What one character trait of your mother’s do/did you admire most?
In my mother’s eyes, it was all about fairness. Equality. Justice. Even when she took the concept to illogical and decidedly unfair extremes.
It’s really no wonder that I wound up being a civil rights attorney. Like her, I am devoted to the principles of fairness, equality, and justice. I have channeled my professional energies toward the eradication of prejudice and discrimination.
My mother was the sixth of eight children, although three of her siblings died in infancy. So the reality was that she was the third of five children who grew to adulthood. The middle child. And I believe that was probably the source of the trait that I simultaneously admired and despised about my mother.
I have two children and I strive to be fair to them. So, for instance, I have always endeavored to make sure that they receive Christmas presents that are roughly equivalent in value. And when my boys and my nephews were young, we celebrated Christmas with my sister’s family, so we made sure that each boy had the same number of presents to open. Because kids do notice things like that. And feel bad when they perceive that another child has been favored over them. As my kids were growing up, I distinctly recall legislating such important matters as whose turn it was to ride in the front seat of the car, which boy helped carry in the groceries the last time I returned from the store, and who last stayed overnight at Grandma’s or Nana’s. All in an effort to be fair. But always with an appreciation of my boys’ different personality characteristics and preferences.
And that is where my mother, on the other hand, sometimes went terribly wrong.
Because my sister was eight years older than me, she enjoyed all of the “firsts.” She was the first child to take piano lessons, the first to join a Blue Bird troop, the first to select a band instrument, the first to have a boyfriend, the first to select a college major, etc. And she was the first to decide whether she enjoyed and desired to continue pursuing myriad endeavors and activities. For instance, she decided that Blue Birds were, well … for the birds. So she only belonged to the organization for one year.
Eight years later, I heard about Blue Birds during a recruitment campaign at my elementary school and I wanted very much to join a troop. My mother agreed, and proceeded to drag my sister’s old uniform out of storage. It was too big, out of style, and made me look even nerdier than I already did. I was a chubby little girl lacking self-confidence, and it did nothing to bolster my ego or sense of self. But I reluctantly wore it because I wanted so badly to join. However, I did so knowing that I would never “fly up” to become a full-fledged Camp Fire Girl. Why? Because my sister had only belonged to Blue Birds for one year, my mother warned me going into my first year that I would not be granted a second year. To allow me to participate for more than one year would not, in her eyes, have been “fair” because it would mean that my parents provided me with something my sister did not get. And my mother could not allow that.
I have very vivid memories of the various activities in which my troop participated that year — all experiences I knew I would never be able to repeat. In fact, I can still recall the ceremony during which the older girls “flew up.” It was held in the auditorium of an elementary school, I brought cookies that my mother had baked for the occasion, and I can still see the look of shock on the face of my friend’s mother when I explained that I would not be returning to the troop in the fall because my mother only allotted me one year as Blue Bird out of “fairness” to my sister who quit after her first year.
During that year, I remember always feeling out of place, out of step, and different than the other girls. And as though my feelings had been validated when that friend’s mother hugged me and said, “Well, we’ll miss you next year” in a tone of voice that sounded as though she were offering condolences to a decedent’s loved one at a funeral. It wasn’t until many years later when I became a parent myself that I fully understood and appreciated her effort to console me.
And when it came time to join the school band, I desperately wanted to play the flute. Eight years earlier, my sister had selected the clarinet when she became a member of the band. (Looking back, I question whether she truly wanted to play the clarinet or was made to believe by my mother that she did because that’s the instrument my mother wanted her to play.) Once again, I was forced to go along with my mother’s wishes, so I reluctantly took my seat in the clarinet section, but during rehearsals I gazed longingly at the beautiful silver flutes on the other side of the director. In 2007, I detailed here how I finally became a flutist.
As a young adult, I finally summoned the courage to stand up to my mother and illustrate how her insistence upon being “fair” was actually quite unfair, failing to take into consideration just how different my sister and I have always been. In 1983, I was again living and working in Lodi. My sister’s birthday is November 19 and mine is December 21. By that time, it had become a running family joke that I always knew what I would be getting from my parents for my birthday by watching my sister open her present. Including the card. Yes, my mother always bought us identical birthday cards and presents.
That year, my mother announced that my sister had informed her she wanted a bathrobe and slippers for her birthday. I don’t know why my mother bothered asking, but she inquired if I wanted the same items for my birthday gifts.
In prior years, I would just mumble “yeah, okay,” knowing that no matter what I said, any gift I received from my parents for any occasion would be identical to what they gave my sister. But that year, I finally felt empowered enough to say, “No thanks; I have no desire for a bathrobe or slippers.” My mother’s protests ensued. She didn’t know what else to buy me, she claimed, and did not want to simply give me cash or a gift certificate. I offered to shop with her or provide her with a list of items I would enjoy receiving, but she wasn’t interested. As the conversation progressed, it became obvious that she had already purchased my sister’s and my precisely identical gifts and cards. And couldn’t be bothered exchanging the items she had purchased for me in favor of things I really wanted.
And when I realized that, I informed her that I would be returning the items and planned to use the cash to purchase something else.
She was taken aback, but composed herself quickly enough to accuse me of being ungrateful and unconcerned with her feelings. I stood my ground, determined not to be manipulated into feeling sorry for her.
On November 19th of that year, I watched my sister read the usual Hallmark card declaring her a “loving daughter” or a close facsimile thereof. And knew that I would pull the same frumpy pink bathrobe and matching slippers from an identical box wrapped in exactly the same pink paper. On December 21st, I did.
But I followed through with my promise to return those unwanted items to the store. And in their place, I bought myself a pair of earrings and a pair of big, goofy, fuzzy Garfield slippers. When my parents came to my apartment for a visit, I made a point of thanking them for the birthday gifts. My mother looked wounded and feigned hurt. But I ebulliently yammered on about how pleased I was with the earrings and my whimsical, warm, and cozy cat slippers.
I think that on that day, my mother realized for the first time that in her quest to be fair and equitable as a mother of two children, she had completely neglected her responsibility to view us as individuals with unique personalities. And thereafter, when she asked me what kind of gift I would like to receive for my birthday or Christmas, she respected my responses. Yes, she still bought identical Hallmark cards for my sister and me on our birthdays and other occasions, but we just laughed about that. I recognized and accepted that habit as one of her little eccentricities, and allowed the family joke to continue. In fact, I embraced the humor I found in my mother’s stubborn refusal to bend her will that much and still have most of those cards tucked away in a box. Rather than be bitter, I choose to laugh when I look at them.
My mother’s efforts to be fair may have, on occasion, led to absurd, inequitable results. But the older I get, the more I appreciate that she truly believed she was doing the right thing.
And have striven to follow her example. In most respects and within appropriate limits.
Next week’s topic: