My Mother Is Not a Feminist.
My mother has regrets. In her eighty-seventh year, she has come to her own aha moment. “I should have left your father. Why did I stay with him? I was stupid.”
My mother is not stupid. She is no different from any other woman in a long marriage who realizes she stayed in it too long and questions herself for forbearance. The marriage was not what she had envisioned.
She, as many women of her time and even beyond, dreamed of a fairy tale that would last happily forever, or at least until someone died. The dream, in her case, became a nightmare. Or at the very least, very dysfunctional and disappointing. The prince had issues. A narcissistic mean streak. A wife such as my mother questioned not him, but instead, herself. “What did I do wrong? What can I do to change him?”
Now, Mom, in her fresh widowhood, has regrets. Regrets that make her cry. “The signs were all there,” she lamented to my sisters and a close female friend the other day. “He was jealous. Possessive. Always angry.”
My father was not affectionate in the way my mother needed beyond the bedroom. There were no hugs we witnessed or sweet kisses or a even a peck when he arrived home. The sex, we heard about later, was I’m sure all about him.
My mother aimed to please. She had an additional part of her closet filled with sexy lingerie and even wigs. She would never be good enough as just herself to our father. So she pleased him, whether she wanted to or not. It wasn’t up for discussion. Pleasing her husband and everyone else was in her DNA.
Now, my mother sees her marriage in flashbacks, and she isn’t pleased about it. She was not true to herself and she let herself down, and she only realizes that now.
Mom is very happy in her newfound freedom. She grieved for my father, but very quietly and privately. Seemingly without any introspection. Until now. She could never leave him, but after 65 years of marriage, he, at 91 and after suffering from an incurable illness, left her.
When he was very sick and still quite demanding, my mother became a nervous wreck. She was hopeless about what the future held for her, a sick husband whom nothing could conquer. No illness could bring him to his knees. He wasn’t letting go. She couldn’t. “This is my life now. There’s no happiness. It’s too late.” She longed to be taken out of there. Any chance she could, she would escape.
We took her on happy day-outings and distracted her from her daily drudgery. She would of course return to her life with my father after her brief respite of joy.
“Why did you never leave?” we asked her time and time again. We wanted her to. We urged her to, even as little girls. “Go find a nice man who makes you smile and be happy, Mommy,” we pleaded. We knew even back then that she was more than she was being treated as.
My mother is happy now. She became free when my father died. How willingly she left her pumpkin shell, the house where she cooked and cleaned and served and polished and made perfectly homey and welcoming. Everything looked cozy and normal to the outer eye, but inside it was suffocating her soul. Inside, she cried herself to sleep many a night during her 65-year marriage.
I know this because she told me so, after I was married and later unhappy with the status quo. And she told my sisters. Then we could not un-know it. We could not fix it for her. We couldn’t reciprocate the comforting hand-holding loving solace she gave to us as little girls. But we could take her out for days of girls-only fun. We could whisk her away to short getaways, just us girls.
She treasured those moments as much as we did. Now my mother is free of the constraints of a life she is no longer part of without my father. A life she could not imagine she would ever live alone.
She is not alone. And she’s fine. Mom has her very own apartment for the first time in her life. She resides is a beautiful and safe assisted living residence, five minutes from both of my sisters and two hours by car from where I live. I can go have sleepovers with her on her fold-out couch. We watch Hallmark movies and talk about books and eat what we want, on TV trays if we desire, without judgment or interruption.
Mom has friends she sees every day with whom she does fun activities like painting, crafts, music, dancing, and field trips to interesting places. She dresses up every day, which is nothing new for her, being a former runway/showroom model from the 1950’s. She was a Miss Subway and Miss Brooklyn contestant.
Her beauty though is skin-deep. She is kind and compassionate and a good person to have on your side. Mom was a great heartfelt letter-writer for years. Not so much anymore, but that’s okay as long as she’s happy and not just on the surface.
My mother would never admit she is a feminist. Her generation was more acquiescent. The women of her day, at least my mother and her friends, were more concerned with the look of things in their homes and their appearance and their husband’s happiness and pleasure and approval. My mother wasn’t political, but she always voted. She read all the papers but didn’t voice her opinion.
She voted for my father’s choice of candidate. Did she agree? We never knew. I gave up arguing with her about it. Well, no, I guess I never gave up. My father called me a communist, but my mother did not rock the boat. There would be repercussions, waves that could drown her.
Mom is, however, a woman for other women. More now than ever, since she doesn’t have to second-guess herself anymore. No one is watching her every move and listening to her every word.
My mother has regrets. “What might I have been?” “Anything you wanted to be,” I say. She isn’t convinced. Because sadly, she didn’t know that. What my sisters and I take ownership for, our own happiness, my mother didn’t. Not in the same way. Not in a radical way. She distracted herself. She was an eternal optimist. On the outside anyway.
The era she lived in was filled with double standards. Women like my mother were part of the decor. Suzy Homemaker holding the baby and the Bundt cake in one hand and a martini for her husband in her other, narrow high heels pinching their feet. We have come a long way, baby.
My mother is behind us. Not exactly marching with a pink hat, but she has mutiny in her soul. She has memories of moments she felt minimized, objectified, and afraid.
At a movie the other day, Mom remarked to my sisters, “Your father used to say, ‘Eyes ahead, what are you looking at? Nothing for you to see but the screen.’” My sisters cringed at this sharing. They related it to me and we three got angry and sad. Our beautiful mother being treated in such an awful way was reprehensible. Mom is free now. We rejoice for her. We speak out louder because of her.
She raised three feminists. Hurrah. This fabulous woman who at 87-years-old is telling her truth.
Nanci LaGarenne is a freelance journalist and novelist form the east end of Long Island, NY. She is a former childcare and night staff at a domestic violence shelter and an activist for women’s and children’s safety and justice. She is a member of the #MeToo movement and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Her second book, Refuge, is an inspirational and cautionary tale about domestic violence and incest. She is at work on her third novel and writing a book with her granddaughter.