Monday, January 7, 2013

Women hold up half the sky and a whole lot more.

I don't normally try to write like this but there's an exception to every rule.

A short story in memory of a mother and all the women who raise us.

by Richard Mellor

Jane looked at her mother lying there motionless. She knew death would come to her soon but it would be a relief she thought. She looked calm, her soft grey hair laid against the pillow. Her eyes were closed and her skin, as always, tanned and wrinkled. She had to laugh as her mother’s description of her nose came to mind, “I’ve got a Roman nose” she would tell her children, “Roamin’ all over my face.”

Rose had had a hard time of it since her stroke three years ago. She couldn’t walk without assistance and being with Jane’s dad was even more stress as impatient as he was. She was a pretty fit 85 year-old prior to the stroke. She was a champion dart thrower and played on a ladies team. She also liked to dance, proud of her great legs, and walked everywhere; down to the town for some groceries or just for a coffee with her daughter. But the stroke put a stop to all that along with the trip she had planned to visit her son in America. Jane’s dad was jealous of his wife’s relationship with her children; it might undermine his role. “You think the sun shines out of his arse”, her husband would say to her about her relationship with her son, Dick.

Dick left the house the first chance he could, but his sister was younger; and anyway, it’s different for a girl. She was determined not to suffer the same fate as her mother, “I don’t know how you did it, mum” she said quietly, looking in to her mother’s eyes as if she might respond with a shrug and a rolling of the eyeballs like she sometimes did. “No, I wasn’t going to end up like that” she continued, this time half talking to herself, “I was determined not to make your mistakes; at a man’s beck and call and having to deal with his drinking and the moods and aggressive behavior that often accompanied it.” She was convinced that it was this stress that led to the stroke. She was not going to fall into the same trap. She didn’t blame her mother; after all, things were very different when she got married right after the Second World War. But she kept her distance even though she lived nearby.

Her dad used to say she was just bossy. She had raised three boys of her own so she certainly knew how to take charge, when to be soft and when to be firm. She would rather meet her mother downtown than up at her parents house. Her father was always critical of her like he was of his wife and her brother, and he tried to undermine her all the time in front of her husband. He was the boss, the one with the brains---the one in charge. Outside of the house he was a charmer, especially with the ladies, but in the home he was king and his rule was not to be challenged, that’s why he always undermined the children and his wife in the company of others.

Jane and her brother had talked about it. Why did mum tolerate it? Why didn’t she just leave? But they both learned that it was impossible. Her mother was from a different era. She had known no other man and also had a strong sense of loyalty---maybe she did love him in her own way, but she and her brother doubted it sometimes. She started to chuckle to herself as a completely different thought came in to her mind. Rose thought the young women today were too loose. “Remember what you told me about that nice Grenadier Guard, mum?” Jane said, squeezing her hand. Her mother had told her about being walked home from a dance at the Hammersmith Palais one night by a Grenadier Guard when she was 27: “Walked me ‘ome and shook my ‘and at the door, he did; men were gentlemen in those days.”

Her thoughts returned to the family life. Her mother did everything in the home. She cooked, clothed her children, she worked outside the home at times for extra income. She painted walls, laid carpets, repaired electrical fixtures and created and tended to a beautiful garden. But after almost 60 years of marriage she had been beaten down. Her defense when her husband went in to one of his aggressive tirades was to tell him he was right. “You’re right, Bill” she used to say angering him further.

Not long before she had the stroke, Jane’s mother told her how she felt about things. Normally she said very little or even defended her husband, as that was the right thing to do. She came from that generation that never shared with the outside world what went on in the family. After all, wasn’t the family supposed to be the font of love and pure values? And surely it was her fault he is like he is. If she had only been smarter, better looking. If only she’d kept her mouth shut in the beginning maybe things would have been different. Now she kept her mouth shut and that bothered him. “

"If he comes in and I can see he has had too much booze, I try not to speak.”, she told Jane one morning after he had returned home from the pub late the night before. “But that is wrong, it makes him madder, “you haven’t fucking spoken to me since I’ve been in.” he says. "I think if I don’t speak it’s peace but if I speak I have to be careful what I say ‘cause he’s spoiling for an argument so that’s how it is. Nobody would believe me so I don’t tell anyone.” She thought her mother had such strength to survive that all these years.

“I left school when I was fourteen. Left on the Friday and went to work in the factory on Monday in my school uniform.” she used to say. Her mum told her how she had her first period at work and how it scared her to death. She never expected to bleed down there. Jane’s grandmother was a pretty strict Catholic, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and she never discussed such things.

Jane’s brother had told her how he blamed their mother for years because when he was small she never stopped the beatings. To a young boy she was the other adult in the home and should have done something. But they both knew now that she couldn’t. Her mother seemed so fragile and small now. But when she and Dick were young, she seemed much larger. She was 5 feet ten inches tall compared to their father’s five seven. And she had big hands that had seen many years hard work. She had survived the blitz sleeping in the underground below London’s streets before being sent to a munitions factory attaching machine guns to spitfire wings. She had worked in factories and as a domestic. The eight years as an army wife had been among the best, living in Burma where her brother was born and Nigeria where she was born, they even had home help there.

But after the war Jane’s father managed a pub, not the best thing for an alcoholic, and it was a life of misery for her mum. When her dad went blind it was her mother, in her seventies and eighties that took care of him. She never really retired, Jane thought.

For years they excused her father’s behavior because he had spent almost four years as a prisoner of war in Japan, almost the entire length of World war 11.  He lost his mother at an early age and his father was, as he often said, “A rotten bastard.” “But you deserved better, mum, there’s no excuse for the way he treated you, no excuse.” she whispered, leaning over to kiss her mother’s forehead.

As she watched her mother, unaware that she was silently slipping away, she thought of how common it is that those who have done so much fail to be recognized, even by those that benefited from their actions. Jane had had three exhausting years dealing with the authorities after her mother had the stroke and both parents were put in the home. It was a relief for her that it was over, but she was happy that she had the opportunity to care for her as her mother had cared for her.

Jane and her brother had made up for lost time, had told their mother how important she was in their lives. She completely understood when her brother told her about the toilet incident and how it made him feel. At the insistence of her father, Rose was kept in the house right after the stroke rather than being put in a home where she could have received better care. But being legally blind, her father would have to go with her and he resisted that. While Dick was over on one of his visits, his mother needed to get up and go to the bathroom. She was sleeping in a bed downstairs so she could go to the outside toilet if she needed to go. It was not a good set up but what her father wanted.

Dick helped her up but she didn’t make it in time and spoiled herself. She was so embarrassed. On top of all this she had to listen her husbands tutting and muttering under his breath at yet another failure, “You don’t try hard enough, Rose, you have to fight harder.”, he said, lifting himself out of his armchair to assist her.

“Leave her alone and sit down.” Dick said angrily. His father could see he meant it and retreated. Dick walked his mother out to the toilet and pulled down her clothes in order to clean her up. He could see she was so embarrassed and he wanted to cheer her up as best he could.

“Damn mum, you’ve got no hair left down here. Where’d it all go?”

“I’m bloody bald” she replied, “I’m losing it all.”

As he began wiping her, Dick remembered an old rule his mother told him when he used to babysit for pocket money as a teenager or watch his younger sister.

“I’m doing it right aren’t I mum”? “With girls wipe away from the kickle away from the kickle”

The Kickle was the name Rose gave to the genitals. Dick and Jane always wondered where it came from and Dick later assumed it was from the Yiddish pastry of the same name as Rose worked for a while for a Jewish firm in the rag trade before the war though why she would choose that name was beyond him. Rose chuckled out loud.

“It’s terrible, you having to wipe my arse; it’s so embarrassing” “You know mum” Dick replied, “I am so lucky to have the opportunity to do this for you. How many years did you clean me up? How many times did you clean me up, mum? “It’s an honor to wipe your bum, an honor and a privilege” he assured her, seeing how embarrassed she was.

The last three years had been difficult for Jane, especially as her brother lived six thousand miles away; but she too felt a certain honor that she took care of her mother during that time, a certain privilege in it and understood why her brother felt the way he did.

“Thanks for taking care of us, mum”, she said, kissing her hand. “Thanks for getting us off to school, for dealing with prejudiced teachers and schoolyard bullies. Thanks for showing us how important it was to be strong but compassionate and forgiving.”

Jane felt her mother would finally have some peace now. Despite feeling the way she did about her dad, she didn’t hate him. Her brother had always accused her of being too easy on her dad and a bit too hard on her mum. “Maybe I was a bit hard on you mum, perhaps it’s because I’m a woman too,” she said.

After her mother died, Jane realized that her mother’s silence and way of dealing with her husband’s abuse, was in no way a weakness. She came to understand it was a strength that enabled her to survive in a hostile environment; to raise two children as best she could no matter what the odds. She understood that her mother was also up against much more powerful forces, social forces that placed men and women in certain roles and that gave one certain powers over the other. After all, why is there a Superman but only a Supergirl?  It's pretty obvious inner strength and courage has nothing to do with how much weight you can lift; her mother and millions like her were proof of it.

But she understood that her father was not entirely to blame either and that although we are individuals we are not independent of the society in which we live and are to a great extent created by it. In that sense, we are all victims.

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