Tuesday, December 13, 2016

How I Remember Mama(s) #SOL16

My father and mom (Jean) in the early 1960s.
In John Van Drueten's drama I Remember Mama, the main character Katrin, a writer, reminisces about her childhood and the ways her mother, an adept manager of the family, influences and enriches her children's lives as they grow into adults fulfilling their dreams. 

The play opens with Katrin centerstage reading from a manuscript: 

For as long as I could remember, the house on Steiner Street had been home. Papa and Mama had been born in Norway, but they came to San Francisco because Mama's sisters were here. All of us were born here. Nels, the oldest and the only boy--my sister Christine--and the littlest sister, Dagmar.

Katrin looks at the audience and continues: 

It's funny, but when I look back, I always see Nels and Christine and myself looking almost as we do today. I guess that's because the people you see all the time stay the same age in your head. Dagmar's different. She was always the baby--so I see her as a baby. even Mama--its funny, but I always see Mama as around forty. She couldn't always have been forty. 

Once again, Katrin returns to the manuscript: 

Besides us, there was our boarder, Mr. Hyde. Mr. Hyde was an Englishman who had once been an actor, and Mama was very impressed by his flowery talk and courtly manners. He used to read aloud to us in the evenings. But first and foremost, I remember Mama.

I, too, remember mama. I remember mamas.

Mothers hold a unique place in our lives, and it's only natural to revisit our memories of these important women.

During my lifetime two women whom I call mom have influenced my life, my birthmother Hazel and my stepmother Jean. 

I met Jean when I was a wee one around two years old, and I think my father and Jean married when I was five. I spent most of my life in Jean's company--rather than with my birth mother--and began calling her mom shortly after my brother Steve's birth. 

For me Jean has always been mom. Not Mom Jean. Simply, mom. 

When mom (Jean) died this past October 6 after a long battle with Alzheimer's, I felt sorrow. I wanted to write about my memories of her in a respectful, loving way. She is someone I loved, but I loved the extended family she brought into my life more, and I love my brother Steve, one of the most generous and kind people I have ever known, most of all. 

That Steve and I have a close relationship is somewhat of a minor miracle because growing up in the same home brought nearly daily reminders that our place in the family order was unequal. My father doted on Steve; it was his dream to have a son, preferably one who would grow up and play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. Mom, of course, cherished Steve; he is the son who survived, who lived while her first son was stillborn. I remember mom's grieving for her lost baby even while rejoicing in her adoration of my brother. 

As the middle child (I have an older sister), as a step-child reminders of my place poked their way into my consciousness. 

Those who knew my stepmother, talk about her smile, her gentleness, and her kindness. She possessed a soft voice and a slow speaking manner. Mom bequeathed her even temper to Steve while I inherited my father's temperament. Mom had beautiful red hair that she'd let me brush. 

Mom and her sister Mary (also a ginger) and brothers Jack and Mike remained close throughout mom's life. She was their big sister. Theirs is a wonderful family who demonstrated their love for me throughout my life. I babysat for Mike and Sherry (his wife) when I was a teenager. I loved hanging out at their house, and I grew up loving their girls Jeania and Stacey. 

Mary did more to give me a normal and enjoyable childhood than any other single person. Once Mary passed her driving test, she hauled me to movies at the old Fox Theater in Joplin, Missouri; she took me swimming at the Carthage pool and to various pools in Joplin. Mary showed me the world other children lived in; were it not for her, I would have been land-locked and naive to the simple pleasures of many childhood activities. 

After Mary married Mike (her husband) and moved away, I visited. Mary is still one of the few people I'll confide in--to the extent that I confide in anyone. In our adult lives time has shrunk the distance in our chronology, and I think it's safe to say we respect one another as adults. 

Mom's mom, Grandma Young, normalized my life even more. She treated me as though I was simply one of her granddaughters and not a step-anything. Grandma Young bought me cool clothes at Christmas, my favorite being a purple pair of bell-bottom hiphuggers and purple body suit that showed off my curves in junior high. Grandma said, "If you got it, flaunt it," when my breasts popped in overnight. Grandma Young picked me up from school when I had my first period, took me to her house, and bought me all the supplies I needed. When she crocheted a bedspread for all her granddaughters, she made one for me, too, and I still have it and cherish it as an important family heirloom. I never thought of myself as an add-on to her list of grandchildren. She made me an equal. 

I want to remember mom the way I remember her loving and accepting family who welcomed me into the fold so many years ago and who still show me tons of love. I want to remember mom the way others remember her or at least allow pleasant memories to take the forefront in my memory. 

As I contemplated writing this post, I thought that time would bring me to a place of fond remembrance. I thought that good memories would supplant bad ones. I thought I'd remember differently. At best I resign myself to believing the parenting choices mom made for me were motivated with the best intentions, that gender inequity in families was the norm, that mom needed me to be an adult and take on added responsibilities at home when my father was so very ill, that mom wanted to protect me from making the choices my birth mother made and even the choices she made, bad choices such as dropping out of high school. 

Still, I know many of my insecurities and foibles owe their presence in my life to my childhood experiences, experiences shaped by my two moms.

If I were to write a memoir of my life growing up with my moms, both of them, it would read more like the memoir The Glass Castle by Janette Walls or the novel We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates than I Remember Mama. I do remember mama. I just don't remember her the way I'd like to remember, and those are memories I simply can't forget. 

Each Tuesday the team of teachers at Two Writing Teachers sponsors the
Slice of Life story challenge. I'm grateful to these ladies for their
unwavering dedication to living the writer's life. Head over to the TWT
blog for more slices of life. 


  1. It's always amazing to look back at our childhood and consider where we came from .. and the strange way that happened. It takes our entire life to figure this out. This is wonderful.

  2. That last line has such poignancy...loving someone doesn't mean we forget, even though we'd like to.