My Mother’s Charm Bracelet

Boarding train

My mother just before boarding the train in Oklahoma City (July, 1955) that took her to New York City where she would start her journey to Saudi Arabia.

I revisited my mother’s charm bracelet recently. I don’t wear gold, so I’ve rarely worn it. It also has an emotional weight to it. It carries with it my mother’s conflict about herself as a woman and how that played itself out in her relationship with me, her only daughter. I have an older and younger brother. She came from a generation where the daughter’s needs get sacrificed to keep the peace in the family.

 

She gave me the bracelet some years before she died. I saw the silent, seething rage rise in my older brother when he asked her for it a few years later and she told him she had given it to me. He had expected he would get it to give to his wife. That led later that afternoon to his punching me. That was twenty years ago.

My mother died twelve years ago. She left all the rest of her jewelry to me. As my younger brother, his wife, and my niece (my older brother’s only daughter) sat around my dining table a day or two after her memorial, I sorted through the jewelry and shared pieces of it with them, saving a valuable ring I would send to my older brother’s wife. My niece let me know in no uncertain terms that she expected me to share the jewelry, that it would not have been fair for me to keep it all. My mother had once sacrificed me to her.

My mother and I were close, as long as my brothers were not close by. That’s when she would get conflicted, worry that our being close somehow took away from them. Or, that’s why I think she worried.

She was not conflicted, however, about leaving me her jewelry. I was her daughter. That’s why she left it to me.

Over the years since her death, I have had to distance myself from my brothers and their families. They have a particular view of who I am, one that fits within the daughters-sacrifice-themselves-for-the-family paradigm. To them, I became a monster when I stepped outside that paradigm. It was painful coming to that decision. It was far more painful to continue a relationship with people I love, but who consider me a monster for wanting to be a fully invested member of the family.

Families are complicated. And so, the bracelet had enormous weight to it.

It lives in a jewelry box in the top drawer of my dresser. I took it out recently as I considered selling it.

There is a charm on her bracelet for every country we visited as we traveled by ship and plane around the world. There are several that represent our time in Saudi Arabia, including one that she had made specially—a solid gold miniature still. It represented the still my father ran to make “hooch” while we lived there. Alcohol was officially forbidden, but during the Fifties, the King turned a blind eye to it so long as we kept it in the American compound—an island surrounded by a sea of Arab culture, its boundaries defined by a chain link fence.

As I held the bracelet, I recognized charms from countries we had visited as a family, others from her travels with my father after they retired, and then the ones she had accumulated when she traveled after my father’s death.

I remembered the day, about a year before she died from end-stage COPD, when she sat at my dining table, drinking the cappuccino I had made her (she loved my cappuccinos), a dark cloud coming over her as she said, “I won’t be able to travel anymore.”

I don’t remember what led her to say that. It wasn’t clear to me that it was true. But it was certainly what she felt. I think it was the first time I ever saw her depressed. “Don’t borrow trouble,” she had said more than once. Depression was not in her emotional tool kit. Yet there it was, though she did not dwell on it for long.

Memories get buried. That moment when she thought she could not travel anymore, and its impact on her, was such a memory. The bracelet unearthed it. As I held it, I understood  that my mother’s charm bracelet is her story.

She was born and raised in Oklahoma City, moved to California sometime during the War, and met my father shortly after it ended. They owned a restaurant called Hoagie’s for a while. But an employee offered to close it one night, took all the money, and left the food out to spoil. It bankrupted them. My father had a hard time finding work (he was an electrician), taking a job picking tomatoes once. He got an aching back, fifty cents, and a box of tomatoes he had helped himself to. “I’m never picking tomatoes again,” he told my mother.

Then he came home one day and said, “What would you think of moving to Saudi Arabia?” Why not, she responded, thus changing her story to the story that was truly hers.

To this day, I wonder how is it that in the Fifties, a woman who had been raised within the confines of Oklahoma, would so quickly and eagerly say, yes—let’s move to Saudi Arabia.

She flourished as an expat, took in the cultures of the countries we visited as we sailed for 75 days on a Dutch freighter, stopping at ports in the Far East as we made our way from Dammam, Saudi Arabia to Long Beach, California.

The “N” word was natural to her as she grew up. But, she told me her views changed when she learned, by living in Saudi Arabia, what it was to be a minority. She never used the word again. And, she embraced a world that was based on diversity, rather than certainty. In fact, she lusted after a world of diversity rather than of certainty.

That’s my mother’s story. Or, to be more accurate, that is Betty Jean Cole Hogan’s story—the story that has nothing to do with her as a mother. She gets to have that story.

She left it to me. Her daughter. The storyteller.

I am not going to sell the bracelet.

 

leaving home

My Aunt Mayme, grandmother, and mother as they left the house to take us to the train station.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amsterdam

We flew from New York to Amsterdam, then to Rome, and finally to Saudi Arabia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

friends

My mother (right) and her  friend Evelyn Ruberto outside our first house in Saudi Arabia.

 

 

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aboard ship

Aboard the Wonosobo, the freighter that tooks us from Saudi Arabia to California.

 

 

after trip

My mother in our second house. They bought rattan furniture while we were in the Philipines, our last stop before we sailed through typhoons to get to Long Beach, California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dancing

My parents hosted a hobo party. That’s her dancing with, I think, Jack Cavel.

An I-Like-the-Fish,-It’s-The-Tartar-Sauce-I-Don’t-Like Epiphany

“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.