It Was Always About Fairness and Equality

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.

With my par­ents on the night I grad­u­ate from high school (June 1974).

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:

Share the fun­ni­est mem­ory you have of one of your sib­lings. Or, if you are an only child with­out sib­lings, share your fun­ni­est mem­ory of another mem­ber of your family.

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