May 10, 2009

Mother's Day 2009

Farm Courtyard in Normandy by Claude Monet

A Southern belle donned her best attire, packed a stylish suitcase and boarded a train for a Western town where she would marry the man of her choosing for time and for all eternity. With infinity as a destination, this was no time for her to have cold feet. She was committed. She knew in her gut that leaving her beloved Louisiana would be worth it in the end. She abandoned the comfort of southern hospitality and headed towards the unknown, trusting her yet unborn children would benefit from her sacrifice. In her mind, she was making the right decision and nothing would deter her from doing the best she could to make her children's lives better than her own. Nothing could crush her determination. Not even her mother-in-law. Or, a patriarchal order prioritizing men over women.

My mother has been a transitional woman modeling self-respect through successive hardships and even what we might define as ‘calamities’. She was and continues to be, willing to sacrifice everything---short of renouncing her values and principles. She deserves far more credit that she’s given. Not that it’s easy to give Mom credit since she reprimands anyone showering her with compliments. It’s embarrassing, she says. She only did what any woman would do in similar circumstances.

Mama? I don’t think so.

The day after my mother’s 1940’s honeymoon to Niagara Falls, she awoke in her husband’s parent’s home and descended the stairs to join his family for breakfast. Her new mother-in-law was serving half-a-dozen farmers wolfing down pancakes and eggs while their apron clad wives and sisters scurried in the kitchen. Once the men had finished eating, the women ate their left-overs. If there were any left-overs. Milking cows and cultivating sugar beets takes a lot of energy. Plus, my Grandma was very frugal. If women got eggs for breakfast, it was only because she’d found unmarketable cracked ones in the coop. Grandma was parsimonious about her ‘egg money.’

My mother says this Wild West Breakfast was her initiation into a lifestyle so unique from her own that she considered purchasing a return ticket for the bayous. She could not believe her idealized groom would be so arrogant and lack such consideration for his equally hungry bride. Well, Dad had no reason to question the way things had always been done since my grandparents assumed their traditions were the Right traditions and if anybody wanted to argue, they could take their disagreements to the Almighty. Get on their knees and pray until they saw things my grandparent’s way because that was the way their parents had done it and theirs before them and theirs all the way back to Adam and Eve and whoever had fixed breakfast for them. Probably Eve. My mother did her part to break the chain of subordination. Her daughters never ate scraps.

Dad may have had a less troublesome life had he married a local woman rather than traipsing through the southern states for a bride. He met a Louisiana gal with a spitfire temper one might say was only matched by Scarlett O’ Hara herself. Mama was a beauty, too---though I can’t say it would be fair to compare my father to Rhett Butler. Their wedding day pictures put one in the mind of a marriage between the luscious Vivien Leigh and an impish Ron Howard. My daughter, the only granddaughter in the family, resembles my mother’s side of the family: smoky eyes, plush brows, dark hair and skin so white and smooth you can only think about peaches and melted ice cream when you look at them.

I look like my father, which used to make me queasy but the older I get the more I resemble his mother. I wish I’d grown into the soft fair frenchness of my southern bellish mother but God didn’t ask my permission when blending Mom’s French blood with Dad’s hardy genes bred in Switzerland. In honor of my mixed ancestry, I cut the ham for southern jambalaya with my fine-edged Swiss army knife. I’ve got my father’s temperament, his out-swinging walk, his down-sweeping eyelids carrying the weight of the world relieved only by upturned corners of his smile. When I see myself in the mirror, I see bits and pieces of people from the sepia images on our family’s genealogical tree. We’re all connected, those Swiss and French ancestors of mine. I see my great-great grandfather whenever my son winces.

“My southern Daddy always put women first,” Mother complains. “Imagine your father treating me like that! And Then! And Then!” she fumes, “To think he thought it was normal for women to eat leftovers! Well, I nevuh!”

Oh yes. My siblings and I grew up in what can only be described as The Civil War. We're still waiting to see which side will win. Their union has lasted sixty-plus years which must mean they’ve negotiated a secret truce none of their kids are privy to. Dad recently purchased a family plot in our hometown cemetery. My Mom’s headstone will be engraved with the Confederate Flag and Dad’s with the Stars and Stripes and I don’t know what kind of flag my sisters and brother's tombstones will bear, but I know the color: White.

In thinking about what I wanted to say in honor of Mother’s Day 2009, the one theme that came up over and over again was Self-Respect. My mother blessed us with Self-Respect. We may have lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere with pigs rooting through flowerbeds and wind storms covering furniture with grit, but one thing we had was our Self-Respect. Spit-polished linoleum floors, crystal on the table, delicate china in the cupboards and fine literature on the bookshelves. My mother has loyally attended monthly book club meetings for over forty years. FORTY YEARS. Forty years of dutiful cleaning and Betty Crocker recipe testing for desserts she could serve her friends in a living room so sanitary you could forgo the rose petaled snack plates and eat off the floor.

As kids, we were required to work hard but we were also encouraged to do things we loved. Passions that declared our authenticity and built our self-esteem. Like making mud pies concreted to wooden planks since they were mixed with eggs from Dad’s chicken coop insuring them the longevity of steel.

My mother refused to let the indignities of life rob her of her self-respect even when financial losses would have wilted most magnolias. We always had a new dress to wear sewn by her competent hands and later our own; Mom lined up a row of her five kids’ shoes on Saturday night and polished them ‘til they looked brand new for Sunday morning. She insisted on personal grooming as a sign of self-respect and everyone followed suit. Except of course, for my mischievous father in overalls. He had a good haircut though. When we walked into the chapel on Sunday morning, all five kids had shiny hair, freshly pressed clothing, polished shoes and smiles on our faces. We knew we looked good and could be proud of ourselves ‘cuz we were the daughters of Mrs. Z.

She deserves a medal for organizational skills considering there was only one bathroom for the seven people in our home.

I never knew the reason we ate saltine crackers crushed in milk was because her pantry was bare. I never knew we ate venison because we couldn’t afford beef. I never knew we ate spotted bananas because they were cheap. I assumed she wanted her girls to perfect banana bread baking skills when you couldn’t eat the blackened fruit without a cup of sugar and a pinch of salt. My mother protected her children from a reality that was her parental responsibility, not her children’s. And I never, not ever, saw my mother blame God because she didn’t reap the promised rewards of her good behavior. Instead, she upheld cherished principles sustaining her self-worth in the belief that the most valuable legacy she could leave her children was their trustworthy relationship with God.

In my mother’s home, there was never an acceptable excuse for self-pitying kids to faint on sofas as long as furniture needed dusting and tomatoes needed canning and neighbors needed a friend to talk to. If you felt bad about yourself, the answer to feeling good wasn’t ruminating on your misery until you made everyone else feel miserable, too. The answer was to put a smile on your face and act ‘as if’ and then see where you might be of service. See what difference you could make with the talents and blessings you’d been given and for heaven’s sakes, stop that infernal belly-aching. Go make dinner. Make a dress. Make happy. In other words, “do what you can and can what you do and always take responsibility for your life AND your feelings.”

Many, many years later, I was accused by someone who said to me, “You really LIKE yourself don’t you?” as if that were a sin. At first, I felt a flush of shame for deeming myself as good enough when obviously, I had been judged lacking of whatever it is that makes someone worthy of self-respect. I thought and thought about what it meant to like oneself and how I had come about liking myself since I never grew up in the lap of luxury, wasn’t about to be photographed in Vogue, didn’t have any special medals or accomplishments worthy of fame or celebrity, and even lacked credentials assuring people my opinions had merit to be considered. But what I did have was a deep and abiding sense that my life was of value and I, no matter what the circumstances may be, had something valuable to offer others. To this surprising result from a woman’s life that did not bear significance in a worldly sense, I thank my mother. The southern spitfire belle who accepted the things she could not change and changed the things she could believing the whole time that she could make a difference in her children's lives by living up to her calling as their Mother.



  1. What a beautiful tribute to your mom CZ. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, jennie! I wanted to write something speaking to women's struggle for equality. My mother would faint were someone to call her a feminist, though.

    I think we're an impatient society. We want everything to change all at once---to fix our problems yesterday. In our rush to correct gender inequities though, we ignore the slow-and-steady progress of women and men who have been willing to question and change traditional patterns.

    If you look at gender wars through a lens of Power and Control, women have everything to gain and men have a lot to lose.

    Sometimes we fault prior generations for being short-sided, prejudiced, sexist, etc. though it’s unfair to judge prior generations from a contemporary perspective. I am hanging onto that thought so I can offer it to my children when they ask me why I thought the way I did and why-on-earth did I made the decisions I did. Well, if they’d been raised in the same culture, the same time period, the same income bracket, etc, they’d likely have made similar decisions.

    Everything in context, right?

    Thanks for reading, Jennie. It’s so nice to hear from you again!



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