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.