Thanks for the Mammaries

“Thanks for the mammaries.”

That was on the inside of a card I gave to my mother for Mother’s Day. On the outside was a drawing of a blissful mother nursing her baby.

My mother hadn’t breast fed me. I was born in 1949 when it was out of fashion, and she had taken some kind of drug that had dried up the breast milk. She had taken it for an infection, she said.

I am not upset that my mother didn’t breast feed me. It just sort of fit with who she was. Not cold and indifferent – just not sentimental about being a mother. Thus, she enjoyed the card I gave her.

I liked that about my mother.

Mother’s Day wasn’t terribly important to her, so it was always pretty low key. Since I did not have children, it wasn’t particularly on my radar.

And then I became a stepmother.

I think the word “blended” family is misleading. It is often more like a Cuisinart family, in which a wide variety of volatile emotions get churned by the sharp blade of confusion about who loves who, who can love who, and whose love counts. That the human heart is both fragile and muscular is evident in the delicate navigation through the whitewaters of relationships in a stepfamily. Children are hardwired to want their parents’ love. A stepparent has to earn it.

The hidden rocks and whirlpools in my journey through this experience comprised my not having children of my own – yet wanting them – and the very challenging dysfunction of my stepdaughters’ mother. I sometimes referred to her as my step wife.

I helped my stepdaughters make presents for their mother my first Mother’s Day as a stepmother. They left and a hole the size of the Grand Canyon opened up in my heart as I realized I would not be acknowledged for the love I was investing in this relationship.

So much for Mother’s Day not being particularly important. It was a bit of a humbling experience.

Because of their mother’s dysfunction, I became something of a covert mother for them, but always taking the back seat when it came to being recognized as the mother. It was a rollercoaster of pain, followed by acceptance, followed by pain when it happened again.

I never blamed by stepdaughters. It was just the way it was. Their need for their mother’s love was primal, and so loyalty went to her.

I remember the first Mother’s Day I received a card from one of my stepdaughters. She was in college. I don’t know how to describe what I felt. The only word that comes to mind is grace.

That I did not have children has always been a bit baffling to me. I always wanted them, thought I would have them. We tend to get along well, children and me.

There are two “reasons” that make “sense” to me.

First, there was a history of abuse in my family. I wanted to make sure I resolved that so I didn’t pass it on. My one conception was the result of an abusive relationship. After careful feeling, I decided to terminate the pregnancy – I just didn’t feel that I had it in me to overcome the abusive shadow that hung over it. I have no regrets about that decision.

Second, I wanted to avoid the wrath of the women in my family. They were chained to the belief that women had to make a choice between being a person, or being a wife and mother. If I chose both, it would have ripped open their wound caused by their perceived lack of choice. They were somewhat justified in believing they had no choice – it was the time they lived in. Their message of wrath was unspoken, but deafening in its delivery nevertheless.

Over the past year or so, my oldest stepdaughter and I have become particularly close. She was eighteen by the time I came into the picture, so I was never her covert mother. She was eight years older than my middle stepdaughter and had her own experience being her sisters’ covert mother. Our journey to connection was not an easy one. And yet we arrived.

She has seven-year old triplet sons who she has no problem with my referring to as my grandsons. They call me GrandKaren. I suggested that early on as there were two grandmothers in the picture, and it seems appropriate given that she and her sisters call me Karen.

Over the last couple of months, I stayed with them when she had to travel, then stepped in for daily duty when a bout of the flu put her down for the count for several days. My theory got proved: the day-to-day care of children opens your heart like nothing else can. What I didn’t know was that it opened theirs to me as well.

Because of the peculiar legacy of women as the “sacrificers” that the family I grew up in held, they did not seem to understand that my actions were out of love – they thought it was simply me performing my duty. If one cannot see the heart behind actions, one cannot cherish the heart that delivers them. I have written about this before in the Writing Shed. It ripped my heart out, but I finally had to let that family go. It was a source of constant pain.

This Mother’s Day, I picked up my grandsons early. They greeted me with cards (including one from my stepdaughter) and a dozen pink roses. We shopped for flowers and ingredients for the breakfast they wanted to make for their mother, and then collectively made the breakfast, set the table, and presented her the flowers they had picked out earlier that morning.

That afternoon, they all came to my house for a Mother’s Day bar-b-que.  With great enthusiasm they took part in every step of the meal preparation, including setting and adding a leaf to the table, and helping Tom start the bar-b-que and me make home-made tortilla chips.

As I scooped the last batch of chips out of the cast iron skillet I understood. This was what I had always longed for – a family that understood my heart.

I started the Writing Shed three years ago on the day before Mother’s Day. I started it so I could change my story. That story that I started from, the one that I had learned to live, was about not trusting the light that was in my heart.

My story has changed.

Small Feet for a Girl My Size: a Mothers’ Day Post

Feminism. It makes sense to me why that is a good topic for Mothers’ Day. Perhaps I will know why it makes sense to me by the end of this post.

mamamear1I got inspired to write about feminism after reading the interview page in today’s New York Times magazine. Its subject was Martha Stewart.

Two things I learned from her interview:

She suggests that women make pillows out of their husbands’ old shirts, rather than just turning them into rags.

She doesn’t consider that she is a feminist.

I’m going to riff on the pillow-made-out-of-a-husband’s-old-shirt first. It sounds suspiciously like the doll who hid the toilet paper to me. Perhaps, even as I write, former shirts worn by current husbands are showing up in living rooms all across the nation, just as the doll who hid the toilet paper showed up in bathrooms in my childhood.

I have often thought that my grandmother was an Oakie Martha Stewart. She put two orange crates together, then sewed a skirt to attach to it to make a dressing table. This was in her new home, the one she set up after she married my grandfather. She was nineteen. The year was nineteen and nine.

“It was just darlin’,’”she told me.

I’m sure it was; she very talented.

I’m assuming that the pillows forged from husband’s shirts are shirts from current husbands. Although there could be a peculiar kind of revenge, I guess from turning a former husband’s favorite shirt into a pillow and displaying it on your sofa.

What worries me about that pillow forged from a husband’s shirt is this: Did that shirt go willingly into pillowhood, or was it marched there by the wife who decided that the shirt was no longer something her husband should wear? At what point did the wife look at her husband, sitting on the sofa and think, “That goes with the furniture”?

What say did the husband have in all of this?

I do not understand homes where the woman decides when a husband’s shirt should become a pillow, or a rag, for that matter. I know a woman who will not let her husband have an espresso maker because she likes to have nothing on her counters. Her husband loves espresso.

I don’t get this.

And now for the feminism part.

I get accused of everything from being so feminist that I’m a lesbian biker’s chick to not being feminist enough. I am a feminist, but I am also a progressive, a good cook, a film lover, a writer, a director, a producer. I have relatively small feet. I wear a size six. Or, as the nasty petite girl in high school who prided herself on being tinier than anyone else said when she learned my shoe size was smaller than hers, “You have small feet for a girl your size.”

So I might also be someone who has small feet for my size.

Whatever, none of these things in themselves define me. I am all of the above (though I still don’t know if my feet are small for my size, or just smaller than the average foot size of a grown woman, unless you are in Asia).

I have a problem with the pillow-shirt thing (as well as the espresso maker) because I am suspicious that it has to do with control. We all pretty much feel uncomfortable when we feel we are out of control. We want to know we have some control in our own environment. But, I think it becomes pathological when we need to control others in order for us to feel in control.

That, I believe, is what feeling powerless leads to.

To me, feminism is about owning our own power. I don’t mean this in any kind of woo woo or even political way. I mean that we don’t sacrifice authenticity to being acceptable – to being a “nice” or “good” girl; that we take the risk of admitting what we want, embracing who we are, loving as if it matters, regardless of what the rule book says.

What feminism does not mean to me is that men are the enemies or that women have the right to control them.

Martha Stewart went to jail while Jack Abramhoff was left free to rob people blind. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that sexism was at the bottom of the decision to take Martha down a peg or two, just to show the rest of us what can happen if you succeed.

It concerns me that Martha’s says she isn’t a feminist. It makes me wonder that she might be one of those women who isn’t concerned about rising so that we can rise together. I worry that she thinks that my feet are small for a girl my size, because if my feet are smaller than hers (I’m talking metaphor here; for all I know she might wear a size four), it somehow diminishes her.

I believe that we are all a part of this big confusing soup where we should be trying to figure out how we can make sure there is room at the table for everyone.

I wanted to make sure, as I directed The Vagina Monologues, that it told a story about women; not a story about women as victims. The cast member who raised a question if she thought I was wandering off into male bashing territory was a lesbian; her passionate domestic life was with a woman. She had children (including sons) from a previous marriage – a marriage with a man.

She was not bitter towards her former husband. I trusted her instincts about something veering into male bashing because I think she understood that that kind of rhetoric could damage her sons. Damage them in the same way that women’s souls have been damaged by anger towards women.

She is truly that crocodile mom – the one who carries her young to safety in her strong jaws. She understands that mothering is the presence of primal strength and creation.

So I guess that’s the relationship between feminism and Mothers’ Day for me. Mothering and feminism are the presence of primal strength and creation. The source of the strength and creation comes from within us.

I think that once we can own that, struggles over power and control fall by the wayside. And that allows us all to rise together.

Happy Mothers’ Day.

 My Mother the Speedboat

I am a motherless daughter. Betty Jean Cole Hogan died on July 19, 2006. She was 83.

Our relationship was as complicated as she was – and I am, for that matter.

I have a vague recollection of watching episodes of I Remember Mama – a fifties television series based on a memoir of a Norwegian-American immigrant’s childhood in San Francisco. Each episode opens with the daughter leafing through the family album. She remembers everyone pictured. But mostly, she says, I remember Mama.


My mother was not a Mama. She wasn’t Mother. She was Mom.

When I leaf through albums I see her at twenty wearing a swimsuit and riding a tricycle. In another, she and my father hoist a giant beer stein at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. In another, she lounges, one leg lying flat, the other bent with her foot flat on the couch, the back of her hand resting on her forehead. I think she was nineteen in that photo. It’s very sensual. I wonder what she was thinking at that moment.

In another photo, she stands with her arms around my brothers and me. She wears a coat, a scarf on her head, and dark cotton gloves. It’s the mid-fifties. We are waiting to board a plane – somewhere in Europe. Women dressed up to fly on planes in those days; they wore scarves and gloves and girdles and stockings with a seam up the back that took some work to keep straight.

Later in life, she told me that during World War II, when women couldn’t get stockings (either nylon or silk), they used eyebrow pencil to draw a seam up the back of their legs, so it looked like they wore stockings.

She also told me that at every airport she cupped her gloved hand under the mouth of one of us as, with no warning other than, “Mom, I need to throw up,” we threw up into the thick cotton. I guess she carried extra pairs with her.

The fifties and sixties were the TV era of perfect mothers. June Cleaver always wore pearls and a dress even when she vacuumed. I saw my mother vacuum while wearing a dress only once. We got out of school at noon because President Kennedy had been shot. She had been grocery shopping when she heard. The television was on when I arrived home. My mother was vacuuming.

My mother was not a vacuumer. And yet, there she was, wearing a dress and heels, pushing the Hoover upright vacuum forwards and yanking it backwards, making her way across the den. I was a freshman in high school. I had walked home with tears streaming down my face. But seeing my mother in her dress and high heels vacuuming in the middle of a weekday brought it home. Something profound had happened.

Mom was not known for her culinary skills. She did not bake. She claimed that margarine tasted better than butter because butter was too rich. But her beans and meatballs on a cold rainy night could not be beat.


Cook dry pinto beans according to the package instructions.

Add salt and pepper to a pound of hamburger meat.

Turn the hamburger into meatballs.

Throw the meatballs into the pot of beans and cook until done

Serve over store-bought sliced white bread (store brand works fine) that has been slathered with margarine.

Set out the bottle of ketchup because someone will want to put ketchup on it.

Things got complicated between us as I strayed further from the farm – the metaphorical farm that is – because there was nothing farm-like about my mom. The metaphorical farm was about limits; what a woman could do and what she wasn’t supposed to do.

My mother really didn’t want the limits, and stretched them pretty far given she was an Oklahoma-born Baptist – one who drank, smoked, and danced.

In the forties and fifties movies, Van Johnson married June Allyson. They had babies but no sex as far as I can tell. On the other hand, Bogie got together with Bacall. They clearly had sex, but never babies.

The movie version of my parents would have Van Johnson marrying Lauren Bacall. When my mother succumbed to the inevitable and placed my Alzheimer’s addled father into a nursing home, I gave my mother a vibrator. About a month later she took me aside to tell me how happy she was with her little friend.

Betty Jean was full of contradictions. Mostly we were close. But at the very end of her life we were not. I kept thinking we would bridge the chasm.

But for her to do that would have required that she take a stand about abuse – an abusive system that had become embedded for so many generations in my family that this abnormal behavior had become normalized. She did not physically abuse me, but she had learned to retreat in fear when the men in the family became abusive. Her son, my older brother, was one of those men.

His emotionally abusive behavior escalated over the years. In 1998 , in my mother’s house, he punched me in the jaw. Typical of the behavior – he blamed me.

She could not find a way to reject the abusive behavior without rejecting her son – and she could not do that. And so she left me to fend for myself with it, saying it was between my brother and me.

On Saturday, July 15, 2006, my younger brother got married. His wife had insisted that everyone had to be invited to the wedding, including the brother who had punched me. In her mind, I should take the high road because family togetherness trumped all. I had come to believe that sacrificing my safety to perpetuate a misguided story of family togetherness was not the road I wanted to take.

It was difficult. Some people called to tell me I owed it to my mother to go to the wedding – it might be the last time the family would all be together. I should take the high road. The high road came up a lot.

They didn’t understand the language I had learned to speak. I didn’t feel safe. It would not be fun or comfortable for me. I had to matter and the system didn’t allow for that. So I chose mattering to me. That was my high road.

As the wedding drew near, everyone felt uncomfortable, particularly my mother. We didn’t speak about it. I decided to bide my time. I figured that somehow, after the wedding, we would be able to bridge the chasm.

The wedding happened. I busied myself that day so I didn’t think about it taking place in the same town. Then on Sunday, the 16th she broke her hip

I went to the emergency room, wondering how I was going to deal with seeing my brothers. But no one was there. My older brother had dropped her off at the hospital then took off to fly back to North Carolina. My younger brother and his new wife continued their after-wedding party.

So I ended up having time alone with my mother. I saw the look on her face when the ER doctor told her that her hip was broken into four pieces. She was pretty much in end stage emphysema at that point, so recovering from a broken hip was an uphill battle that would lead nowhere for her.

I could tell she had made her decision.

I tried to ask her about it, but she didn’t want to talk. She took the morphine and drifted off.

I still held out hope we would have our final conversation, but she went in and out of consciousness the next two days. Then pneumonia set in. They moved her to the ICU. When I got there, she looked at me and said, “I thought I was dying.”

“Is that what you want?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

And so they stopped everything but the morphine. She died late that afternoon. Her last words came as they gave her the first dose of comfort-care morphine. “Give me lots,” she said.

Love and life and relationships are very complicated. I was pretty much devastated that we never had the chance to get back to intimate moments she and I had experienced over my adult years. It’s the kind of intimacy that comes out of being in the same place at the same time. We were together during my grandmother’s final days and my father’s. We had had intimate talks about how she wanted to die.

But in the very end, the intimacy went unacknowledged. That’s confusing at best, and traumatic at its worst. A part of me felt like a five-year-old girl whose mother told her she didn’t like her.

Mother’s don’t get off the hook easily. I think we might be more forgiving of our father’s foibles. It’s a real shock to find out that we are not the center and be-all of our mother’s universe.

At some point, I noticed that the wound was no longer open. I no longer felt like a bereft five-year old. Instead, I had become a grown woman who understands how complicated it can be to be a mother. How imperfect that love is.

I’ve learned how to receive imperfect love, and to understand that I didn’t need to be the center of my mother’s universe for me to become a woman.

There was a TV program in the sixties called My Mother, the Car. I never saw even one episode. I have no idea how “mother” was portrayed in that series.

But about a month after my mom died, Tom and I were having dinner on the patio of a restaurant. It was in a small shopping mall, so the patio butted up against the parking lot.

An enormous pickup truck came lumbering by the restaurant, a speedboat in tow. It made no sense. Why was this truck driving through the parking lot? Taking a short cut?

As the boat passed us by we saw its name painted on the side. Betty Jean.

I could see it. My mother reincarnated as a speed boat, heading out for a good time on the delta.

I think that perhaps the gift she left me was the imperfection of her love.