Saturday, November 7, 2009

The silence of the grave

"I come up against the silence of the grave. The impossibility of knowing what happened to or with the dead . . . [The dead] ensure that we will be, in relation to their lives, incapable of distinguishing fact from invention. They guarantee the falsity, the partiality, of our witness."
---Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man (1996) (as cited in Lynn Davidman, Motherloss, 2000).

My brother and I were walking down the street from my father’s house when we were hailed by a strange woman. She ran across the street, calling our names, and I thought, “Who is that woman? How does she know who we are?” It was several minutes before I realized it was my mother. She had changed her hairstyle in the months since we had seen her, and I didn’t recognize her at first. I don’t know what it was that cued me in, finally, to who she was – her voice, her face, her gait – but even after I knew it was her, I stood still, staring at her. I think I just didn’t expect her to be there and wasn’t sure how to respond. Then I ran across the street to her and we hugged each other.

As I go through my mother’s letters and photographs, I keep having that same feeling – that sense of seeing a stranger, someone I hardly recognize. I know it is my mother, but she seems so utterly unlike the woman I remember. Her face is somewhat familiar, to be sure, and I remember some of the stories in her letters. Yet in a very real way, she is a stranger to me. I didn’t know my mother as a person in her own right. I only knew her as my mother.

Women are so often defined by their relationships. We are daughter, sister, wife . . . even our last names are often not our own, coming as they do from our fathers and husbands. Add to this the egocentrism of a child, who cannot imagine that Mommy has a life outside of motherhood, and it is not surprising we don’t really see her as a separate entity. If my mother had lived until my adulthood, I think I could have come to know her more as a person, and less as my mother. I’ve seen that shift in my relationship with my father as I’ve gotten older. He’s still my dad, but I know him more fully, in arenas not related to his role as my father.

But I didn’t have that opportunity with my mother. I want to know who she really was, beyond her role as mother. Who was she to her friends, her lovers, her family . . . who was she to herself? So I stare at the pictures of this elegantly dressed stranger and read her letters. I attempt to put aside my own preconceptions about her, to see beyond the mirror of my own wants and needs. I try to piece together who she was. But I can never be sure whether I’m seeing her for who she really was, or whether she is now a creation of mine, as I am a creation of hers.

Amsterdam, 1968

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Androgyny . . . or Humanity?

In one of my college classes, we did a gender-role activity. We were each given some blue and some pink stickers, and we were to stick one on the back of each student in the class, depending on whether we thought they were feminine (pink sticker) or masculine (blue sticker). At the end of the exercise, I had an exactly equal number of pink and blue stickers on my back, indicating that the class viewed me as both masculine and feminine. I took great pride in this impression of androgyny that I apparently conveyed. I didn’t utterly reject femininity, but I did enjoy challenging gender roles and flouted them whenever possible.

My mother, too, was a mix of feminine and masculine. She got her hair done and made herself new dresses. I remember some of her dresses, both store-bought and handmade, and she also had an extensive collection of costume jewelry, much of which I still have. But for everyday activities, I remember her mostly wearing jeans, shorts, t-shirts and cotton tunics. In fact, she typically bought men’s jeans, as she claimed that they were better made than women’s. She wore little or no cosmetics on most days, but sometimes put on makeup when she dressed up. I particularly remember a frosty pink lipstick that she was fond of wearing that perfectly matched one of her necklaces. But she might then top this outfit with one of her men’s hats.

In some ways, she had a significant masculine streak. She was no shrinking violet, demure and quiet. She was assertive, straightforward, and unafraid to speak her mind. She belched without apology, saying “you get to enjoy your meal twice.” Her laugh was loud enough to embarrass me when we were together in public. (But then, adolescents are embarrassed by almost anything, so this may not mean much.) She loved all kinds of physical activity and enjoyed being fit and strong. She took us hiking and camping and wasn’t afraid of getting dirty. She even pulled the ticks off of us afterwards without squeamishness and taught us how to kill them. She was not ashamed of her sexual desires and felt entitled to sexual pleasure. She seemed to get along better with men, and most of her close friends were men.

But at the same time, so much of what she did was quintessentially feminine work. Her letters are full of references to decorating her living spaces: making curtains, refinishing furniture and hardwood floors, wallpapering and painting. She was even paid for some wallpapering odd jobs, so she must have been quite expert at it. Even in college she talked about decorating her dorm room, but she seemed to really throw herself into the work of homemaking after getting married, enthusiastically redoing first their house in Chicago and then in Piscataway. I don’t remember many of her decorating projects, and I suspect that her passion for these “nesting” activities waned somewhat after my parents’ divorce. I do remember her doing over the bathroom in our Highland Park townhouse, though. It all started with a brightly colored, striped shower curtain. It must have reminded my mother of a circus tent, because the next thing I knew, she was painting balloons on the wall. Phrases like “Free Beer” and “Test Your Strength” were carefully outlined and painted. I remember her tracing the letters with stencils, lining them up precisely. The whole bathroom was circus-themed when she was done. I thought this room was wonderful; it was playful and fun and unique. We could bathe under the big top every day!

She cooked and sewed and gardened and put up preserves from the garden. I remember the dinner parties she and my father had, and I have no doubt that she did a great deal of cooking and planning for these soirees. Yet even here, her feminine and masculine qualities seem to blend seamlessly together. Take this story of a dinner party she and my father had while they were living in Piscataway:

We’ve just suffered another natural disaster. We had extremely bad rains last weekend . . . and on Friday in the middle of a dinner party for 10 I discovered the basement filling up . . . straight from the bottom . . . weel[sic], what could I do but change into jeans and ask the guests to be patient while I tried to fix up a pipe attachment to my new pump just attached to the sink in order to tie it into the sewer line which we just had installed for a mere $590! Don’t bother to understand the last sentence since, as a solution to the rising water, it barely rippled the surface (so to speak). So the dinner party went on and all had a good time. Afterwards the water was still there and coming, so we had to turn off the furnace (you know what that means – no heat, no hot water) On Sat. afternoon I finally got a stronger pump from a rental place and it and mine worked valiantly thru the night so on Sunday we could have installed a new furnace transformer, and on Monday the plumber could realign the plumbing I fiddled with, and on Tues. the dryer man could figure out why the dryer worked but didn’t dry. Unrelated to all this, the Volvo decided it needed a new battery . . . ! Ah so, some weeks are like that.
Nancy Driessel Stearns in a letter to her parents (Feb. 7, 1973)

I don’t think my mother went out of her way to flout gender roles. She wasn’t on a mission to overturn the system of gender norms. After all, the toys she got us as children were often conventionally gendered (a train set for my brother, a dollhouse for me), and she seemed to have no fear of embracing her own femininity. I think she just refused to be confined to the narrow slice of life traditionally allowed to women. She did what she wanted and what was needed – what seemed sensible, what was set before her – without worrying much about whether it was feminine or not. The dinner party story is a perfect example – the basement was flooding, so she needed to try to fix it. She didn’t fret about whether the hostess should be wearing jeans or whether it’s acceptable for a woman to do plumbing repair. She didn’t assume that her husband would take care of such things. She just waded in (literally) and did it. And then she came back up, served the dinner she had prepared, and got on with the party. Not feminine, not masculine. Just human. Just her.

Nancy Driessel Stearns, date and place unknown

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Igloo

One year while we were living in New Jersey, there was a huge snowstorm. Where the sidewalk was shoveled, the drifts were over my head. It was kind of like walking in a snowy tunnel or alley. I’m sure there were snowball fights and sledding, but what I remember was the igloo.

I don’t know whether it was our idea or my mother’s to build the igloo. Somehow, I think it was her idea. I don’t really remember the specifics of the construction process, either. But I do remember that it was big enough to crawl inside the entrance and sit under the snowy dome, just like a real igloo. It was cold and dim inside, barely large enough for one child – a tiny winter playhouse. My mother had the idea of pouring water over the top to form an icy coating, to make it a really strong, sturdy structure. I have a clear memory of her standing in the open doorway of the townhouse, passing us pitchers of water.

I don’t remember my mother speaking about her childhood much. There were a few stories she told that I can recall, but I don’t really know the everyday aspects of her life as a child. What games did she play? What were her favorite activities? Did she get along with her brother or did they fight? Did she enjoy school or dread it? What were her dreams – how did she envision her life unfolding?

Perhaps she spoke of these things and I just don’t remember. Perhaps she did not dwell on the past, just as I do not. Perhaps her childhood memories were not ones she cared to relive. Perhaps she thought of them as trivial, matters of little importance. In the end, I have only fragments of her childhood, snapshots and a few letters, to know the little girl she once was.

But inevitably, our past seeps through, coloring our present. I did not know her as a child, but I can see some of her childhood in my own. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my mother was passing along a bit of her own childhood as we created our snow structure. She grew up in Wisconsin, where winters are cold and snowy, and I expect she spent plenty of time playing in the snow. At the age of 12, she wrote to her parents, who were away in Florida at the time, about her adventures in snow construction:

Patsy and I were making things out of snow Sunday by putting snow in boxes and then taking it out. We made a table, chairs, stove, sink, cupboard, dishes, glasses, and a double bed for Patsy and me.

My mother as a child, playing in the snow with her brother, Ken Driessel, and friends

Her inventive snow play surely inspired the igloo construction. Here we were, making the house to hold the furnishings she created as a child. Did she smile, recalling her own winter games, as she passed us pitcher after pitcher of water to pour over the igloo? Did she see in us the echoes of her own childhood, as we floundered through the drifts, patting the snow into place? Maybe she never made the connection; maybe she was just pleased to find a way to entertain us for the day, to stave off boredom and keep us from getting into trouble. Regardless, whether she knew it or not, she gave us a brief glimpse into her past as we worked together on the igloo.

Snow is a temporary medium. We know that what we build will eventually melt away. But that igloo stood solid for days, built to last with its firm icy topcoat. Until one day, we came out to discover that someone had kicked a hole in the side. I had a deep feeling of disappointment and even anger at the person who would destroy our hard work for no purpose. Even my mother’s inspired idea for a thick coating of ice couldn’t protect our igloo from the human urge to destroy.

There’s a big difference between gradual, natural erosion and purposeful destruction. To see something intentionally damaged for no obvious reason leads to the puzzle of motive – why would someone do that? We lose our faith in human nature and begin to distrust others. But there’s also a feeling of premature loss, knowing that the inevitable end was hastened unnaturally. We feel cheated of the time we could have had, bruised by the sense of missed opportunities, as though we ourselves received the blows that were delivered. We can build, but we cannot ensure that what we build will last; it can be taken away at any time. Sadly, no matter how many pitchers of water my mother passed to us, there is no icy shell that is thick enough to protect us from this damage, this loss.

My mother as a child, playing in the snow

Saturday, September 19, 2009

More than a mouthful

My body was developing, changing with the onset of puberty. I thought my breasts were too small – I wanted bigger breasts, and complained to my mother. She looked me in the eye and said “Anything more than a mouthful is a waste.” I stared at her, wide-eyed, and then burst into laughter. It was shocking (and delightful) to me, on many levels. In part, the surprise came from her reversal of the usual “bigger is better”; my mother, also a small-breasted woman, framed big breasts as excessive, “a waste.” A sentiment unfair to large-breasted women, to be sure, but I was comforted by the notion that smaller breasts might actually be superior. But the main reason this was shocking was that my mother was acknowledging my sexuality, in a specific and concrete way. The “mouthful” could have referred to breast-feeding an infant, but my mother’s delivery made it very clear that this was a sexual reference. While I had a sense that breasts could be attractive (or unattractive, as I saw my own), my mother’s statement placed them squarely in the context of partnered sexual activity. Not merely passive objects to stir men’s interest, these breasts were pleasuring and/or being pleasured, a novel idea for me at the time.

My mother was comfortable about sex. She had an earthy, raunchy sense of humor; she loved to wear t-shirts with double entendres, like the one from an oyster house that had “I Eat ‘Em Raw” on the front. I kept some of those t-shirts after she died and wore them with a sense of wicked enjoyment; I was sad when they finally fell apart. I can’t remember any specific conversations she had with me about puberty or sexuality, but I know that she encouraged me to come to her with any questions I had about sex, and she was generally frank and honest in her answers. This was certainly a step up from the sex education (and I use the term loosely here) I received in school. My fifth grade teacher refused to answer my questions about homosexuality. We were frightened by vague films about venereal disease in seventh grade, with pictures of syphilitic chancres but little real information. My ninth grade biology teacher was forbidden by law to discuss contraception. My mother had no such limits or rules, as far as I recall – I really could ask her anything, and there was no need for shame or embarrassment. The only problem was, I didn’t always know what to ask! I knew, though, when it came time for me to need birth control, I wouldn’t feel awkward about approaching my mother for help. When that time did finally arrive, though, my mother had already passed away and there was no one I felt comfortable approaching about the issue, leaving me to muddle through on my own.

To my mother, sex wasn’t shameful or something to be feared. I never got the sense from her that being sexual or having sexual desires was wrong or bad or dangerous. I remember kissing my boyfriend in the back of the car while my mother was driving him home, with no sense of embarrassment that she could see us in the rearview mirror. In fact, after we dropped him off, she and I talked about it; I remember my eager enthusiasm and her indulgent smile and gentle encouragement. Given this openness about sexuality at home, I never really understood the complex sexual taboos among my peers, and my directness on the topic earned me teasing and social isolation in middle school. But it’s this comfort with sexuality that makes me so good at teaching human sexuality to legions of college students. It’s just sex – no need to titter behind our hands or mumble while looking at the floor as we talk about it.

Where did my mother come by such a positive attitude about sex? She did come of age during the early 1960s, the so-called “sexual revolution.” With the publication of the Kinsey reports and the availability of the Pill (among other factors), public attitudes toward sex became increasingly liberal. My mother would undoubtably have been affected by these social changes. In addition, her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse, so they would have had greater knowledge about sexuality than the average person. My maternal grandparents tend to be rather pragmatic about matters of the body, and they probably conveyed this matter-of-fact attitude about puberty and sexuality to my mother. But even with the liberalization of sexual attitudes and her own family environment, my mother’s sex-positive stance strikes me as unusual. Americans continue to have complex, ambivalent attitudes about sex, particularly with regard to women’s sexuality. Many women continue to struggle with fears of being too sexual and lack the clear sense of sexual agency that my mother embodied so fully.

It is one thing to come to terms with your own sexuality; it is quite another to feel comfortable with your own daughter’s emergent sexuality. Even the most liberal-minded parents can have difficulty accepting the idea of their teenage child becoming sexually active. It is all-too-common for parents to convey this discomfort to adolescent girls, subtly (or not so subtly) signaling that she should not feel or be sexual. Her sexuality is to be deferred until adulthood, and then exists largely for her partner’s pleasure, not her own. Perhaps my mother did have moments of doubt or worry, but these were never evident to me. Her message to me was clear: Sex is normal and enjoyable, for both women and men. In other words, what my mother told me about sex was really more than a mouthful. Through education and example, she gave me the right to be sexual on my own terms. True, I struggled for some years to define what that meant to me as I waded through the contradictory messages about women’s sexuality from my peers and the media. But without the foundation she laid out for me, I don’t know if I would have ever found my way to my authentic sexuality.

In a culture that stigmatizes women’s sexuality and silences real sex education, I recognize how fortunate I was to be raised by a woman who refused to accept these ideologies. For my mother to truly embrace her own sexuality and see herself as entitled to sexual pleasure without shame or guilt is a rather remarkable achievement. That she was able to extend that same gift to her own daughter is even more astounding.

Nancy Driessel Stearns (date and location unknown)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sewing and other creative pursuits

My mother’s sewing machine sat on the dining room table. I can see it there, quite clearly, with a basket of mending in the corner behind the table and a project-in-progress next to the machine. When my mother died, she left behind an unfinished suit, the pattern pieces of grey and pink knit carefully cut but not yet assembled. She sewed quite well, as I recall. I have one of the dresses she made for herself: a floor-length, sleeveless, dropped-waist dress in an vibrantly swirled knit fabric. I wore it from time to time in college, and always loved the fabric, although it didn’t flatter my figure as well as hers. When we were younger, she must have done quite a bit of sewing. In her letters to her parents, she mentions making curtains, deck chair covers, and clothes for herself and for us. Indeed, curtains seem to have been a perennial project, recurring often in the letters – curtains for the apartment, for the house, for the office. She apparently used the remnants to make jumpers for me as a toddler, so my outfits must have matched the curtains. I really can’t remember if she particularly liked sewing, but she certainly took pride in her work.

I remember my mother showing me how to thread the sewing machine, which I found to be a very challenging task at first. I kept forgetting how to do it, and she had to explain it to me again each time I used the machine. I don’t remember if we sewed anything together, though. I have vivid memories of sewing with my maternal grandmother, who taught me the basics of garment sewing and guided me through my first quilting project. I was taught knitting by my step-mother (although I couldn’t cast on and never did much besides a scarf or two) and hand embroidery by her mother. Indeed, while I have many memories of making things in my childhood and adolescence, few of them include my mother directly. I remember drawing at the kitchen table and making colored sand landscapes in glass jars. I tie-dyed t-shirts one year for my friends, although the results were rather disappointing. I made a Mother’s Day card with glue-and-glitter in Girl Scouts; I remember the Scout leader making a sarcastic remark about my excessive use of glue. I sewed Christmas ornaments to sell for Junior Achievement. My brother and I made hooked rugs from kits filled with cut pieces of yarn, and wove dreadful hotpads with stretchy, polyester loops. I made necklaces strung from glass beads and pencil toppers with craft fur and googly eyes. I created countless finger woven belts and scarves, yarn dolls, and pom-poms. I remember the projects, but I don’t remember my mother teaching me how to make them or making them with me.

I wish I could say that I learned to sew (or crochet or embroider or make jewelry) from my mother. It would feel special to know that every time I made something, I could thank my mother for the skill she passed along to me. But while I may not have memories of chummy mother-daughter bonding over crafts, I have to assume that my mother fostered and supported my desire to create. She must have bought the supplies, at least when I was very young, and she tolerated the mess and disorder I undoubtably left behind with each project. When my brother and I were choosing the colors for our hooked rugs, she was standing behind us, ready to pay for our yarn. I remember her going with me to the bead shop and wearing the necklace I made for her (a mixture of green and gold beads with a stylized bird pendant).

And where did all those books come from – the Altair design coloring books, the craft books for children – several of which still reside on my bookshelf? Surely some of them were purchased by my mother. I remember that she bought us a paper airplane book and enjoyed the launch of each aerial creation (even the less successful ones); she might have even made a few of her own. I suspect, too, that she did guide me through some of these projects, as there must have been some adult supervision when we melted the wax to make Swiss cheese candles.

Perhaps I remember the creations as mine, not hers, because she encouraged my independence and ownership of the project, even as she helped. I remember sitting at the kitchen table making paper chains from green and red construction paper, which we then draped on our Christmas tree. My mother showed us how to make the first links in the chain, but we made the rest of them on our own.

My mother provided a rich context that supported my explorations in various handcrafts. She never belittled my creations or crushed my spirit, and I grew up with pride in what I made. She showed me by example – with her sewing machine and art supplies and with her inventive playfulness – that creativity is part of everyday life, not just the purview of artists. So maybe I can’t say that my mother is the one who taught me to sew, but I think she gave me something even more vital. She nurtured my drive to make things and gave me access to the world of possibility within me. If there was something I wanted to do, my mother gave me whatever she could to help me on my journey, cheering me along the way. It was, in part, her love and support that gave me the boundless optimism that I still carry with me today as I embark on a new project. And so what if she never taught me sewing or knitting or crochet . . . I can see her influence in everything I create.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When Animals Attack

Photo by Trisha Shears, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of my first pets was a cockatiel named Mister. I don’t remember who got him for me or why (did I ask for a pet bird?), but he must have been given to me at about age 4 or 5. Cockatiels can learn to speak, but you have to talk to them slowly, since they speed everything up when they mimic. I guess I never had the patience to speak slowly enough, because Mister’s version of “pretty bird” was a garbled, unintelligible squawk. He did whistle beautifully, though. When someone walked into the kitchen where his cage resided, he would whistle “Reveille” for a few bars, and then segue directly into a wolf-whistle of appreciation. Somehow, I suspect my mother taught him that one. It was a great combo, always good for a laugh.

As a pet, Mister wasn’t ideal for me, since I was scared of him. Occasionally, my mother would let him out of his cage so he could fly around the living room. He would then land on my head, and I remember holding very still, fearing that he would attack me. He never did peck or claw at me, as far as I know, so this fear didn’t originate from personal experience. It came from the sight of my mother’s arms, scratched and bloody. She had to get Mister out of his cage so that she could clean it, and apparently, he wasn’t too keen on the idea, so she got pretty badly scratched until she started wearing thick rubber gloves for the task. I don’t remember her being frightened of Mister, and I don’t think she even viewed the scratches as terribly serious, but I was obviously unnerved by the idea that my pet would injure my mother. So, although I thought Mister was pretty and I liked his whistling, I saw him as a dangerous and unpredictable animal. We ended up giving him away when we moved to Florida.

In Florida, we didn’t have any pets (unless you count my off-brand pet rock), but I discovered that the pond near our house had turtles. They seemed to love hot dogs, so I lured them to the edge of the pond with bits of hot dog. I never did catch one, though; they were too savvy. Indeed, I later learned that turtles are dangerous creatures as well. My mother was driving me home in the van, and a large turtle was slowly crossing the road. My mother stopped the van, and rather than wait for the interminable process of the turtle getting to the other side, she went out to help it along. As she picked up the turtle, it whipped its head around to bite her hand and, startled, she threw it onto the side of the road. I had never seen a snapping turtle before, and had no idea they could bite. When we drove out later, that same turtle was crossing back across the road. This time, my mother just let him be.

The pet I really wanted was a cat, but my mother was allergic to cats. I remember being angry at her about that, in the unreasoning way children are. I often mused about how unfair it was that I couldn’t have a pet cat. In high school, I developed a cat allergy, so I never did get a pet cat, and I learned to carry antihistamines with me when I visit cat-loving friends. My brother wanted a dog, but our residence had a no-dog policy. He tried to sneak one home once, a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, but we had to give it away. She didn’t deny us other pets, though. In addition to Mister, my brother had two pet snakes in a cage in the kitchen who ate chunks of frozen fish (it took a rancid odor to let us know one of the snakes had died) and I had pet mice, rescued from a lab somewhere, in the basement. They froze to death when the basement door blew open in a snowstorm. I was angry at my mother about that, too, thinking that they wouldn’t have died if she had let me keep them in the main house.

I was often angry at my mother. I remember fights in which I screamed at her, leaning menacingly toward her at the kitchen sink. I would stomp off and slam my bedroom door as hard as I could. I was filled with intense fury, so much that I felt I couldn’t contain it. It burned through me and boiled out of me. I felt out of control, like a wild animal. Sometimes she yelled back, sometimes she just passively absorbed my hurled accusations. I have no idea what we fought about – what would have put me in such a rage? I cannot remember. Maybe it was just disappointment and lack of control over my life; I saw her as an obstacle to fulfilling my desires. I couldn’t have a cat because of her allergies. I couldn’t participate in that school activity because she wouldn’t be my chauffeur. I wanted, wanted, wanted, and she wouldn’t or couldn’t fulfill all my wants. Maybe I expected too much from her – don’t we all expect Mommy to be perfect? Yet, she is only human, and maybe I couldn’t tolerate her imperfections. I am deeply ashamed of these incidents; I wish I could undo the past and take them back. But at least my anger burnt out quickly, without much lingering resentment. Half an hour later, I would be calmly absorbed in a book, having forgotten the whole thing. My mother would tentatively tap at my door and we would each apologize.

Except for the fight we had the night before she died. I don’t know what made me so mad at her, but we had a big fight, and I stormed out of the house afterwards. When I got home, she was already asleep, and I never got the chance to apologize to her. My last words to her were angry and hateful. I hope she knew I didn’t really mean it, that it was just the wild animal in me.

Monday, July 20, 2009


This week's essay has been contributed by guest blogger, Momsomniac. I'd like to extend my gratitude to her -- for contributing her memories of my mother and for being such a good friend.

As I thought about how to write this, I realized that much of what I had to say casts my own parents, particularly my mother, in a bad light. So I want to start by stating – emphatically – that my parents are not Bad People. They were barely more than children when they married. To my mind, my mother, who dropped out of high school at 17 to marry my father, was a child. They grew up in relatively traditional working class families, my mother with no small amount of abuse at the hands of her father. So all things considered, they did okay. And if they were unable to untangle the mixed messages they gave me and my sister – words in support of the modern notion that we could be anything we wanted to be and actions in support of the notion that women existed to please men - well, that doesn’t make them bad. It makes them human. So, in light of that ...

I have two stand-out specific memories of Nancy, and two more general ones that I only realize are a reflection of her parenting now that I am, myself, a parent.

All of these memories, as with so many memories, are memories of myself, but with Nancy in them. There are two reasons for this -

One is that I was a teen-ager, and like many teen-agers, as my world expanded with new feelings, thoughts, and desires, it also shrunk to my own line of sight.

The other is that, as Deb has stated earlier, Nancy was not a parent who was ‘ever-present.’ She certainly DID some parenting, as I recall, but she didn’t go out of her way to insert herself into the lives of her children or their friends. That, in a way, makes these first two stand-out memories more special.

The stand-outs:

1) When my parents’ marriage was falling apart, my mother, who had devoted more than half her life to waiting on my father, didn’t handle it well. I never knew what she’d do, or how she’d respond to things. One week-end, the group of us had been playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) at Deb’s house and we had just wrapped up the game. As I had been instructed, I called my mother and asked her to come get me.

It was around 5 o’clock. She told me she’d be there at 6 and that I better be out front to meet her. I suppose I spent a little time hanging out with Deb, and then dutifully went out to meet her a little before 6. Six o’clock came and went. No Mom.

After a while, Nancy came out and tried to get me to go back inside. I wouldn’t. I don’t know if Nancy thought I was an unusually obedient child or if she understood I was afraid. In any event, after about another hour, she brought out 2 stools (buckets? chairs? [memory is unreliable]), and she sat outside with me until my mother showed up at 11 that night. I don’t recall if she stared at my mother or if she just turned and walked back inside. I do recall that she didn’t say a word. It felt ... good.

2) I went through puberty when I was in the 3rd Grade. By the time I finished 8th grade, I was tired of my peers trying to touch me and asking questions about my breasts. I was more tired of teachers holding me after class for no reason, or making comments about my body. So I did what any thoughtful pre-teen who felt out of control would do; I developed an eating disorder and lost 30 pounds (I don’t mean to be flip – I just don’t think people realize how much this can be about unwelcome sexual attention).

In any event, by the time we moved to Florida, I looked as if I had never seen puberty and didn’t have any hope of seeing puberty any time soon. This is when I met Deb and her family.

One of the boys in the D&D group “run” by Deb’s brother had insisted I be allowed to play after a conversation he and I had about books. And when I came to the house, Nancy then insisted that Deb be allowed to play. I recall being afraid that all this would cause me to be seen as an interloper, and eventually I was, but not before Deb and I became friends. This was important, because I had moved from a small town where I was well known and well-liked by my peers to a place where everything good about me was seen as a threat to the current order. I needed friends.

I was allowed to spend the night when these games were played solely because Deb existed. A sister to one of “those boys” made the house safe, in my mother’s eyes. Without Deb, I would not have had even this short stint of being a part of a group of friends. And often when I spent the night, I would wake up early and there would be no one awake except for me and Nancy.

I had gradually begun to gain my weight back and I appeared to be going through a very late puberty. And one of these mornings, Nancy tried to talk to me, to get me to talk to her, about how my body was changing. I was rather amused, because she couldn’t have been more wrong about what was happening to me. But on another level, I felt deeply moved that a friend’s mother would be concerned that no one had had this talk with me, and would try to take this on for herself.

General memories that I only realize NOW are about parenting:

1) There was one night I recall running (with the D&D group) all around Deb’s neighborhood, playing Frisbee on the tennis courts, and being chased by “police” because we were out after curfew (likely neighborhood patrol – there was no curfew where I lived a few miles away).

Nancy was no doubt at home, secure that we were pretty good kids and that a group of kids heading out with Frisbees on a beautiful night was nothing to worry about. This was probably normal for Deb and her brother. But I had never felt so free in all my life.

2) Deb and I would spend our nights devising skits, telling stories, and “experimenting” (let’s lie down and try to say the alphabet backwards while we rub our temples and see what happens). At the time, I thought Deb wanted to do these kinds of things because she was younger than me. But over time, I realized that this was just ... Deb.

See, at 13 there were already a LOT of messages in my life about how interested I was supposed to be in boys. These were often not positive messages, more along the lines of what I call the triangle of shame (girls only matter if boys say they do; all boys want is sex; sex is bad), but clearly I was supposed to be very interested. I wasn’t, but I thought I was supposed to be, so I tried. Except for when I hung out with Deb, when it didn’t matter.

She couldn’t have cared less about the boys sleeping in her brother’s room downstairs or what I thought of them. And though it’s clear that she had her own awakening and struggles later, I do suspect that the way she was mothered gave her the freedom to be herself at that time. And as an extension of that, as long as I was with her, I was also free to be myself - utterly indifferent to boys, fascinated by other things entirely, and all ...

So to sum it up, to my mind, Nancy in many ways gave me Deb, who has been my friend since I was about 14. And that was 30 years ago. Who would not be grateful for that?

Momsomniac (Florida, 1985)

Thursday, July 16, 2009


“Someday, when you kids are all grown up and don’t need me anymore, I’ll swim out in the ocean until I so tired that I can’t swim anymore. It will be a gentle way to go, just like falling asleep.”

My mother’s discussion of suicide filled me with fear. I begged her not to drown herself, told her I’d always need her. I felt responsible for convincing her to stay, to live, to be my mother forever. At that moment, she seemed so distant, already miles from shore, too far to return, already drowning, already dying. I didn’t know what to say or do to bring her back.

Afterwards, I thought a lot about that conversation and her suicide plan. It worried me, certainly, even though it was years distant. I felt like a burden had been laid upon my shoulders, one that I had to bear alone and in silence. It seemed wrong for a parent to tell their child about their intent to commit suicide, and I wished that she hadn’t told me. By telling me, though, she invited the possibility that I could prevent it from happening; I could keep her alive. And yet, she seemed so definite, so certain, that I felt helpless to change her mind.

Did she really mean it? Was it just a cry for help, or an expression of her feelings of despair at that moment? I cannot say for sure. I felt at the time that it was not merely a momentary whim, but something she had thought of more than once. She described it in detail, and dwelt longingly on this idea of peaceful death.

I don’t remember my mother as chronically depressed. In fact, I would have characterized her as cheerful for the most part. Other than these occasional conversations about suicide, and one or two bouts of crying, I am hard pressed to find specific memories of her being deeply sad. Perhaps she hid it well. Or perhaps these episodes were uncharacteristic, merely intermittent bursts of misery. Regardless, I am sorry for the pain she felt at those times, but I cannot help but feel a kinship with this depressive side of her.

I struggled with depression for much of my adolescence. I know how hard it is to keep that ache inside, how one longs for connection and comfort. I think I understand why my mother needed to express her wish for an end to the pain. Her vision of suicide resonated with my own desires for a release from suffering. But did she understand the distress she was causing me? Did I understand the distress I caused others through my depression? I knew, but it didn’t change anything; indeed, it just made things worse.

I’ll never know if my mother would have carried out this plan, as she died well before it was to be put into effect. I hope she would have weathered her emotional storms, as I did mine. But I wonder . . . not really knowing her internal landscape, I’m not sure whether these were the kind of storms that pass by, or those that get worse and worse, leaving only desolation in their wake.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


My mother wore hats. Not all the time, certainly, but often. She had a whole collection of hats in her bedroom – mostly wide-brimmed hats. There was the suede hat with a floppy brim, a favorite of hers. She also had a black, Amish men’s hat that my brother and I brought back from our visit to Pennsylvania Dutch country, and a similar black hat that had a narrower brim. That was the hat she was wearing when she got hit by a car.

She and I had gone to pick up her boyfriend at the airport one night. On the way back, she was making a left turn across a divided highway and didn’t see an approaching car, which clipped our van as we pulled into their lane. None of us were injured, but my mother was very upset about the accident and, I presume, worried about the people in the other car. She jumped out of the van and ran across the road without looking, and that’s when she got hit by a car. Her body tumbled off onto the shoulder. Her boyfriend then got out of the car and ran across to her.

This left me alone in the van, which was running and still sticking out into the intersection. I remember being very calm as I tried to figure out what to do. I was too young to have a driver’s license, but I wondered whether I should move the van to a safer location. Or should I stay with the van, but not move it? In the end, I left the van running and crossed the highway (after carefully looking for cars!) to see how my mother was. Both of the cars that had been involved were on the side of the road. I saw the cracked and crazed glass of the windshield that had hit my mother’s body, and I remember being surprised that such a slight person would be able to inflict so much damage. I had the image of her body as a bag of sand, shattering the glass as it impacted the windshield. She was lying on the weedy berm, unconscious and still. Her hat wasn’t on her head; it must have blown off when she was hit. I knew she would want her hat, so I hunted around until I found it. I brought her hat to her, just as she was coming around.

The first thing she said as she opened her eyes was, “Where’s my hat?”

“It’s right here. I have it for you.” I felt smugly pleased that I knew her so well.

An ambulance came. My mother was the only one injured (the people in the car that had clipped us were fine). I remember her holding onto her boyfriend, and her blood was seeping onto his jacket. I worried that the blood wouldn’t wash out and had to restrain myself from saying so. She refused to go to the hospital, even after repeated urging from the ambulance driver. She was fine and wanted to go home, she said. I assume her boyfriend drove us home, although I can’t remember. I do remember the deep bruises and abrasions on my mother’s back the next day and how sore and achy she was. Yet, amazingly, there were no broken bones, no organ damage. I didn’t understand how she could emerge with such minor injuries – after all, she had shattered the windshield of a car! At the same time, it never occurred to me that she could have died in the accident. I was calmly sure that she would awaken and would, of course, want her hat.

After she died, I kept most of her hat collection. In addition to the various hats she wore, there were items of unusual headgear, including a full fencing mask. I started to collect hats of my own, and I wore hats (both hers and my own) throughout high school and college. Wearing her hat, I could recapitulate her style and feel connected to my mother. Gradually, though, I stopped wearing hats with any regularity. Maybe my sense of style changed, or maybe I was able to let go of my mother’s style and find my own. Or, more likely, it became obvious that it was unusual, if not downright odd, for women to wear these types of hats. As I tried to understand the often confusing, unspoken rules of women’s fashion, it was clear that my collection of hats did not fit in, and I just didn’t have the requisite panache to buck the system successfully. Although I wore them less, I still held onto the hats, now displayed on the wall or crowded into a closet. Gradually, I got rid of some of them, as it became clear I wouldn’t wear this one or that. I finally persuaded myself to give away the fencing mask. But when I look in my closet today, I still have a few hats – mostly my own, some gifts from others – the straw hat I wear for gardening, the patchwork Guatemalan hats, a red beret. But there amongst the diminished collection is her floppy suede hat and her black hat. It might even be the one I rescued from the side of the highway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Marriage and Dating

My mother and father got divorced when I was four. When asked later whether she would remarry, my mother would say “I made that mistake once; I won’t make it again” or something to that effect (a sentiment I have heard from other divorced women of her generation). I don’t know what put her off marriage; she rarely spoke to us about her marriage to my father and she was careful not to speak ill of him. But she never did remarry.

She didn’t swear off men, though. Many, if not most, of her friends were men; I can’t remember any close female friends she had. She also actively dated and had a number of boyfriends. I don’t remember who she dated when I was very young, but I remember her later boyfriends. One of them teased me in a way I found rather demeaning – he made fun of my height and liked to smear my glasses, which annoyed me to no end. Another made passes at me, which while flattering and exciting, was also confusing; it also showed poor judgment on his part and was in bad taste, to say the least. I did like one of her boyfriends, a beefy, good-natured Italian man who used to bring us cannoli. She had rather eclectic taste in boyfriends, as they were fairly disparate in age and varied in both looks and temperament.

She never seemed to lack for boyfriends, so I assume she was popular among men. While her relationships with men were often ongoing, they also seemed less serious as she certainly seemed to make no commitment to any one boyfriend. In fact, at one point, she had two or three boyfriends at the same time. I remember that one of them (Bob) stayed with us for a while when he didn’t have a place to live, and she continued to have one of her other boyfriends sleep over during that time. This resulted in some jealousy and hurt on Bob’s part, which he poured out to me as he taught me guitar. He hoped I would comfort him in his pain, and although I cared for him, I knew this relationship was a bad idea. I don’t think I ever told my mother about the talks Bob and I had or his attempted seduction of me; I don’t know what her reaction would have been. I was relieved when he moved out.

When I was in high school and college, I was intrigued by the notion of group marriages. I had read many of Robert Heinlein’s novels, and his later works offer a vision of a society in which group marriages are the norm (multiple men and women committed to an economic and child-rearing unit, as well as being sexually intimate in various pairings and groupings). He captured a view of sex as recreational fun rather than necessarily deeply emotional, and rejected the need for sexual monogamy as the core of intimate, committed relationships. I found this idea to be compelling, both in its functional ability to provide an extended family network of choice and its vision of sexual agency for men and women. I thought the idea of a group marriage offered a potential solution to the challenge of combining work and child-rearing, as well as providing a broader economic base than the nuclear family. I was also drawn to the ideal of sexual freedom, in which men and women could engage in sexual relationships as they chose without fear, shame, or feelings of jealousy.

In retrospect, I can see that Heinlein’s utopia is built on a traditionally male vision of sexual freedom. The freedom to have casual sex with any and all partners, the cornerstone of the sexual revolution, may have been an androcentric (male-centered) model of sexuality. Not all men and women desire or enjoy casual sex or multiple partners, and sexual jealousy is not so easily conquered for many people. While I still value the vision of sexual freedom, I suspect it needs to be more nuanced and recognize a diversity of human needs, including the desire for intimacy and long-term bonding.

But I think part of the reason that this vision of sexual liberation and alternative family forms was so compelling for me was how it paralleled my mother’s choices. I never made this connection before, but my mother not only rejected marriage as a goal, but also the traditional model of serial monogamy. Rather than having one monogamous relationship at a time, my mother dated who she liked and enjoyed herself without shame. She never tried to hide these relationships from us or from the other men she dated (as far as I know). My mother provided a model of a woman who owned her own sexuality and engaged in relationships on her own terms. That provided one strand of my own emergent feminism, that women are entitled to their own sexual agency, and that they are not possessed by men. Whether they choose to embrace monogamy, polyamory, or celibacy, these must be choices women make for themselves, not at the behest of their partners.

Interestingly, my mother was planning to move in with Bill (one of her long-term boyfriends) after my brother left for college. This seems to reflect a shift from her prior relationship pattern of more casual relationships. I presume that she had become more serious about that relationship and was willing to commit to it more fully. I don’t know what precipitated her decision to move in with Bill – was she just waiting until we were older and she was less responsible for our care? Did her feelings toward Bill deepen? Had he signaled a new willingness to commit to her? I don’t know, but it clearly indicates that she was capable of serious, committed relationships, and that she was able to trust in the future of this relationship. She died before they were to move in together, so I don’t know whether this would have turned out well or poorly. But I hope that it was a decision my mother made on her own terms. And, true to her own adage, she never did talk about marrying him.

Nancy Driessel Stearns (date and location unknown)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Family stories: My brushes with death

“And when you were a baby, your brother saved your life. Your mother put you and Duncan in the bath, and she went to answer the phone. You weren’t too steady, sitting on your own, and you slid under the water. Your brother pulled you up before you could drown.”

Every family tells its stories – the funny anecdotes, the dramatic tales, the loving moments – the narrative of its collective past. For some reason, my family has a series of stories of how I almost died while in my mother’s care. I almost drowned when she abandoned me in the bath. While we were traveling in Europe, my baby carrier tumbled off the mantelpiece and I hit my head on the hearthstone. I fell down the basement stairs in our house onto the concrete floor. The most dramatic story, though, was when my mother left me to chase a groundhog. The groundhogs were decimating the garden, and my father declared war. The groundhogs were to be killed on sight. My father and brother went out, armed with baseball bats, to bash in their skulls (I suspect this was not a terribly successful strategy, but I do have a memory of a bloody baseball bat, so perhaps they got one, after all). One day, my mother was driving me home, and as she came to the top of the steep hill of our driveway, she saw a groundhog scampering across the lawn. She stopped the car and jumped out to get the groundhog. But she was in such a hurry, she failed to put on the emergency brake. As I sat in the car, bemused, it started rolling down the driveway toward the busy street below. I was young enough that I didn’t think to get out of the car. There I was, rolling toward an imminent car crash while my mother chased a groundhog, oblivious to my danger. She came back in time and stopped the car before it hit the street; I wasn’t hurt at all. But what I remembered about the story was my slow, solitary, backwards trek toward certain death, all because my mother chased a groundhog. And she didn’t even get the groundhog.

In retrospect, these stories seem to reveal a thread of maternal negligence, but I never thought of them that way. I told them as tales of danger to impress my friends. To me, these were exciting stories of my brushes with death and my inevitable ability to survive. I sometimes joked about my mother’s tendency to put me in danger as a child, but I never seriously thought of these as indicating bad mothering. It’s interesting, though, that these became family stories, and I wonder what they meant to the rest of my family.

Me, in front of the garden that we were protecting from groundhogs (Piscataway, NJ, 1969)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Apple Kuchen

My mother carefully arranges the apple slices on the batter, each slice overlapping the previous one.

I have very few memories of my mother cooking. I remember the food itself – tuna noodle casserole, hamburgers (both involved potato chips, a special treat), spaghetti with meat sauce –- simple, Midwestern fare. The fanciest meal I remember was beef stroganoff, simmering away in the electric skillet before it was poured over egg noodles. I remember cookouts on the Hibachi grill, and the fun of toasting marshmallows afterwards, trying to make them perfectly golden brown on all sides before they fell into the coals. I remember brown paper lunch bags in the refrigerator for my brother and me to take to school, with our initials written on them (including our middle initials, since otherwise, we were both “DS”). But all of these memories are of the completed meal; none involve scenes of my mother actually preparing the food.

I only have three memories that involve my mother cooking. I remember her making pancakes after Tom, one of my brother’s friends, slept over. Tom was able to eat massive quantities of pancakes; he said the secret was to eat continuously without stopping, so you wouldn’t have the chance to feel full. She made stack after stack of pancakes, and he just kept eating and eating them. I also remember her helping me make taffy for a taffy-pulling party I had. She was dreadfully sick, and the day was grey and miserable, but she hauled herself out of bed to help me make the taffy so that my friends and I could pull it. We buttered our hands to pull the hot, sticky balls into long strands. It was supposed to be cut with scissors or a knife, but we couldn’t get anything to cut through that taffy, so we just hit it on the table so that it smashed into bits. The pieces of taffy flew everywhere -– we found taffy behind the washing machine months later.

I remember my mother making apple kuchen (or apfelkuchen) -– it’s kind of like an apple tart, but the base is more cake-like. She would cut the apples into thin slices and lay them out on the batter, each one overlapping. It looked beautiful and tasted delicious. When my mother died, I looked for the recipe and couldn’t find it. My maternal grandmother found a recipe for apple kuchen that she thought was the one my mother used, but it didn’t have enough detail for me to really follow it precisely, and I was never sure it was my mother’s recipe. I don’t know why this dish mattered so much to me. Maybe because it seemed unusual –- I didn’t know anyone else who made it and most of my friends had never heard of apple kuchen. It never occurred to me at the time, but this dish is most likely a reflection of the strong German influence in Wisconsin, where my mother grew up.

I doubt my mother had any passion for cooking. She was a competent cook – I’d probably go so far as to say that she was a good cook –- but she was also perfectly willing to serve us Chef Boyardee or have us prepare our own meals, so I don’t know that she had any special love for cooking. I don’t think she taught me to cook; although she may have taught me the basic rudiments of cooking, I didn’t feel equipped to prepare a real meal until much later. I do wonder if my mother taught me to bake, though. I was making cookies and cakes long before I could cook dinner. Maybe that’s why I wanted that recipe for apple kuchen.

I gave up recreating my childhood meals some years ago. I used to make tuna noodle casserole, but could never find anyone as enthusiastic about it as I was. I tried my hand at stroganoff, but it never entered my repertoire. I don’t grill, and the days of toasting marshmallows are long behind me. While I do make spaghetti sauce, the recipe I use probably bears little resemblance to my mother’s. And I haven’t made apple kuchen in over a decade. Somewhere along the way, I switched to making apple pie. I’m not sure why. Maybe I couldn’t recreate the apple kuchen I remembered from childhood. Maybe my taste changed. For whatever reason, I let go of yet another connection to my mother.

My brother and I, making cookies (date and location unknown)

Monday, May 25, 2009


My mother taught me how to kill a man when I was in first grade. “If you break this bone in the neck, right here, it’s fatal.” I was terrified by the idea of our bodies being so fragile that one bone would be the difference between life and death. I didn’t want to be able to kill someone so easily. But, seemingly oblivious to my wide-eyed fear, she went on to explain how to poke someone in the eyes or kick them in the crotch.

What prompted this lesson? I was attacked on the school playground. A boy came up to me and said he wanted to kiss me. He pushed me up against the double door and put his hands around my neck. I started to have trouble breathing. A group of children formed a semi-circle, watching the events unfold. I don’t know whether the kiss happened or not – all I remember is that I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t even occur to me to struggle or fight back. Eventually, a older child, a patrol, came by and broke up the tableau. I sat on the steps and got my breath back.

I don’t know whether I told my mother about what happened or whether she found out from the school officials. I don’t remember whether she was sad or angry or bewildered when she heard. I just remember the lesson in self-defense that came in the wake of this experience, and how frightening I found it.

I wonder what prompted her response – why tell a five-year-old how to kill in self-defense? Maybe it came from her own experiences; I seem to remember that my mother was enrolled in a self-defense class at some point during my elementary school years. Perhaps she was part of the women’s self-defense movement and felt that I should learn these lessons early. After all, it was clear from my assault that even a young child was not safe and could not count on adults for protection at all times. Maybe she thought that I would feel better if I had confidence in my ability to defend myself against another such attack. If so, she misjudged me. I viewed the event as an anomaly and had little fear of a recurrence. The talk of self-defense implied the real possibility of future violence, perhaps of a more serious nature, and that frightened me. I also felt inadequate to the task of a counter-attack; indeed, I strove throughout childhood to avoid fights, preferring cowardice to being beaten up.

I’d like to think that she didn’t mean to scare me. I want to believe that she was just trying to teach me strength and self-reliance so that I could weather the dangers of the world. Truly, how should a parent respond to the child’s first experience of violence? We can offer the comforting promise of a safe haven (“mommy will always be there to keep you from harm”), but it is a lie, and we know it. The appallingly high rates of rape and abuse leave no doubt that girls and women (and boys and men, for that matter) are vulnerable to assault – the potential for violence lurks all around. Yet girls and women are not helpless victims and we need not wait to be rescued; we can fight back, to gain the space to flee, or even to kill our assailant if need be. And this lesson – being alert to the dangers of violence and knowing how to confront it effectively – is one that, unfortunately, should be learned early.

I never did learn how to kill someone from my mother; I couldn’t figure out what bone she was talking about. But what I really regret was that I failed to find the strength she was trying to teach me. I struggled for years to embody the kind of self-confidence that would allow me to stand with stalwart courage in the face of personal danger. Even as an adult, a passing threat from adolescent boys was often sufficient to cow me. Did my mother have that strength? Would she have walked tall and talked back to the catcalls on the street? I think she did. In my memory, I see her standing bold and unafraid, standing up for herself with a brazen disregard for what others might think. But maybe that’s just what I wanted her to be, just as she wanted it for me.

Nancy Driessel Stearns (date unknown)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Parenting Style

“I’m going out – I’ll be back when I walk in the door,” I called as I left the house one night.

“Ok,” my mother said.

My mother gave me a lot of freedom. While she was certainly interested in my life and engaged in my activities, I also had a lot of independence. In elementary school, my brother and I spent a fair amount of time on our own, although neighbors were available in case of trouble. She let us stay up late fairly often, even letting us stay up all night on the last day of school – I always fell asleep during Saturday Night Live. There were no restrictions on what we read, and I don’t remember rules about junk food or television watching. As a teenager, I spent many evenings hanging out with friends or wandering the residential streets of our development, and my mother never demanded a strict reckoning of my movements or a way to get in touch with me. By the time I was in high school, I didn’t need to be home for dinner (by then she had given up cooking dinner on any regular basis). I felt that I could go where I pleased, when I pleased, and I reveled in this freedom.

Let me not overstate the case – she did have some rules for us, particularly when we were younger. Probably she did want to know where I was, and mostly, I’m sure I told her. But my feeling of independence was real, and I do remember calling out that I would be home when I got home at least once without penalty. Diana Baumrind, in her theory of parenting styles, would probably describe my mother’s parenting style as permissive-indulgent. Permissive in that there were relatively few strict rules for our behavior – there was little demand upon us – and indulgent in that she was interested and involved in our lives. Permissive-indulgent parents are likely to take on the role of friend more than parent, and I did think of my mother as my friend, at least in adolescence. I wouldn’t say that there were no demands on our behavior, nor would I say that my mother was never in a parenting role, but on the whole, my memory is more of the permissive-indulgent style than any other.

Most psychologists would say that this is not the best way to parent. Children with permissive-indulgent parents tend to be less mature, less able to regulate their own behavior, and they have more problems with authority and perform more poorly in school than children with more demanding parents. But these are average trends – what did it mean for me? The lack of strict oversight did give me the opportunity to engage in risky behavior; there were those around me who used drugs and engaged in petty vandalism. I mostly eschewed these activities, though, in favor of long walks to the library, the K-mart, and the video arcade. My school performance was generally high. I was too much of a worrier to engage in most types of risky behavior.

I did have a rebellious streak, to be sure, one that my mother probably encouraged. She supported my emergent activism (such as my refusal to bow my head for the moment of silence in school), and I remember her holding forth on children as a disempowered group, lacking true political representation. I always saw her as a free spirit, something I associated with the 60's-era anti-establishment movement. In retrospect, I don’t know that she was ever really a part of that movement. Her life seems pretty conventional; she did well in school, played the piano, graduated from college, got married, and had children. But my memories of her are distinctly those of someone unconventional. Perhaps she found her inner rebellion later in life, after my parents’ divorce, or perhaps the superficial conventionality of her life was a mask for her true nature. Regardless, by midlife, she didn’t seem to feel bound by social norms or conventions and mostly did as she liked. I hope I have inherited some of her sense of independence and rebellion. I, too, want to be a free spirit, questioning authority and convention, wandering my own path far from the mainstream. Yet like my mother, much of my life follows a traditional path, even as I see myself as unconventional.

Perhaps stricter rules and greater supervision would have made her a better mother. Maybe my brother and I are just lucky we turned out well – the exceptions to the rule. Perhaps she was only permissive because she knew we could be trusted. I don’t know. What I can say is that I valued the license I was given and I didn’t abuse the freedom (much). I enjoyed the feeling of being my mother’s friend and equal, one whose opinions and feelings were worthy of consideration. More than that, I am grateful that she showed me that I could pursue my own convictions, even if that flies in the face of social norms and mainstream values.

Pictured (left to right): My brother (Duncan Stearns), my mother (Nancy Driessel Stearns), and me (circa 1967)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Memory Beads

Beads on a string, falling one at a time into my hand. Each is unique; some are beautiful, some plain or even ugly. I hold each for a time, then it drops from my hand so that I can hold the next. I look at the bead in my palm, mesmerized by its rich, swirling colors . . . green, blue, purple. There are flecks of gold in the glass that create unexpected flashes of light as it moves.

Then I wonder, what was the bead before this one? Oh, a wooden bead with painted flowers. Or was that the one previous? Maybe it was the chunky, blue and white china bead. Or wasn’t I holding a pewter charm recently? It’s hard to remember all those beads – there are so many, and they all blur together in my mind. I’m more likely to revel in the bead I’m holding and wonder what the next bead will look like than to spend time remembering the beads that came before. That’s all we have, isn’t it? One bead at a time.

My mother died when I was sixteen. It was unexpected, and I cried a lot. But I also went on with my life, going back to school the next day, because that’s what made sense to me. There wasn’t a funeral. We got through the rest of the school year and then I went to live with my father and stepmother. Moving to a new school was difficult, and I threw myself into the academic work. I made some new friends, dated, was immersed in the daily minutiae of life.

A year after my mother’s death, my father tentatively asked me if I wanted to mark the occasion in some way. I was genuinely surprised; it hadn’t occurred to me to do anything of the kind. I missed my mother, felt sad sometimes about her death, but I didn’t dwell on it much, and it seemed odd to celebrate the day of her death. If anything, it made more sense to celebrate her birthday. In the end, I didn’t do either. There was no official remembrance. I spoke of her occasionally, to friends or family, but her presence faded from my life. She became an increasingly removed memory, evoking only the faintest twang of emotion.

It’s not that I didn’t love her. I did. I had a very close relationship with my mother, and I felt my loss keenly when she died. There is so much I wish I could have shared with her. I wish she could have lived to see me graduate college and get my Ph.D. She would have been pleased that my first post-doctoral position was at the University of Chicago, her alma mater, and I would have liked to hear her memories of the campus as we walked around Hyde Park. I wish she could have met my partner and they could have gotten to know each other, because I think they would have liked each other very much. I would have liked to have been able to have a relationship with her as an adult, rather than as a tempestuous adolescent.

But I’m a person who lives in the present, with an eye to the future. I’m not a particularly sentimental or nostalgic person – I just don’t spend much time thinking about the past. My memories of the past are not especially vibrant or emotionally intense. Indeed, I tend to have a poor memory of events, particularly of my childhood. And given my tendency to be busy and over-booked, I find it a challenge just to keep up with my present, much less have time to rifle through my memories of long ago.

Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that all I have of my mother is my memories of her. She only exists in our minds and a few scattered photographs and memorabilia. My memories, fading and incomplete, are all that hold her in my life. If I don’t spend some time with those recollections, they may disappear completely, and I will have truly lost her.

So I am embarking on a journey into my memory and the memories of those who knew her. I want to hold onto what I have of my mother and maybe even come to know her better. It’s a journey into a landscape I haven’t explored for a long time, and I don’t really know what I will find. Memory is uncertain, a shifting sand upon which to build knowledge. I cannot guarantee that what I find will be true or accurate. But it is still all I have.

Photo of Nancy Driessel Stearns (date unknown); I think the photo was taken by Victor Macarol, a multimedia artist in NJ