is, I like the way fish tastes when it has been prepared so that the natural, good flavor of the fish is respected – when it is not disguised.
I wrote in my journal today about the past, trying to make sense of what to do with it – trying to separate the wheat from the chaff so I can bring it into my life without swirling in the riptide that keeps me revisiting the part that makes me feel small and, well, bad.
As I wrote, I remembered my mother and her it’s-the-tartar-sauce-not-the-fish epiphany.
That is so my mother: her sense of humor, her willingness to change a long-held belief.
Except for those long-held beliefs that had woven themselves into her life tapestry with invisible threads – threads that had been passed down from her mother to me. Who knows for how many generations.
I’ve been discovering the invisible threads in my own tapestry. They made their way into the weaving in the words that would come at me when my mother was scared.
“Ha, ha! There won’t be anything left for you,” she said to me on the way back from the attorney who was working on the papers to help her sell her house to my brother. She had made a bad deal, but couldn’t bring herself to change it, though she was scared she might not have enough money for herself. She took her fear out on me because – I was the daughter.
“I can’t forgive my brother, but I can forgive my father because my mother stopped having sex with him,” she said to me when at forty I shared with her that both her father and her brother had molested me when I was eleven.
I wonder if my mother heard herself say those words. I don’t think she did. I think those invisible threads tied her to a narrative that would come out when she was scared, or, in the case of her father and brother, in a situation too horrific for her to face straight on. And she put the ear muffs on so she could say them.
I think those threads may have their origins in the times women were burned at the stake for being witches.
At some point, as my fountain pen made its way across the pages of my journal this morning, I had my own epiphany:
Being my mother did not relieve her of her contradictions, disappointments, regrets, fears, and dashed dreams. My being her daughter didn’t exacerbate them. But it didn’t relieve her of them either. She didn’t become the woman I needed her to be just because she gave birth to me.
It wasn’t that I forgave her so much as I realized I had nothing to forgive her for. I do not need her permission to unravel the invisible threads – to break from the tradition that got passed down through generations of women. Breaking with that tradition does not mean I didn’t or shouldn’t love her. It just means she didn’t have to be the woman I wanted her to be in order for me to be the woman I am.
A friend of mine is returning to law after a ten-year break from it. She never thought she would go back to it. She’s fifteen years younger than I. While I came from the generation of women who thought we had to choose between career (really, being a person) and being a mother, she came of age when women thought we were supposed to do it all: career, family, fulfillment. Career, particularly in professions such as the law, required that the woman succeed like a man would in it. You wore suits with blouses tied in a bow – as if that somehow merged male and female into your persona.
“Do I need to worry about my spiky hair cut?” she wondered. “Would it make clients take me less seriously? Will I look professional enough?”
Pshaw I thought. And said something like that to her.
I’m more articulate now. Be your hair is what I say. Be the woman that you are and bring that to the profession. That’s what we need to be doing as women now; trusting and valuing our experience living life as a woman and bringing that wisdom to the marketplace.
We need to discover our taste and how we taste and not cover it up with tartar sauce or cocktail sauce because that’s how the recipe was given to us.
I’m glad my mother discovered it was the tartar sauce she didn’t like, not the fish. I think it opened up a whole new area of pleasure for her.