Sunday, May 22, 2016

All the Pretty, Amazing Mothers (part 4 of 4)

Among my earliest memories is a beloved and familiar voice singing a lullaby in my childhood bedroom.  The warm coverlet with its broad plaid stripes in shades of brown, orange, gold, and green.  Darkness obscuring the shapes in the wallpaper.  And the mellow, sweet voice, familiar and unforgettable:

"Way out yonder, in the meadow,
All the pretty little horses...
Dapples and greys, pintos and bays,
all the pretty little horses!
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses..."

I'm sure there was a "go to sleep" in there somewhere, but it was lost among all the pretty horses.

With a godmother like Mary Ann, it would have been difficult to avoid going horse crazy.  She was in her teens when I was born, and I remember a later visit to Portland where she carefully offered me a selection of her almost-best model horses.  I probably still have the grey appaloosa, with the same broken foot that it had when she gave it to me, and its beautifully detailed conformation. Appaloosas were always her favorite.  I preferred bays as a child (to the point where my parents got me a Lone Ranger Silver horse toy with articulated legs, but repainted it brown with a black mane and tail for me).  I had a Grizzly Adams donkey whose muzzle I shaved after it became apparent to me that real horse-kind had velvety muzzles, not fuzzy hairy ones.

When I was about 10, Mary Ann was instrumental in setting me up with a skilled, pragmatic, and foxy riding trainer called Christina Traunweiser.  Some years my parents would pay for lessons, some years I would work for them.  The process of mucking out stalls every weekend in my formative years means a shovel is still the tool I know best (aside from paper and pencil).

Mary Anne teaching a horse and rider
Unlike Mary Anne, I eventually got over the "I want a pony" feeling.  I know exactly how much work a horse is, and unless I achieve a rare state of rural life and surplus income (or have work suitable for a horse or mule to earn its keep), I am more than content to share the pleasures of other people's horses.

Mary Ann finally got her ponies when she married Craig Stevens, and now teaches classical equitation in Snohomish, WA.  (I delight in hearing stories of my nieces, and my mother, getting a riding lesson from Mary Ann on their visits.)

The music continued too. I loved singing together at family gatherings, and Mary Ann and my dad were definitely ringleaders in that regard.

And although glittery pink ballgowns were not really her style, she did play "dress you up for the ball" one school-shopping trip when we blew our budget on a formal dress jacket instead of the expected jeans.  I wore it to a variety of dances and formal occasions for years.


Wicked Evil Stepmother
Kacy claims to be our W.E.S., but she is not very good at it. She married my father at a time when all of us kids were lining up to get married, and just so happened to have ten years as a professional wedding planner under her belt.  And she's a highly skilled photographer.

(Since she doesn't love being in front of the camera very much, I was just going to represent her with a casual selection of her work.  But someone caught her on her way to ride bikes with my Dad for his birthday last month - something he used to do daily, but she hasn't done since getting hit by a car at age 13... a pretty special birthday treat for him.  I'll let Facebook decide how long it's available to show here.)

For our brief attempt at being commercial chocolateurs, she took sumptuous process shots, jazzed up our table with bronze chiffon and sparkle lights, and then presented us with matching chocolate-themed aprons to wear at the event.

But my most wicked-favorite thing about Kacy (besides how much she and my dad care for each other), is her sense of humor.

She and Ernie are closer in age than either is to their spouse, and they can make each other laugh like few people I know.  As a result, Kacy has gotten some truly charming photos of Ernie. Most other photographers capture dramatic tension, rugged intensity, self-criticism, or just a stern thousand-yard stare.  But with Kacy around, you get to see in pictures some of the genuine fondness and delight he usually reserves for trusted family.

Kacy has that rare combination of creative genius, organizational planning ability, and deep loyalty.

All in all, catastrophically mis-cast in the "wicked evil stepmother" role.


My mother-in-law and mother-out-law (not sure which is which) are very different from each other, but both are fun to be with.

Peggy enjoying Ernie and Erica's wedding
Peggy Myers is spunky, full of curiosity and enthusiasm, a stalwart Believer (though the church may vary, the faith remains strong).  I love hearing her pronounce her delight in a new discovery, a charming shop, or a clever gardening trick: "I just think that's neat!"  Peggy loves trying new restaurants, finding a tea shop we can share, learning more about local businesses, getting involved with neighbors, and introducing friends to each other. She has remained close friends with neighbors from our former shared address in Portland, and is probably the single most reliable person to give us a call and say "How was your day?"
Jeanine and Tai,
a rescued Arab horse.

Jeanine Wisner is enjoying retirement on her one-horse ranch, after a career as a small-business accountant, commercial fishing, and a memorable sojourn in Japan.

We definitely took advantage of her accounting advice early in the business setup.

It's nice to have someone right within walking distance for the occasional "girl chat." Sometimes with cream puffs, white wine, or a hot cup of tea. Sometimes with deep forays into social mores, politics, or the right relationship between humans and the rest of life on Earth.

When we're not being profound, we like cooking treats for each other (she makes wicked fried chicken; Ernie has perfected a honey-shrimp recipe that was one of her favorites at a Chinese restaurant; and I seem to be most popular lately for those cream puffs.) And swapping fiction novels for some mental R&R.

My sisters and sister-in-law are amazing mothers, too.  As are many of our cousins and friends.

I continue to admire every gal who manages to wear the "mother" hat and be herself at the same time.  It's not easy to be the focus of someone's fantasies, physical needs, and developing personality 24/7.  Raising children is a collaborative art, with the parents, the child, extended family, and the larger society all playing a role.

Some writers have started wishing "happy mother's day" to men, especially those with the courage and stamina to take on the critically important, early-childhood parenting that remains a bastion of feminine influences and expectations.  Most mothers do not have the police called on them when they sit on a park bench supervising their child's play, for example.  Fathers, uncles, aunts, in-laws, grandparents, and friendly neighbors who participate in raising healthy children, alongside those iconic mothers young and old, create a richer life for the family and our future.

Keep it up.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Grandmothers' Secret Lives (Moms part 3 of 4)

When I say "grandma," what comes to mind?

Extra-emphatic smile lines and grey hair?  The world's best babysitter, baking cookies, knitting booties, tending colic?  "You drive like a grandma," implying excessive caution, or perhaps the terror of failing eyesight and reflexes?
A few people will have specific memories of meddling mentors, mother surrogates, or creative elders sweeping in like a fairy godmother.

I do have vivid memories of knitting and sewing projects with both my grandmothers, both for fun, and for events like weddings and school plays.

I also have is something that many people my age didn't.  Our hallway wall sported portraits of my grandmother Mary in a lab coat, my great-grandmother with a superb horse.  Grandma Enid's name once listed at #6 on the top-ten list for welding yardage in her Swan Island ship-yard.

Seeing those examples before I was old enough to read meant that I grew up without certain mental barriers, with a wider field to imagine my own future.

There was no sense that women couldn't, or shouldn't, or weren't capable, of ANYTHING.  The unspoken assumptions that stopped many friends from considering a career in the sciences, or the trades, didn't seem to affect me in the same way.

The lab coat didn't stop GrandMary from being elegant when she wanted to be, either.
This image first appeared on my brother's blog,
in his 2016 post entitled "Lady Science."
The other thing I remember about that hallway is that while Grandmary looks attentively elegant in her pearls, the expression is almost bored compared with the lab picture.  In her lab coat, she is not looking at the camera - she is handling some test tubes in a rack, and smiling to herself.

The intrinsic pleasure of challenging work, done well, seems like a critical value to absorb in childhood (or as soon as possible thereafter).

I don't have a photo of Grandma Enid in her welding gear, but I have vivid mental pictures from her stories.  Stunts like driving off a feckless teen admirer by shocking him with her welding stinger, if possible while he was standing in a puddle; racing across the logs in the parking lot for the carpool home; swapping jobs with some of the bigger welders and squeezing into interior spaces that were more accessible to her small frame, until the supervisors insisted that everyone do their fair share of all types of assignments. 

Her talent for writing great stories made all her other careers come alive: being a 19-year-old high-production welder. A gifted seamstress whose family managed to publish her wedding banns on 2 weeks' notice, compelling her to come up with a wedding dress in the middle of what she thought was a normal 2-week visit home.  Being a student of home architecture and a resourceful homemaker (she had to be, raising 4 children in 27 different homes while Grandpa's career on hydropower plants took them all over the Western USA).
She even wrote evocatively about the embarrassment of being a rural cousin bathing in a bucket during the Dust Bowl (it wiped out their indoor plumbing when the well filled with mud), and about the hallmarks of widowhood.

Through all the stories, there run threads of humor, resilience, and the pluck to make the best of any situation.  It was my privilege to spend a couple of Grandma Enid's final years in close contact, as a part-time caregiver, and she is one of the most intimate ancestors in my personal pantheon.

Mycology, welding, and throwing convention to the winds.  My great-grandmother Nan was known for bypassing the hounds on a fox-hunt, and for starting a successful business after the family fortunes tanked in 1929.  My great-great-grandmother accompanied her missionary husband to the Dakotas, figured out how to pluck chickens in kid opera gloves, and walked through a blizzard to give birth to her first child.

My lady ancestors always set their own definition for "ladylike."

My forefathers had their own creative quirks, but that's a story for another time.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Thank You, Mom (Part 2 of 4)

This is for my first-and-always mother, Eleanor. 

I have plenty of second-hand anecdotes and fragments of my early life, including snow bunnies and snow dolphins, mountain walks identifying iconic Northwest plants, and little sailboats made of Tupperware with clay mast-steps and leaf or paper sails in the rare California rains.

The earliest memory that I clearly recall is her absence.

While she was giving birth to my next sister, at home, I was sent to the neighbors across the way for the night.  It may have been my first night away from home (surely at 2 years old, there would not have been many sleep-overs yet? Unless you count being born, myself, in a hospital).

I know this is my first memory, not my mother's, because I remember something she never knew: not fear, nor just separation or strangeness, but CANDY.

These well-intentioned neighbors had an ENORMOUS jar of COLORFUL candy - I believe it was something like Jelly Bellies.  Throughout the night, I seem to remember being allowed to choose one more candy from the jar a COUNTLESS number of times.  Countless as only unforseen abundance can be to a pre-literate child - a candy jar taller than oneself, like a magical apparition to a child accustomed to firm, healthful, and thrifty limits.

I don't know if I actually fell asleep.  But regardless of the fussing and screaming that I'm sure they put up with, they would probably be pleased to know that the glow of hindsight they are remembered for their kindness and generosity (with CANDY!).

In later years, I have given up sugar and candy.  And I have discovered and begun appreciate a number of things about my mother that were not obvious to a child's perspective.  

A few highlights that I've been appreciating lately:

Brilliance: anyone who knows my mother will tell you she's highly intelligent.  This intelligence lends itself to practical problem-solving, prudent planning, and an endless creative study of the world.

My mother is an avid student of languages, literature, and education in its original Greek sense: how to draw forth the best in people.

I had the luxury of being raised by an expert in child development and adolescent psychology, and later getting to "talk shop" around the table.

I think she would have been a darn good natural mother without all that the extra book work, but the combination of practice and theory made her both an excellent teacher and an excellent mother.

Although I'm sure I was occasionally sullen, I feel like I somehow missed my "rebel" phase due in part to her savvy and respectful handling of potential discord.  Somehow it got into my head as early as 16 that my privileges came with responsibilities, and it would be... ill mannered? dishonorable? disloyal? to sneak out without permission after being trusted with the car keys and a room near the back door.  I remember shocking my cousins at a lakeside vacation by letting my aunt know we were going for a midnight swim.  It hadn't occurred to me that they would NOT inform their guardians about such things, or have their consent; and it hadn't occurred to them that I would need to be told not to "tell."

So many families seem to have a merry war between the generations; but somehow I felt like my mom and I were always on the same side.

In addition to speaking three or four languages well enough to be certified to teach them at the high school level, my mother routinely picks up another language, either for teaching, or for travel.  After taking her translation abilities for granted in childhood, I didn't study these languages with her beyond a few months' dabbling. To my chagrin, at 22 years old, I finally realized I might one day want to travel without my mother along as a translator. 

My mother also studied how to bring out the best in herself: to find a peaceful center from which to ride out life's troubles.  God knows there were many hurts, and I know more of them now, despite both my parents' relative success in shielding us from them early on.  I remember her practising stretches from aikido class, and showing me how to find lines of force, or do rolls on the living room carpet.  She taught me a number of meditation and comfort techniques that I still use today: massage or back-scratches, melting oneself from the toes all the way up to the head, imagining one's 'house of the soul', poetry and prayers, counting one's blessings.

My mother was young, and has always remained beautiful.  I was born when she was 21 years old.  It's strange to think of myself as "older than my mother," though of course in another sense that will never happen.  But now that 21-year-olds seem young to me, I notice a number of remarkable ways my mother was mature for her age.
- the courage to set her own path: perhaps not surprising in a child whose family marched her up the glacier-peaked Cascades at age 12, she knew in her teens that she wanted both a career and a family, and undertook both with great success.  When she married my Catholic father, the bishops had their hands full dickering over her conversion.  She always held authorities to a higher standard of integrity, with the same gentle firmness with which she confessed her "disappointment" in our childish ill deeds.
- the grace to be an excellent mother, and to accept help from others, after her own parents' untimely deaths.  Her father died suddenly when she was 13; her mother died at 59 before my brother was born.  Even before Grandmary passed away, my mother was on firmly friendly terms with my father's mother Enid, and I remember her later treating her as "Mom," a mentor and confidante.  They remained steadfast friends, if a bit more circumspect, even after my parent's divorce 24 years later. 
- the brilliance and perseverance to complete a Stanford bachelor's degree in 3 years, and follow up with a Masters while raising 4 children;
- and the practical sensibility to fix a garden gate, mend or sew as needed, and generally apply her gifts in a spirit of generous service.

The Spider Says: But was she a "perfect" mother?  Nobody is, of course.
If I had to pick a tragic flaw in my mother, it might be her self-imposed standards of excellence.

There is no cost to tickle a happy baby; it's emotionally rewarding and politically correct.  My mother can coo at babies with the best of them, but hand her a fussy one, and not only will she take it - she will most likely change the diaper or find the pinching pin, rather than just hand it back.

Being a diaper-changer in a cooing world can get exhausting.  If she can't be at her best, with enough energy to help, my mother will withdraw for some quiet time to herself.  It's usually healthy self-preservation, unless it's not.

When my parents divorced, I realized that I could not remember hearing them fight or argue through most of my childhood.  And I suddenly realized that might not be such a good thing as I had imagined it to be.  Maybe someone had tacitly turned a blind eye, or given up on some things, somewhere.  Maybe some of those things were important enough to fight for.

I remember actively seeking out other families who could indulge in a good loud fight without threatening their relationship, to see how they did it.  (They did it in various ways, not necessarily any healthier than my parent's intense "discussions." But I did learn there are ways to fight fair, and am gradually learning to practice them in my own marriage.)

I'm grateful to have absorbed the practice of lifelong learning, of delight in words and ideas, and the pragmatism to cope with whatever life throws at you (while doing your best to provide fairness and decency for others).

And I'm extremely grateful that my own parents are still around for weekly phone chats and visits, so that I can enjoy the beloved sound of my mother's voice, or the imprompetu intimacy of a walk in the rain.

So happy Mother's Day, Mom. 
A virtual walk in the woods, with May flowers, especially for you.