In the back of her closet, behind the clothes, next to the dresser, were two shoe boxes, each of which held a pair of peau de soie-wrapped stilettos, one pair cream, the other bright kelly green, both size 7 AAAA. I’m certain about the cream colored pair, which were her wedding shoes. I’m less sure of the kelly green. They are clear in my mind’s eye, but I can’t – even now – fathom my mother’s having had a pair of shoes in that particular shade. But I remember her explaining to me that peau de soie accepted dye much more readily than leather, so I’m certain they were custom-dyed shoes. The specific color, really, is irrelevant.
Along with the shoes were other tucked-away items, too, though they were strictly off limits for dress-up foraging: a wooden jewelry chest, a separate, pale aqua, silk case for her pearls, a navy Hermès scarf that she bought in Paris, a bottle of Fracas, and a coral-colored silk negligée that was the most intriguing and enigmatic of the whole lot.
When I was little, and then, later, when we were little, my sister and I, we would play dress-up in these fancy shoes, tempted by the off-limits items, selecting instead, from a different shelf, coordinating pocketbooks, and then walking the hallways of our house, pretending to go to the store, or to a ball, depending upon the day. And she, my mother, our mother, would play along, encouraging us to enjoy the market in Barcelona, the espresso in Rome. Or, on other days, we would stay right where we were, there at home, listening to records, teetering and staggering in those oversized high heels, singing along to The Jungle Book. Oobee doo; I wanna be like you, oo oo….
Oh, my mother.
It is the greatest gift to anyone who chooses to write that each of us has a mother, a bottomless well from which to draw material. Whether we were coddled, chastised, chastened, or comforted; nurtured, neglected, nagged, or normal, there is always some new angle to probe, a new thread to pick.
And when we’ve exhausted, even temporarily, all facets of those particular relationships and dysfunctions, we can delve into the mystery of our mothers pre-us, those mythical beings for whom we children have pictures and stories but no eyewitness proof.
In a truth fully known only, I think, to women who are childless by choice, motherhood is a one-way ticket. For any woman who chooses to become a mother, life is separated into two, and only two, parts: before motherhood, and motherhood. It is the ultimate binary division. There is no third component. The birth of a child is the birth of a mother, a neurobiological transformation.
To be sure, there are radically different phases of motherhood, each with different requirements and personality. The overwhelming demands of infancy and toddlerhood give way to frenetic school years, tussles over control, a slow, then fast inching toward eventual separation, from full dependence to full independence. Children nurse, then crawl, then walk, then run, then drive, then leave. And then, if everything goes the way it’s supposed to, they go on to pursue lives of their own, no longer deferential to Mr. Vandelay but instead eye-to-eye, peer-to-peer with Art, leaving their mothers to fill newly less-restrictive daily schedules.
But a mother is never again not a mother. To her children, and anyone she meets after having them, this new version of the formerly-independent, solitary woman is the only one they’ll ever know. Of her own volition, encouraged by old friends, she may try to get her groove back, wedge in a wine night with pre-baby drinking buddies, wake for 4 a.m. Insanity workouts in her basement until those goddamned jeans fit again.
But she will never again be the person she was before. Never, ever. She can only become something new. Friends and lovers and colleagues will either adapt and accept her as two things equally, a woman and a mother, now inextricably combined, or they will move on. This is not as tragic as it may sound, or at least it has not been tragic in my experience. Things change; people migrate. It is part of our natural order.
When I was barely a teenager, taller and broader than my petite mother, no longer able to slip into any of her shoes, my mother opened a retail store, a children’s clothing shop that sold English leather button shoes and hand-smocked dresses. She named the store Apron Strings for Margaret and me, she explained, an acknowledgment of our being tied to her, though clearly we were too young to understand at the time what she meant.
To her acquaintances she played the store as a lark, something she was doing for enjoyment, now that her girls were old enough not to need her in the same way. She had a background in retail and in marketing, and it was time for her to do something of her own. Only her closest friends knew that the venture was something more practical and urgent for our impending financial predicament.
The store, she would say later, saved her life, meaning both hers and ours. Though it eventually collapsed from the burden of being chronically under-capitalized (money going to tuition instead of re-investment), it got us through our final years as her dependents, before we launched out on our own.
More than the financial support, though, Apron Strings gave the new Betty her new voice and identity, a mix of woman and mother, of radio copywriter, world-traveling press secretary, Fracas-wearing maker of egg-and-olive sandwiches, tender to fevers, bedtime story reader, and comforter of childhood hurts.
One gift of motherhood, for those of us who choose the path, is the opportunity either to replicate or replace our experiences with our own mothers, the women whose behaviors and choices leave on us the clearest imprint. In this way we mothers give birth to ourselves, when we are ready. And from that point, we go only forward, possibly still singing, Oobee doo; I wanna be like you, oo oo….
Food | Week of May 15, 2017
Crustless Quiche | Green Salad
Portobello Patty Melts | Oven Fries