Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Portrait of the Artist's Mother -- Part I

Because this came out so long, I have posted it in two parts. For the second half, look below this one.
It's the run up to Mother's Day, right. Good time to write about your mother, since every other day of the year you are writing about being a mother. Yeah, I know it's commercial crap and all that, but I want to write about my mother anyway, so indulge me, okay.
First off, if my mother knew that I was out in public writing like that she would be a bit peeved with me. Her writing could be informal, but it was never colloquial. All her life she was a student and a reader, with a mind like a steel trap that retained everything she read. She read voraciously, she wrote the world's most amazing letters, she could discuss anything under the sun in meticulous polysyllabic periods or in plain words, she could produce apt quotations at the drop of a hat. She told wonderful stories, her sense of humour was rapier sharp but could be fired up by almost anything and she never descended to malicious gossip or mindless chatter. All of this she tried to pass on to me, with limited success, although I did get one of the two big words in this paragraph spelled correctly the first time. She was in love with language.

It was not easy for my mother to make herself into an educated person. She was sick a lot as a child, with rheumatic fever among other things, and missed a lot of time in the one room school she should have been attending. But she 'passed her entrance' at eleven and, because her father had decided that education for his daughters would go beyond Grade 8 (and this was unusual in 1921), she rode a bike and then took a tram from the family farm for the eight mile trip into the city to attend a Collegiate Institute. Here she was an academic success although, as a self described country mouse, she took a lot of teasing. A very bright eleven year old in sausage curls and a home made dress is going to get attention, especially when she uses big words and always knows all the answers.

This photo is from her high school yearbook -- tennis team -- mother is on the right.

Continuing to know all the answers, and getting healthier from all the exercise, she cut a brilliant path in both academics and sports through five years of secondary school and earned a good scholarship for university. Here my chronology gets a bit vague. She enrolled at a good university about 120 miles from where she lived. My grandfather was a skilled farmer and good manager and was able to help her with funds for her board and expenses. She passed her first year with excellent marks and went home for the summer to help him tend a big crop of specialty tobacco, the sale of which would pay her expenses for her second year. But there was a mini depression before the big crash of '29 and my grandfather had to sell the crop at a loss. She could not go back to university.

My mother was nothing if not determined. She took the remainder of her scholarship money, enrolled in a business course in a local school, graduated with top honours and managed to land a job as a stenographer in 1929. Although there was no university in her small city, there was a college, affiliated with her university, where she could take courses. Which she did, and took more by correspondence and managed to get both her BA and an MA, majoring in English, over the course of the next ten years, while holding down increasingly responsible jobs and putting her younger sister through Teachers' College. Mother as a babe, circa 1938, while dating my father

MA graduation photo, 1940

My father's BA grad photo, circa 1936

She had known and had been dating my father for some time, but with the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, he decided to join the armed forces. This took some time to arrange, but he was successful and they were married just before he reported for RCNVR (Navy) training to Royal Rhodes. As a married woman in 1940 my mother was asked to resign from her job. She never talked much about those years. Naval officers get back to their home countries for short stretches, unlike the army, and I was born in 1942. My father saw me when I was three weeks old and not again until I was three years old. He was posted first to corvettes and then to destroyers and fought in the Battle of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. He was returned to inactive status in 1946.

He came home a changed man. My mother once said that the man she married did not come back to her. By all accounts he was what was called a 'golden youth'. Bright and articulate and fun loving, he took a degree in economics and then went to law school. He was working as a solicitor for the city when war was declared. After the war he decided he had to make up for lost time and set up his own law firm. It prospered and my father set out to provide his family with economic security and himself with a good reputation. We didn't see much of him. And my mother took on the role of the wife of a professional man (we're talking late 1940's and 1950's here). She said to me many times that women's rights went backward after the war. It was picket fence and pearls time.

Mother and daughter, circa 1944

As I remember her, there was nothing my mother could not do and do well. She could sing. She knew the names and habits of birds and plants and baseball players and all the neighbours. She was a whiz at first aid. She could run and play tennis and make amazing pickles and preserves. And move house. We did that a lot. We started out in a 'war time house', but as my father's client base grew we moved, and moved again, ending up in a big brick home in a 'good' neighbourhood when I was eleven. My mother sewed and gardened and joined the Home and School, ironed endless starched white shirts and read. We went to the library every week and came home with as many books as we were allowed to borrow. Neither of my parents wanted the golf club, bridge club kind of life. So my mother's world was my father and me and her home and neighbours and sisters. And her books. Compared to what she had done and whom she had been, however, I think she saw her life as a cage. (See last para of this reference)

1 comment:

  1. This serious about your mother is wonderful! I think we really can't understand who we are until we understand who are mothers are and what motivates them. It sounds like your mother was an amazing woman. And a Dante scholar to boot.