Tag Archives: memoir

Going Home

North Cascades Loop

North Cascades Loop

This I wasn’t expecting: a homeless man on the shoulder of the North Cascades Highway, so settled that his encampment included a small Weber barbecue. But there he was in Marblemount, the last place you can get gas before making the push over Washington Pass and descending into Eastern Washington.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I had just slowed down to 25 MPH, mindful of the ticket I got the last time I exceeded the speed limit on a country road in Washington. Ahead of me on the gravel shoulder was what I can only describe as a contraption: a metal framed cart on wheels piled high with stuff. As I pulled past the cart, I saw what lay beyond it: a container perhaps six feet long and four feet high, covered with a grey plastic tarp, and in front of it, a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, his wiry gray beard extending down the front of his jacket.

Then he was behind me. I’d rounded the corner but couldn’t get the image out of my head. Was he a local who’d come on hard times? With only 200 people in the whole town, why wasn’t someone helping him? Had he rejected help, preferring to live outdoors? Or was he a stranger who’d been dropped there by some trucker, who then decided not to move on? Should I stop and ask?

I didn’t. By then I was a mile down the road, anxious to begin the climb into “the American Alps.” The old man (who for all I know was my age) was someone else’s problem.

I’ve read about the tent encampments under the freeway in Seattle. Homeless activists in Sacramento have been protesting a no-camping ordinance. But somehow I expected the North Cascades Highway to live up to the legend I’d built around it.

My parents sometimes took this route when we visited my grandmother in Yakima, my aunt and uncle in Wenatchee, or my mother’s best friend in Colville. Taking Highway 20 added time to the trip, but my mother turned it into a seasonal pilgrimage — stopping to cut vibrantly-colored branches for her fall arrangements, or to harvest mounds of wild blue elderberries, plump with juice, to make into jelly.

At first, driving east on the North Cascades Highway, I’d seen what I’d expected: clapboard houses dwarfed by candy-colored rhododendrons, jade colored rivers sliding past moss-covered railings, white dogwood blooms on branches reaching as if for alms, grey exhalations of mist drifting up tall peaks. My past was intact.

Before long I noticed things that hadn’t been there in the 70s. The modern Armed Forces Career Center occupies choice real estate in Burlington. A few miles along, parked in the driveway of a farm, is a semi-trailer wrapped with an image of three silhouetted soldiers next to the legend, “Never forget.” When my father last drove through, with his military identification sticker, no gas station attendant would ever have told him, “Thank you for serving.”

The drive-through espresso shacks are new, along with the Indian casinos and chainsaw-carved statuaries. (Bigfoot and eagles seem to be popular.) And — this being Washington — prominent green crosses glow next to dispensaries with names like the Skagit Valley Collective and the Marijuana Mercantile.

But the Douglas firs and red cedars and white dogwoods and purple lilacs and monster rhododendrons and mom-and-pop donut shops and pasturing sheep and black cows and sleek horses and blossoming blackberries and galloping rivers and proud peaks are still here. So I embroider them into my mental tapestry: my father in the front seat, piloting; my mother next to him, arm resting on the door, eyes scanning for wildflowers or birds; me in the back, the skin of my thighs stuck to the vinyl below my favorite cutoffs, the ones with the suede side laces and butterfly applique on the back pocket.

For more information about the North Cascades Loop click here.


Filed under Uncategorized

Memoir and Missed Connections


Perhaps Pasha the cat noticed Peter Trachtenberg’s “Another Insane Devotion”


We’ve all experienced it, that feeling of “what if” or “if only.” I just never expected it would apply to my reading life. I’ll admit that I never gave memoir a chance, not really, until I tried to write one.

I’m five months away from completing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, something I never imagined. Though I once thought I would finish the book I’m writing about my relationship with my father by this June (such a special snowflake!*), I now know that’s not true. It’s going to take time to make it sing. But in the course of being absolutely, completely focused on my goal — a lifelong habit, and maybe a bad one — I accidentally fell in love, thanks to amazing reading matchmakers including authors Dinah Lenney, Joan Wickersham and Peter Trachtenberg (as well as my classmates).

Read 100 books, write one, indeed.

The best memoirs invite the reader into the writer’s world through fine observations of character and place and situation. They do so economically, by selecting just-right details that stick in the reader’s imagination. They elevate the mundane, pull the extreme within reach. They avoid sappiness. Sometimes, not always, the reader experiences that smack-to-the-head moment of recognition. Memoirs are stories.

Can’t the same be said of novels? Well, yes, but memoirs are written by real people, a veracity that gives them added dimension. I’m not suggesting that the memoirist isn’t a character; no, no, the narrator is a construction. The best tour guides show us enough of their doubt and wonder, the workings of their minds, for us to trust them. As Adam Gopnik put it last week in The New Yorker, “We like an author who gives it to us straight, no matter how fancy his prose style may be.” Writing about two re-released memoirs by Henry James, he continued: “…(H)is purpose in his memoirs is touchingly transparent: to say how the big moments of his life felt exactly as they happened. Each page is lit up by the bright light of memory, then is crumpled by the aging hand of scruple, only to be smoothed out again by the comfort of fine old feelings: It looked like this! Did it really look like this? Well, it sure felt like this while I was looking. The simple end of offering a recreation of one life’s moments remains, if guarded by enough ironic intelligence, perfectly attainable.”

I’ve got some distance to go to achieve “ironic intelligence,” not to mention illumination and sense-making of my story.

But here’s a quote that makes me feel slightly more heartened, from Patricia Hampl, one of my heroes: “Because everyone has a memoir, we all have a stake in how such stories are told. For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something — make something — with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.” (from “Memory and Imagination,” an essay in, I Could Tell You Stories)

I know I’m a far better writer now than when I began my MFA. I know I have some distance to go. I don’t know if I’ll get “there,” wherever the hell “there” is. But this is as certain as the coffee table under my feet: I’ll keep reading, and this time I won’t ignore nonfiction, especially memoir.

For great reviews of nonfiction books, check out the Los Angeles Review of Books nonfiction section (LARB, by the way, is a nonprofit). As an example, I am salivating to read The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, written up here. And for one of the best books, ever, about reading and writing, I recommend Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It will change the way you read and maybe your life.

Gulp. Here’s a list of memoirs that have blown the top of my head off since entering my MFA program:

Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad

Mary Carr’s Liar’s Club

Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father

Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave

Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face

Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter

Dinah Lenney’s The Object Parade

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk

Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping

Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion (plus: cats!)

Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index


*Credit here to Charles Bock who read from his soon-to-be-released novel, Alice & Oliver and commented on the mistaken belief of many MFA’ers that they will finish their book by the time they graduate.







Filed under Uncategorized

My Grandmother’s Legacy of Suffering

Quip in The Yakima Republic, 1887

Quip in The Yakima Republic, 1887

I’ve come to realize my grandmother had an enormous impact on my life, though not in the way you’d expect. Born in 1885, Jessie Harrison Snively Campbell was raised to promulgate the standards of her patrician ancestors, who traced their footprint in the New World back to the 1600s. Late in his life, my father admitted my grandmother didn’t approve of me. I was too outspoken and (thus) headed for trouble.

I’ve spent the week sleuthing about my grandmother, background for a memoir I’m writing about my father. In my self-indulgent fantasy, I wanted to demonstrate that she believed in the value of women in the same way that I do: that they are just as intelligent, have at least as much to offer society as men; that they have the right to fulfill their ambitions, to being heard, to earning a wage commensurate with their talents. In other words, I was examining my grandmother’s life through a feminist lens.

When I discovered that my grandmother’s mother, Elizabeth Harrison Martin Snively, helped found the Women’s Club of Yakima in the late nineteenth century, I thought I was on to something. Women’s clubs were one of the primary tactics used by the suffrage movement, and the Yakima club was affiliated with the Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs, which played an important role in the movement. In 1919, the year that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved, Yakima’s women’s club presented a program — “history in the making” — on Elizabeth B. Phelps, who had served as vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association when it was founded.

In my great grandmother’s 1937 obituary, it was noted that the Yakima women’s club started as an afternoon card club, but it was decided that women could play cards in the evening and use the meetings to “increase their knowledge.” Hmmm. Hardly the stuff of firebrands.

The West did play a critical role in securing the vote for women. In 1910, Washington was the first state in 14 years to modify its state constitution to give women the vote. That momentum propelled the movement in Oregon and then California.

In 1910, my grandmother was 25 and, for another year, still living under her father’s roof. Her father, a prominent attorney, had been the Democratic candidate for governor in 1892. Suffrage must have been discussed at home, but to what extent did my grandmother have an opinion or voice it?

Five days before the election, the Yakima Morning Herald quoted a prominent suffragist as saying, “The way men vote next Tuesday on this matter will depend largely on the light in which they regard their wives. If they consider the women they have married fairly intelligent human beings, capable of thinking for themselves on matters of general interest and welfare, if in a word, they consider them helpmates, equally responsibly with themselves for the success of the homelife and the family prosperity, they will vote ‘yes’ and no question about it.”

The day after the election, November 9, 1910, the Yakima Morning Herald trumpeted election results across the top of the page:

Democrats Gain Control of Five States



The “local option” referred to the prohibition of alcohol.

The lead story began:

“What have you heard?”

“The entire east has gone democratic.”

“To h__l with the entire east. Is she wet or dry here?”

And there is the story of the election day interest in North Yakima Tuesday.

The same paper carried its first story about voting rights four days after the election:


To Demonstrate That Confidence Shown in Them by Men Is Not Misplaced


Activity in Legislation Will Probably Work Itself Out Along Lines Affecting Welfare of Children and Home

Here, finally, were the results: the change to the state constitution was approved by a two-to-one margin, a landslide.

This was what caught my eye:

“There had been little suffrage agitation here, practically none of the women’s organizations… coming out pronouncedly for it, though there were individual suffragists in their ranks… [M]ore men voted for suffrage than against; this, too, when in many cases the men asked their wives how they would vote and were told to vote against it.”

I could imagine my great grandmother and grandmother among the women protesting that women needn’t vote.

I grew more offended as I read on:

“…[T]he vote on the suffrage amendment reflects greater credit on the fair-mindedness of the men than on the public spirit of the women. At one or two club meetings held since the returns were in, it was hard to discover whether the women were pleased or not. There is still talk, and among intelligent women, too, of the duty of the home, and the unwomanliness of going to the polling places.”

And then came the veiled threat:

“If the women go to extremes of impractical reform, the men will soon feel that the confidence was misplaced. If they take the matter rationally and quietly, making their points slowly and intelligently, they will not only get what they are after, but the admiration and support of their fellow voters as well. In matters pertaining to the welfare of the children and the home, in measures for the sanitation and beautifying of the cities, and in the cleanliness and freedom from adulteration of the food supply, they are pretty sure to meet little opposition, and these are the lines along which the women will naturally work. It isn’t likely they will be out after the offices.”

As long as women remained obsequious, stuck to “women’s issues,” and didn’t steal opportunities for public office from men, things would be dandy.

So why do I credit my grandmother for shaping my life? My grandmother stayed with my grandfather for over four decades before she finally divorced him. From the very beginning of their marriage, he maintained a second household with his mistress. He bullied his sons and my grandmother. According to my cousin, my uncle begged her to leave. Divorce wasn’t impossible even when she married; four were reported in the paper on her wedding day. In 1910, one woman won the “immense verdict” of $16,000 against her in-laws for alienation of her former husband’s affections. The plaintiff alleged they turned her husband against her.

I don’t know if my father ever spoke to his mother directly about her marital situation. What I do know is what he did when raising his own daughter. He made sure I had marketable job skills so that I would never be trapped in a loveless marriage.

The unhappy couple in 1953

The unhappy couple in 1953

Copies of The Yakima Republic/Daily Republic, the Yakima Morning Herald and The Yakima Democrat were accessed on September 15, 2015, at the Washington State Library in Tumwater, Washington.


Filed under Family history, Uncategorized

Memory and Moment

What makes us remember one particular moment out of the millions that raced past? I should remember the moment I was told my father had a serious heart attack. I was five, and old enough to understand. But so many of my early memories are single images, unconnected to the moments that preceded them and those that followed: looking through the pink chiffon of my mother’s evening dress, sucking a sugary droplet from a honeysuckle blossom, watching the tall swells through a porthole on an ocean crossing.

Most of the moments I remember aren’t decisive instants, neither augur nor anchor. From them I imagine: I was a scaredy-cat; I was a whiner; I was a tomboy. I imagine my father, too. He’s been dead for over two years. When I write, I meet him again for the first time.

No one can confirm who my father was. The people who might have had better answers — his brothers, his friends, his Marine Corps brothers, my mother — are all dead. Even if they were alive and could return to the periods that escape me, I’m not sure their account would be closer to the truth. Not even my brothers can confirm or deny my account because their relationship was son to father. I’m the only one who knew my father as I did.

The images are pushpins that hold up my stories. The story of how I wanted to feel close to him. The story of how I did. They’re not much, but maybe they’re enough.



Filed under Uncategorized

With Gratitude: Seeing Red


All summer and fall, I’ve been trying to write about my mother, who died in 1999. I thought I was at peace with her when she died. I had been one of her hospice caregivers during the months she struggled for breath, and I was with her at the moment of her passing. At one point, she even made a speech in which she said everything I ever hoped she would say to me. My mother and I had no unfinished business, or so I thought.

But every time I went to write about her, I remembered a particular instance in which she threw underhanded, called me a name, apologized later. It became my personal whack-a-mole. No matter what I was writing about — my childhood, my father, my husband, my own children up the incident popped. Yes, her comment was mean. But why skewer her? If she were alive, we could have a good fight about it, a fair fight. That one scene did not a relationship make. There were hundreds of other scenes — thousands — I could have brought to mind, but I was stuck. The words would not come.  Until I opened the box with the Chinese brocade.

I don’t know what possessed me to go spelunking in my attic last week, but I felt compelled to pull out some of the stuff I have squirreled away in nooks and crannies. I’ve inherited some stuff, and collected other bits when my father moved out of his house in 2003. On this particular day I went looking for the bins I stored among dusty luggage, abandoned briefcases and boxes of seldom-used holiday decorations. The last time I opened one, I think, was when one of my children mined it for show-and-tell. Both of my children are out of college now, so that had to be long ago, at least a dozen years back.

Through the translucent side of the top bin, the contents looked like layers, vanilla except for a ribbon of red. What could possibly be so unabashedly red? I removed the packing tape, so old it it cracked rather than peeled, to discover what was on top. Oh, it’s you, I thought, as I extracted the remnant of silk. Left over from the cheongsam my mother had made when we lived in Hawaii, I greeted it like a long lost friend. It’s red without the pop of orange, red without a calming hint of blue: red for blood, red for lust, red for love. It’s red as in red-white-and-blue for the nation’s birthday, which my mother conscripted into a celebration of her own every July 3rd.

When I touched the fabric, still as vibrant as it was 50 years ago, I could see my mother laughing, regaling the family with the story of how she had pointed to where the slit should end, mid-thigh, and how the seamstress kept gesturing to a spot a foot lower and shaking her head: “not Chinese lady.” I remembered my mother showing off the finished product, her curves straining against the thick brocade, her thigh peeking forth a full three inches above the knee. My mother had movie star legs and feet so lovely they landed her a college job modeling shoes at I. Magnin, the nicest store in Seattle. Did the shoe models parade down a runway curtained like a puppet stage, I used to wonder, so that only the calves and ankles showed? My grandfather, who knew more than he should have about a nicely turned leg, reportedly told my father upon meeting her, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.” She was never traditionally pretty — exotic, yes, with the olive skin of the Black Irish, cheekbones like Mt. Rushmore, pillowy lips and dark brown eyes that snapped beneath lids that almost lacked folds. An interesting face, a strong face, but not one that could precisely be called pretty.  Her hair, in the last ten years before her death, was more gray than brown but what she lamented was the increase in shoe size that followed the birth of five children. The beautiful shoes she’d received in exchange for modeling — the pumps and the sling backs and the snappy navy Spectators — all had to be given away.

I wrote, “Oh, it’s you,” because my mother felt more fully present than she had in years. Seeing the silk made me want to laugh and yell red, red, red, red, red! God, my mother loved red, and red loved her back. My father had a bouquet of Shakespearian sonnets he would offer up to her — or use to extol her after her death — but my favorite was Sonnet 130 with its dripping irony: “…I have seen roses damasked, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks.” I can see him at the dining room table, looking at my mother, smiling a half smile as his baritone voice marked off the meter, ending with, “…I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.”

Once I had touched the silk, she seemed to be woven into everything. Below the red silk was a pink bed jacket that had been my grandmother’s but it was my mother who told me about it. Now that I think about it, that brief exchange was just so my mother. I know she missed her mother, who lived with us for many years — she was a big help with the children — but I don’t think she kept the old lingerie for its utility. So far as I know, she never used it. I think she kept it for its sentimental value, for the same reason that I cannot purge it. I thought of her again when, at the bottom of the bin, I saw a little christening robe with an embroidered wooly kitten. I’m almost certain it was made for my sister.

My sister, Madeline Elizabeth, was born in 1950 and died on October 22, 1953, two days before my father’s birthday. They called her Midge. She was my parents’ third child, planned to be their last. At thirty-two, my mother had her daughter.

Sometime around Midge’s first birthday, my parents noticed that she was tired and listless, not the energetic little girl she’d been. My father’s brother, a doctor who specialized in blood cancers, came down from Boston to examine her. He took a sample of bone marrow from her hip and diagnosed leukemia. For almost three years, my uncle treated her with an experimental drug. During Midge’s last remission, the family vacationed on the Northeastern shore. In one picture, she held my father’s hand, looking shy. Even though she was not yet four, she wore size 6 clothing due to the weight gain that was a side effect of medication. It embarrassed her, my mother told me.

Then the remission ended. The leukemia advanced rapidly, and after she was taken to the hospital, my brothers never saw her again. They weren’t allowed to say goodbye, or attend her memorial service, or visit her grave; in 1953, that’s what experts recommended. Midge’s death must have brought my parents to their knees, but my mother muscled through it. She would have done well in ancient Sparta. She had two other children to care for, then six and ten, and she had recently learned that she was expecting. Again, the experts weighed in, advising an abortion since the stress might be too much for her or the baby. This time, my parents ignored the counsel. My brother Dean was born in April 1954. I followed three years later.

I remember seeing my mother cry only once. She was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes and looking at me, looking at me but not really seeing me. I asked her why she was sad and she told me she was thinking about my sister.

After my mother died, I found a book in my mother’s bedside table that contained 24 spiritual exercises “for healing life’s hurts.” I stumbled across it again yesterday, in a cupboard, forgotten. The first thing that struck me, besides its red cover (now that she is on my mind, I see red everywhere) was her name written in pen. There is her name in her careful right-leaning cursive, the top and bottom of the “E” of Eileen curling back upon itself, the “n” swooping east in a long, straight stroke. The book’s pages are a little water logged, as if she read it in the bathroom and accidentally dropped it in water. Other than the cover, only one page of the book bears her handwriting, the third lesson, entitled “The Healing Power of Gratitude.” Here is my clue, perhaps, as to how my mother handled the losses in her life. She underlined this passage: “(S)ometimes just letting ourselves be loved can solve so many problems. When we let go and just soak up love from the Lord and others who care for us, we have a whole new power to go on again.” Next to this, in a slightly shaky hand, she wrote, “God doesn’t walk out on me — I walk out on him.”

Is this how she muscled through? By putting her faith in God? By practicing gratitude? Gratitude was a common theme in the letters we exchanged over the years. When we spoke by phone, living 800 miles apart, we often struck sparks off one another, but on paper we were forced to listen. (I say “we,” but more likely it was me who had the interrupting habit.) She almost always began with news of her church “doings,” good Episcopalian churchwoman that she was. A letter I received when I was single and working in Los Angeles was written in her classic vein. She began by noting that she was “piddling around” getting some things done, including publicity about the United Thank Offering, which she lamented was rarely used as it was intended. One was supposed to put coins in the Blue Box as a personal spiritual discipline for acknowledging the good little things that happen every day. “I admit that I frequently forget to use it but I do remember a lot of the time to say thank you, God, when I get a lovely letter such as yours which came yesterday, or Dad shows his appreciation for something — or maybe because I didn’t have a flat tire when I was in a hurry and late — this past week I have been grateful when there may have been a whole 24 hours this puppy of your brother’s didn’t dig something up in the yard — or managed to hit the papers during the night.” She ended that long train of thought paragraph by saying she just wished the timing of babysitting my brother’s dog was different so that she could get on with gardening.

Even that last bit is true to form. On the page, she just shrugs her shoulders and moves on. The dog digs. The garden will suffer. We shall overcome. I can think of dozens of examples when she seemed to take far bigger challenges in stride. When my middle brother came home from his sophomore year of college to announce that his girlfriend was pregnant, there were no recriminations. My mother just rolled with it. In my brother moved with his new wife and baby. Her anger worked the same way. She yelled, said her peace, gave as good as she got. But when the argument was over, she didn’t resurrect it. Her emotional lexicon seemed nearly devoid of those negative emotions that take their time to grow and then fester: blame, guilt, spite. She wasn’t one to let things marinate.

I inherited my mother’s ability to compartmentalize, although I’m a journeyman in comparison. I could use more of her joy, her appreciativeness, her unbridled passion. (I’m passionate, mind you, but more given to a more bridled variety.) I could do with more of her ability to forgive — obviously, if I had a hard time letting go of the one time that she threw a slur in my direction.

After she died, I typed out a list of words to describe her: proud, opinionated, funny, bold, independent, nurturing, dedicated, faithful, feminine but never frail, organized, a leader, passionate, fiery, loving.

There was nothing pastel about her.


Filed under Uncategorized

Writing In My Sleep

Bennington College

Where to begin writing. I awakened with the feeling of having dreamt this writing problem all night long. When I rose at a quarter past six, the driving refrain of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal lyrics looped in my inner ear, “Annie are you okay, are you okay Annie.”

In my dream, I began, “He died, finally. Finally. He died.”

On Friday, my first attempt at a twenty page manuscript was discussed — “workshopped” —  as part of Bennington’s graduate writing seminar. Someone asked for confirmation that my father had died. You see, I had begun my story in the middle, at the point when I had reached the limits of multi-tasking and decided to retire to care for my father. In the manuscript, I never came right out and said he died, though I had implied it.

Yes, he died. On January 12, 2013.

They tell you, in writing seminars, to begin with the end in mind. To write with a sense of the feeling that drives your compulsion to write. To understand the fundamental question you are trying to answer. Note the singular: “question.”

Why do I write? Am I really writing about my father, or about me? Why did I decide to devote seven years to caring for my father? During those seven years, how did my relationship with my father change? How did I change? What does it mean to be a father, to have a father, to lose a father? What does it mean to be a daughter? What have I lost by no longer being a daughter? Why did Dad become nicer? Would I have cared for my mother in the way I cared for Dad? Why did I take notes when my mother and father were dying?

My notebook is full of self-interrogation.

When I awakened, I had that feeling that if I went straight to my computer to write, it would be there: the perfect beginning. I had formulated the first paragraph in my sleep. And it had worked.

A half hour later, the sentences have floated apart, smoky tendrils I cannot grasp and put back where they belong.

So I’ll begin, doing the hard work of following images back to elusive memories that await me. And I’ll begin again. Somewhere.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

My Parents’ Gifts of Love

With the latest salvos in the Mommy Wars, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ push-me pull-you influence on my professional development.

When my father told me in high school that I had to take typing in case I ever had to support myself, I rolled my eyes. I thought it was stupid. I had no intention of making my living from typing.

By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to pursue the career that was my right. Women could succeed at anything they chose, if they were willing to work hard enough. Marriage or family could wait until my mid 30s — if they came at all. I had too much to do.

My mother was by no means pleased about the prospect of me pursuing a career. Work, yes. Career, no.

Tension between my mother and me surfaced as soon as I launched out on my own, following our usual pattern of escalation: explosion, “disagreeable disagreement” (as my mother put it), letters and rapprochement or at least truce.

On a telephone call home to Tacoma from Davis, California, I told Mom that I wasn’t ready to get married anytime soon although I was dating a great guy (now my husband of 31 years). Mom asserted that I was “throwing away a personal life.” The call did not end well.

I think I wrote first. She wrote a five page letter back. She explained, “There is a big difference in being work-oriented and career-oriented…. Career women were admired by my peers and sometimes even envied – but it was also expected that women would be women first and career women secondly…. But I don’t want you to think for a moment that I believe I did not have a career – I know I did have, and I am grateful to have lived at a time when being a full-time wife and mother, with all that entails, was possible….. Most parents want for their children what they feel they missed or wanted and didn’t get – I am just the opposite – I want my children to have what I have had. I really do believe, Betz, that a better state of affairs would exist in the world if mothers were home with their children…. I really have not meant to sound in any of our conversations as though I did not understand what you wanted – I really do – and I do understand what is happening with your generation. I know it is not possible – or perhaps even desirable – to live the kind of life I have lived. Though I do admit to wishing it were, but only because my own life has been one of satisfaction and fulfillment, and because I am wise enough to know that I have been singularly fortunate in having been on the receiving end of so much love…. I respect your desire for independence – that is certainly one sign of maturity – and in spite of how I may have come across to you, I surely want you to to find a job-career that will be challenging to you and which will utilize the many talents you possess…. What I hope you will find ultimately is a combination of personal and professional life. I really don’t believe you yourself will feel complete or whole unless you can function in life as a professional, but also as a woman…. It won’t be easy, when the time comes, to balance professional obligations with personal relationships – and since I can read, it obviously isn’t easy for any one, but if anyone can do it, I think you can.”

I did marry (at which Mom probably breathed a sigh of relief) and my career in marketing continued to advance.

Several years later, I phoned home on President’s Day weekend to share the good news that I’d been promoted. I stood on one side of the counter that divided our kitchen from the family room while my husband puttered away next to the sink. I could picture my parents hovering over the white speaker phone on the long formica counter in their kitchen, with the Springers, Katie and Beall, curled up underneath. Outside the window, the rhodies would be huddled close to the house as protection from the cool, wet weather. Mom would be wearing one of her thick woolen cardigans – maybe the fisherman’s knit with the Nordic buttons – and Dad would be clad in his usual winter uniform: heavy Pendleton shirt, Filson tin cloth trousers and suspenders (which Mom said made him look like a hick).

Even after four years of marriage and seven years away from Tacoma, I still missed home.

“I have some good news,” I began. Then I explained how my title had been changed from “manager” to “director” reflecting my broadened responsibilities.

My husband watched my face, smiling. Neither of my parents spoke right away. The expectant look slipped off my face as I waited. Finally, Mom blurted out, “That’s all fine, but what I want to know is when are you going to become a real woman?” By which she meant, a mother. My husband left the room when he saw my face tighten just before I started hollering. In Tacoma, I’m fairly certain that Dad did the same.

She wrote the next day: “Now to the nitty-gritty of children. Yours that is. Because I like babies – I hope you will have some, Betz. But that isn’t really any reason you should have one – or some. The only real over-riding reason for having a baby is because a particular moment is so special that there has to be an ultimate result. A moment of love so caring — so intense — that the only possible response of trying to produce a lasting memory of that time is to throw caution to the wind and trust in God and His purpose – and hope that a child of that moment of union and unity of spirit will produce a child of real love.”

Not long after, Mom must have conscripted Dad into a sit-down with me. She told me in no uncertain terms that she feared I would lose Todd if I kept on as I was — which was to say, pursuing a career. I don’t remember Dad saying anything during that conversation. There was simply no way to reconcile the world my mother grew up in with mine. She consequently watched the early years of my marriage with an impending sense of doom.

Eventually, Mom got her wish. Less than six months after the “when-are-you-going-to-become-a-real-woman” confrontation, I was pregnant. It turns out that fertility was an inherited trait.

I can’t say that I knew what I was getting myself into. Not the motherhood part, but the work-home balance part.

While I was pregnant, I was interviewed for local newspaper feature called “Women Trailblazers.” Noting my rather impressive belly (I had pregnancy-induced hypertension and had swelled to the size of an exercise ball), the reporter asked how I thought my career would change after I had the baby. I remember saying I didn’t expect anything to change. I would continue working and be a mother. Easy.

What I didn’t understand then was that attempting to have a career while being a good mother would push and pull me for the next 20 years. And that my career strategy would be to oscillate (or maybe vacillate): drive hard, succeed, cut back (with its commensurate loss of authority and/or influence), accept new challenge. Repeat three times.

Not until the end of my father’s life did I understand how he hoped to protect me from one of the worst things that he felt could befall a woman: being trapped in a marriage without an escape route. As his mother was. My father’s hopes for for me were shaped by his position as the middle child, a vantage point from which he witnessed his father’s verbal harangues and his mother’s suffering as his father departed each night for his mistress Erma’s home.

My grandfather apparently thought that he was marrying into money, knowing that my grandmother’s father was “the grand old man” of Yakima. When he learned that the family fortune had been decimated by investments in my great uncle’s failed ventures, he no longer had a reason to be pleasant. The relationship that my grandmother had been warned about continued after the marriage. At best, it was a loveless marriage. At worst, abusive.

My mother wanted to ensure that I did not lose out on love – either the love of a husband or the love of children, while my father quietly strived to make certain that I could never be trapped in a loveless marriage. What gifts.


Filed under Uncategorized