Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Another Book Excerpt

Mother Triggers: No Shorts in the City

My mother is never very far from me. Even dead two years, I can have her at my side in an instant- or on my back, depending on her mood. The other day, I watched a friend dry dishes with a towel and I heard my mother’s voice.

Never dry dishes- It’s not sanitary. Let them air dry.

I don’t know why that always triggers her voice in my head but it does. She had a lot of rules, my mother. Never show up on time for a dinner party- always ten minutes late to give your hostess some extra time. Never cross your legs, fold them gently to the side, crossing at the ankles.

And never, ever wear shorts in the city.

Always about conformity, always about doing the right thing- as if there is a single right thing- and always be appropriate in public.

My family worked hard at looking the part. Appropriate behavior was explained, demanded and never questioned. Except for my brother, who seemed to get a pass on any standards set by my Mother.

Boys will be boys. It’s just want kid’s do.

I heard those things over and over again in my life. They trigger a different reaction in me. One of rage, powerlessness and clenched teeth. But that’s for another chapter.

My sister and I, as girls, had a lot of rules. We were always expected to not only set the standard but also exceed it. You never cleaned your plate, you always left a little bit to show you were not a pig- or a growing child. Never ask for seconds, smile politely and never speak unless you have been spoken to.

We didn’t have to follow the rules at home but we had to know them Sometimes, when enough bourbon was poured before the meal was served, it was required out of the blue. We had to snap to attention in a heartbeat.

Once, my mother set a pile of books on my head. I was to walk down the hallway and back, without dropping one. She wasn’t serious, or at least I don’t remember her being serious. But when I did it with ease, she was very proud.

She never asked my sister to do that. Her body was always suspect to my mother. Never right. Always under scrutiny for being a red flag to less than perfection, drawing attention to her self-perceived failure.

I know my brother was never required to sit up straight. Or ever follow rules.

We worked hard at our image because the ultimate of shame had already happened- my parents were divorced. In 1970, parents did not get divorced. It was a stain of failure my mother could not wash out, no matter how hard she tried.

And she tried.

I can remember once my mother getting the house ready for a visit from her father and stepmother. I knew them as Granddaddy and Grandmother. I did not understand the concept of my mother’s mother having died years before, and Granddaddy remarrying. Grandmother was… Grandmother.

Not Grandma. Not Grammy. Not anything less than the full word. I thought it was a way to keep separate Grandma, my father’s mother, and Grandmother. I understood later that it was about the rules and formality.

Silver spoons, lace tablecloths and those shoulders back where they belong.

My mother painted the entire house inside to make it perfect and without children’s finger prints smeared at the two-foot level. She got on her hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen floor.

She was terrified.

My mother grew up in a world where decent white folks did not clean their own homes. They had maids. It was rural West Virginia, in Bluefield, but standards kept the middle class white folks apart from the mountain people. From the “PWT’s,” my mother explained.

Poor White Trash.

When she moved to Upstate New York, she did as she thought every young housewife did when they moved into their first home- she hired a maid. The older woman, with gray hair swept up on her head in a bun, serving me coffee- mostly milk and sugar with a touch of coffee. I don’t remember her ever cleaning.

Problem was, in Upstate New York, only the wealthy had maids. The notion of having someone else clean your house was foreign. My mother did not fit in, with her southern drawl and gracious manners. When she spoke, people marveled at the accent they read about in books, or saw in movies but never heard aloud, in person.

Where you from?

West Virginia.

I didn’t know anyone ever came out of West Virginia.

She eventually gave up the accent and the maid. When people asked where she was from, she would retreat to the safety of her Grandfather’s home- Virginia. Lynchburg, Virginia.

The rules changed and she adapted. But when her father was coming to town, she frantically tried to create an image he would be proud of. She was caught between two worlds.

I know how she felt. Something as simple as washing dishes sends me back to a world where every motion was inventoried and considered.

(to be continued…)


Blogger Sue J said...

That was a great story!

My own mother was (still is with the grandkids) pretty lax on such things of politesse, but I remember 2 rules steadfast rules from growing up: (1) never ride in the car barefoot in case you break down somewhere, and (2) never, EVER sit on a public toilet seat.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Was your mother my mother's clone? She came from Charleston WV and before that the mountain country where her father, DW Vineyard, who I never met, was in the Ku Klux Klan, which, as was carefully explained to me was just a social organization. She dressed up and dressed me up to go shopping downtown - always the same 2 or 3 department stores. Whenever her WV accent peeked through she put on a heavy southern aristocrat accent and said she was from Virginia. She didn't drink to excess, but she put on a thick shell against feeling anything too much, which must have hurt my dad terribly, since he loved music, and she couldn't bear music hat was too loud or that made you feel too much. When I came back from camp one summer she told me to call her "mother" and my dad "father." Words can certainly harm. Those words drained every drop of affection out of my family until I moved out and went to school and got married and discovered how people could be with each other.

Sorry for going on. Maybe that might remind you of something.

6:54 PM  

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