Two women, two paths.

11 05 2009

Two moments have been flickering in my heart all morning. One happened last night with my mother; the other about ten years ago with my grandmother. They tell a lot not only about them but about the paths women choose today.

First, my grandmother. But, before the moment, some background: I always tell people my grandmother was a combination of Victoria Barkley from The Big Valley and Auntie Mame. She was a true force of nature and the most driven person I’ve ever met. The kind of person who wanted to be “somebody” and, through sheer will and against long odds, succeeded. To her, life was all about appearances. And nobody looked better than Gran…or made a better career out of looking better than everyone else. She was one of Neiman’s first buyers, had a TV show, hosted Spain’s first debutante ball, etc, etc. To this day, I think of her every time I look in a mirror and never, ever would be caught dead wearing light-colored shoes after 5 p.m. for fear of some sort of divine retribution. She married three times, though I believe the only man she loved was the one she didn’t marry (he called her “The Divine Miss M” and their love affair spanned two marriages and 40 years). Gran was a tough woman, a difficult woman, but I loved her very, very much. And I’ll always cherish the gift of being her Patrick Dennis. That’s the background.

Now, the moment: One day, when she was about 80, her mind falling and her spirit weary, Gran and I were chatting on the phone. “Willo,” she said excitedly. “I heard the most marvelous thing this morning. I heard birds singing!” Now, Gran lived in Southern California–before smog made birds gasp rather than chirp. Birds sang all the time. But Gran hadn’t heard them. She’d spent her life rushing to the destination of “making it”…never pausing to savor the moments as she lived it. It wasn’t long after our conversation that her health deteriorated rapidly. For the last 13 months of her life, she laid in a bed–facing a window. Watching the birds. I think hearing their song was the purpose of her life. Once she received it, she could let go.

Now, my mother. And, again, first some background: My mother, in many ways is not her mother’s daughter. She is the ultimate Earth mother…someone who embodies nurturing, love and kindness. Where my grandmother has the more exciting story, my mother has the more honest life. And, yet, being born to Victoria Barkley/Mame came with a price–and that price was acceptance. Acceptance based on appearances. Not just how you look, but the appearance of success—on society’s terms, not yours.

It’s a struggle my mom has waged for many years.

For 25 years, she kept it locked in the basement of her soul as she savored the gift of a marriage…and love affair..with my stepfather. After all, who needs acceptance when you’re in love? And, then, last year, Tommy died. And the shadow of acceptance burst through the door that had kept it out of sight–but not soul–for so long.

For 13 months that shadow has enveloped my mother. It has persistently whispered that her marriage to Tommy was just a passing illusion. A nice dream of self-acceptance, but a dream that ended with his death…leaving her to awaken to a nightmare of judgement from others. Others who stand ever ready to tell her that she’s too old to learn new things. That she’s unemployable–except, maybe–and they mean MAYBE–as a greeter at Best Buy. That she’s crazy to still want to care for others after the pain of caring, first for her dying mother and, then, her dying husband. Or, my personal favorite, that her best days are behind her (as if there’s an expiration date to quality in one’s life).

And that shadow just about won. Until last night. Which brings me–finally! –to the second moment. It happened on the phone, in the middle of a most ordinary conversation with my mom. The kind you have with your mother once both of you reach a certain age. In the middle of chatting about dinner, the dogs, the weather and what not, mom said “You know, I’ve come to realize that I don’t really care what other people think.” I almost spilled my martini. Not because she said it, but because she meant it.

Finally, after years and years of suppressing the shadow of judging acceptance, she had faced it. And, basically, given it the finger (in a most Southern ladylike way, of course!). And she was free. Is free. To live her life. To find, alone with herself, the same joy and love she found,together, with Tommy.

These two moments fill me with gratitude for the two most important women in my life. They also make me wonder about the wonderful women I know who choose my grandmother’s path. They drink the kool-aid society feeds us that says the feminine has no value. That worth comes only from masculine pursuits–even if you dress them up in feminine masks. The roar of their ambition blocks the music of the birds. I don’t know many women like my mother, though. Women who move through society’s version of their life…to live their own. On their own terms. Blissfully happy.

My grandmother could have learned a lot from my mother. Other women could, too. To paraphrase Frost, she’s taking the road less travelled on. I bet it will make all the difference!




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