the true role of a mother

One of my favorite books is Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells (most of you probably recognize it from the movie with Sandra Bullock that came out in 2002.  While I also love the movie, and thought it was a fantastic adaptation, they missed one key aspect which I found to be as important as it is mysterious: the way Siddalee idolizes her mother, Vivianne.

Vivi and Sidda during their reconciliation in “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”

Now Vivi, while obviously loving her children, was an incredibly selfish woman, and most likely would have done best without having had them in the first place.  This is partially due to the loss of the love of her life, Jack Whitman (Teensy’s brother), during World War II when Vivi was an adolescent.  Losing a love like that in such a horrible way would make anyone turn inward and only show darkness to the world.  But because it was 1950’s-60’s America, she was still expected to marry and be the perfect wife and cook.  So though Shep Walker loved his wife dearly, and though Jack’s death was no fault of his, Vivi came to resent him, and at times, the children they had together.

Sidda, the eldest, worshipped Vivi.  She wanted to be just like her mother, and thought that all of the “vivi-” words in the dictionary were coined specifically for her mother’s existence (in fact, I seem to remember a part in the book when Sidda proudly spouted this childish belief to a friend at school, who told her it wasn’t true, and promptly got in a fight over it, she believed it that deeply).  The one term she couldn’t understand was “vivisection,” and it frightened her that such a thing could be named after her mother, so she asked Vivi about her relationship to vivisection, to which she replied, years later:

“Do you remember how horrified you were as a little girl when you found the word ‘vivisection’ in the dictionary?  Came running to me in tears, remember?  Well, I’m not a Goddamn frog, Sidda.  You can’t figure me out.  I can’t figure me out.  It’s life, Sidda.  You don’t figure it out.  You just climb up on the beast and ride.” – Page 47

Now I don’t know if I simply have a lot in common with Siddalee, or if every little girl goes through this phase, but I worshipped my mother, too.  I wanted to be just like Mumma.  She was smart and funny, and even though I don’t think she knew it, she was (and still is) absolutely beautiful.

Her skin was always dark, dark.  I never understood how a white person could get so dark, but in the summer, she looked so out-of-place in Maine, where the only tans people got were from working outside all day.  But Mumma worshipped the sun.  As much as Vivianne was the Moon Lady’s daughter, my mother was the daughter of the sun.  To this day, I really can’t understand why she ever left California.

That was another thing about Mumma, she had been everywhere.  I think that was part of the reason I grew up to join the Navy, I wanted to see the world, like my mother.  I just wanted to be her.

She had a million friends, most of which she would meet down at the Readfield Beach with kids in tow, and we would all swim in the lake and hunt crayfish, dig up clay for sculpting on the little docks, and when we were old enough, we would swim out to the big floating dock with all the “big kids” and try to act like we belonged there.  My brother was always with me, he would play “shark,” grab my foot underwater and scare me, and when we got into splashing fights, he would surrender by showing the white bottom of his foot (I remember one time when he stepped on half of a clam shell and got a nasty cut on that soft white arch, and I was scared by the way the blood turned the water red).  Only once, the whole day we were at the beach, would my mother go in the water, and that was to swim the perimeter of the swimming area, marked off with orange buoys.  When Nick was old enough, he would swim with her, and they would race around the swimming area with long, sure strokes and powerful kicks (Mumma always said Nick and I inherited her “soccer thighs,” but her legs were beautiful).  I would watch from the beach or in the shallow part and just stare, wishing so badly that I was big enough to swim with them, jealous of my big brother and the fact that he had known my mother longer, knew her better.

I was terribly jealous of Nick.  He was older, and therefore better at everything, which was especially hard because there was no competition: I was more than 6 1/2 years younger than he.  We never even went to the same school, though there was at least one year when we rode the bus together; and while I tried to act tough and cool, I was terrified, all I wanted was to sit next to my brother and be safe with all those “big kids” all loud and rowdy.  But all Nick wanted to do was get away from me.  He would sit down, and I would sit next to him, so he would get up and move, and I would follow him that way until the bus had to leave, and I was stuck all by myself.

It seems like I was usually alone.  It still seems that way.  I don’t have my mother’s way with people.  My expectations of my friends are just as high as my own expectations, and no one seems to be able to take it for very long, though it certainly isn’t their fault.  I had a few friends, but I was never anyone’s best friend.  The two that came to my house most often came for the horse barn, I now know.  My mother told me this when I was older, and it crushed me.  No one wants to hear that their company is only appreciated for the things they have.  Mumma never had that problem.  She was always the life of the party, and she was the best hostess.  She wouldn’t rest until she knew everyone had everything they needed, and then she would join in enthusiastic, raucous conversations that always left people rolling with laughter.

The stories she had!  Her father breaking his shovel on the igloo she and her brother built for an entire winter, winning her first dog at a fair, her first job cleaning coffee urns, when she thought “scratch” was an actual ingredient and her roommate had to teach her to cook, living in Canoga Park (when I found out that’s where The Runaways got started, I flipped out, I was so excited), her pregnancy with Nick (in bikinis until 9 months), her pregnancy with me (gained almost 60 pounds and couldn’t reach the keys on the register at Mario’s).  I love listening to my mother’s stories, I still hear a new one from time to time, and the old ones are still just as amazing to me.  I wish my mother would write a book.  If I thought she would sit still long enough to give an interview, I would write it myself.

Everything about my mother is greater than I.  She’s just too big, not physically, God no, she’s a tiny little thing, I’m always frightened of hurting her when I go to hug her.  No, her personality is just too big.  It was impossible for me to grow in her shadow, so I would try my darndest to reach the light, usually to a glare, or, on occasions when I tried too hard, a swift crack in the mouth.  It wasn’t my fault, but neither was it hers.  It’s just too hard to be a baby sapling in the shade of a massive Redwood, I just couldn’t keep up.  Nothing I did was special, either because Nick did it first, or because it just simply wasn’t special to begin with.  I know my mother loved me (loves me), but sometimes I look back and sigh at the amount of energy I expended trying to get her attention.  I think that’s why I try too hard now, and why I’m so hard on myself.  And why I get hurt so easily.  I think my baby sapling wounds are too deep, and refuse to heal.  I don’t know if it’s because I needed more attention than the average child, or if it was because my mother couldn’t spare the attention of the average mother, but I always wanted more.  I would have followed my mother anywhere, I just wanted to be in that warm glow that she always had, even on her bad days, when she had no idea.

My mother’s favorite color is orange, but her color, her actual color, is a warm yellow, just before it gets to orange.  My mother is the color of the sun.  The sun on the cool waters of the beach.  We live on opposite sides of the country now, but we talk weekly on the phone, sometimes for hours.  I miss my Mumma terribly, but I know that if I ever need to feel her hand on my cheek, I have only to drive down to the beach on a sunny day, and feel the dichotomy of the sun and the sea breeze on my face, and I know she’s there.

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