I don’t reflect as often as I should on the lessons I’ve learned from other women but today the lessons from the “mothers” I’ve loved unfolded like a highway; complete with roadside restaurants, exit signs, and rest stops. True Confession One: I was too focused on the Big Boy restaurants and icebox pies to see the exits and rest stops I really needed to take. Confession Two: I still am.
My maternal grandmother’s teachings arrived first. She was a Victorian era bride who birthed 6 babies in the Roaring Twenties, lost one in childbirth, one to the Big Red Measles, and reared the other four in the Great Depression. Despite only having a 6th-grade education (Why waste education dollars on women? They’re just going to have babies and cook…) she had the best vocabulary of almost anyone I’ve known because she read the dictionary cover-to-cover and could whip your butt at Scrabble.
My grandfather ran a successful life insurance business and she kept his books – in her head. When the stock market crashed and they lost “all their savings” she kept their money in the mattress and saved the stubs of our pencils in a can on the stove. She put up beans all summer long and ate them on bread, often with a wilted salad made from wild greens, dressed with bacon fat, a pinch of sugar, and homemade vinegar.
Grandma was soft on the outside – cast iron on the inside. She was harder on herself than anyone, ruled her family with an iron fist, did not trust others or “the system,” and lived to be almost a hundred. The last 20 years of that as a widow. From her I learned to be strong, resilient, self-supporting, frugal and wary of “systems” that make the rich richer and deny women an education, and take long naps. But I also learned to be mistrustful of others and isolated.
Five Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. Daily Rest Stop.
Then there was my first mother-in-law: A high-ranking Navy doctor’s wife who drank Bloody Marys for breakfast and chain-smoked Camels. She was world-traveled, politically astute, very loving and tragically lonely. She taught me how to survive in high society, give cocktail parties an admiral would enjoy, and be ridiculously generous. (She gave me a Wedgewood jewelry box, antique brass pitchers I still display, fur coats I almost never wear, a collection of tortoise shell combs from pre-war England, and a red vintage BMW.) She tolerated her husband’s dalliances and openly encouraged me to do the same. When he was gone at night she never asked where, she just poured another whiskey and once a month had a massage. (“Don’t be naïve, it’s just what men do. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.”) When I finally stopped looking the other way and spending my nights alone with a drink, I divorced her baby boy.
Three Icebox Pies. Two HUGE Exit Signs. One Monthly Rest Stop.
My second mother-in-law was a truly elegant, plantation-bred beauty with charming manners, deep faith, and love of family. She was playful, impeccably dressed, and amazingly fit. (She showed me how to do a split at 70 and encouraged me to exercise.) Her five children were the light of her life. She made a mean G&T and also cultivated the habit of looking the other way.
A wickedly smart woman, she unfortunately bought into the myth that men always know best and only made decisions when she had to. I became the wife of her Rhett Butler-esque #1 Son and gave birth to the first-born son of the first-born son of the first-born son of the first-born son. From her I learned pride of lineage, the importance of daily exercise, the art of being Presbyterian, a love of tartans, and prayerfulness in the face of betrayal.
Five Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. Daily Rest Stops.
And this leads me to my own dear mother. She was an exquisite pianist and organist whose innate relationship to music is embedded in my mitochondria. (I guess that’s what happens when you lie as a baby on the console of an organ and the lid of a grand piano.) She centered herself in the morning and at night with the power of prayer and was the wind beneath my pastor father’s wings; a wind that entertained constantly to secure and advance his career, a wind that kept its own power a family secret, and also allowed him to define whether or not she was still beautiful after she endured a 43-year fight with breast cancer. A true survivor, my mother wore carefully tailored outfits that hid the maiming she’d endured. She modeled positivity in the face of tragedy, fearlessness in claiming God’s healing and mercy, insisted I use my intelligence and gifts boldly, and was always affectionate and loving.
Eight Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. Two Daily Rest Stops.
So as I reflect on my own life as a wife and mother I’m happy that I’ve learned to be truly loving, generous and affectionate. I’ve encouraged my son to be a kind gentleman, to use his deep intelligence, to live boldly, dream big, and be a man of prayerful intention. Like the women who taught me, I am resilient in the face of tragedy and betrayal and have become a fierce encourager for others facing the same. (This still rather surprises me!) I’m pretty bold about sharing the stories that have surprised me, wounded me, informed me, and made me (for better or for worse) who I am.
And, I’m working on taking the EXITS and REST STOPS along the highways of life. I’ve spent too many years either trying to “hold it” or “hold it together.” And, like many of you, way too many years doing both at the same time!