March is Women’s History Month (in the US).
I’m posting articles featuring important women.
I’ve been missing her a lot lately. This should be the time of my life when we can finally see eye-to-eye. When I apologize for the bullshit I put her through and she sits back and laughs. But it isn’t.
My mother went back to work when I was three months old. It was, she always told me, the hardest decision she ever had to make. She left me with, as she said, “a stranger” (but who, I can only assume, had looked after and not murdered or kidnapped many children) and wept the entire way to school. Most women then gave up their careers and jobs when they had children, but my mum chose to do both. She took a lot of crap for that decision, too.
In going through old photographs to find some of my mum, I saw so many where she held my hand. Where she cradled me on her lap. Where we were both smiling, and I understand where my smiles came from.
She valued her education, and she cherished her ability to and decision to have a professional career. She was damned good at it, too. She was one of the first women named to provincial educational committees, and she was one of the youngest people there. My mother was never content to be a ‘token woman’, and so she threw herself into her teaching and her committee work. She was also the primary caregiver at home. Which isn’t to say Dad didn’t contribute, but that of the two of them, Dad was the one who played rec hockey and coached team sports and went on ski trips.
Mum was a really good teacher. She had a way with kids – difficult kids. She loved teenagers, for Christ’s sake, and they respected her. I think that’s part of why I’ve felt her absence so keenly the past couple of years – this is just when she would be enjoying the shit out of our kids, and when they would understand how really wonderful she was. What a wicked, filthy sense of humour she had; how she was quick-witted and could turn a phrase faster than a french chef flips crêpes. She would tell them stories about me, about my father, that would make us seem more human, more…like them. She would somehow be able to confirm that their places in the world were just beginning to be apparent, and that they are just starting to understand how truly magical the world is and how fortunate they are to be a part of it, even when things are shitty.
She taught me to value all people, that no person is better than any other person (even if she didn’t always live by this rule). She taught me to love books – she taught me to read. She taught me that the most important asset I have is my brain, and that if I used it, I would be unstoppable. She taught me the value of an education, the necessity for compassion, and to never stop playing – to always embrace the best things about youth (vivacity, joy, and creativity) and the best things about maturity (perspective, wisdom, and direction) and to find the perfect balance of both. She taught me that women deserve to be equal to men; that no gender is more entitled than any other, and that equality doesn’t mean “the same”. She taught me that to make a better world, you had first to start from a place where everyone has the same opportunities. This, of course, is what “privilege” means – when we do not, from birth, have the same opportunities.
But here’s the mystery about how she did all that – the only time I ever remember her “telling me” something (I mean, other than “clean your room – it smells like the British House of Lords in there”) was when I came home from Kindergarten and asked her why my friend’s parents wouldn’t let her play with my other friends. (If you’ve been following the Women’s History Month, you’ll know the beginning of this story already.) We lived in northern Saskatchewan, a few blocks from the Student Residence (a government-run residence for northern Aboriginal students during the school term), and many of my friends were Aboriginal. It was a white girl’s family who wouldn’t let her play with the Indian girls. (And in all irony, my ‘white girl’ friend was from a Métis family.)
My mother sat down with me on the couch and said, “how would you feel if her parents said she couldn’t play with you because you have blonde hair?”
And I said that was silly.
She said, “what about if they said you were dirty because you had green eyes?”
I said that was even sillier. Because kids can tell when things are just plain ridiculous.
“Your friend’s parents don’t want her playing with your other friends because your other friends are Aboriginal, and your friend’s parents think that means they should only stay with their own people.”
I said, “but aren’t we all the same people?”
Mum said, “yes, we are. But some folks can’t see beyond what makes us unique to what makes us all the same.”
I didn’t understand. I still don’t really understand things like sexism and racism and homophobia and classism and relig…um…ism…and …let’s just say bigotry. I don’t, on a fundamental level, understand how we can choose to set ourselves apart from others because of the colour of our skin or the place our ancestors came from or the amount of money we make or whether we believe in God or Allah or nothing. I just. Don’t. Get it.
She said, “it doesn’t make sense, Jillian. It didn’t make sense 40 years ago [in WWII]; it didn’t make sense when Dutch and the English kidnapped African people and enslaved them 200 years ago, and it doesn’t make sense now. It doesn’t make sense because it’s wrong. It always was wrong, and it will always be wrong. We are all the same.”
That’s probably the most important thing I ever learned – that we all start out the same and that we all end up the same.
When I think about how much we lost when she died, and how my children will never know all of the wonderful things about her, it’s all I can do sometimes to keep going. Don’t get me wrong. She had faults. Oh Lord, she had faults. But somehow now, they don’t seem that bad. I guess it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
If any one woman has made me realize the importance of women, and the importance of humanity, it is my mother. For all her faults, she was a good person, an inspiring person. She was cherished, admired, vilified, discriminated against, and most of all, she is very, very dearly missed. I miss her fiercely. I miss her passionately. I miss her so hard my throat aches and my hands shake. Even though she taught me to never need anyone, I will always need her.