Ma was married and pregnant with her first child at the age of 18. Ten months after the birth of a daughter the second girl came squalling out. The next year brought a boy, the year after another boy, then a girl, a boy, a girl.
A three year gap marked the coming of the fifth daughter who at the age of 9 was competent and comfortable with her station until I interrupted just before Valentine’s in the year 1975. Ma was 39.
It seems she never really had a chance to come into her own, not by the way I see it. Despite the legal definition of it, 18 is still a kid to me. At least, I was still a kid at 18. Someone once said, “Who you marry at 20 is not who you’d marry at 30,” or some such. Seems about right to me, having nearly gone there too young myself.
But Ma, she was married and too far gone with babies to make any reverse decision on the matter by that time. As far as I can tell she still measures a woman’s success not by degree or profession but by marriage and childbearing. She’s old fashioned that way.
I think I’m more generous to Ma than many of my siblings who complain and grouse about matters of upbringing that are so long passed in the scheme of things it seems absurd to even bring it up, though how I’m much better with my writing every thought down I don’t know.
Ma has her own ways, ways that can drive her kids mad what with her seeming disinterest in all things political, her nose for gossip and the effects aging is having on her capacity for social interactions.
My theory on the matter is that a she started her mothering early, before she was really ready to be her own person, before she had a chance to have her own interests. I think that the only thing she ever really had to experience outside of childhood and adolescence is us, a lot of us, and her husband. It could cause a person to go a little loopy, I would imagine.
Besides the awe her sheer fecundity has inspired over the years, it’s the fact that she has never driven a vehicle that really trips people up. I don’t even know if she has ever ridden a bike, though it seems unlikely anyone with fully functioning physical abilities could get through 73 years of life without peddling a bicycle at least once, I suppose we shouldn’t stifle our imaginations.
I find it difficult to explain Ma because as simple and mundane a person may seem, the layers always peel back revealing a deepest sense of regret, hope and desire.
A thing I can never get myself to recognize, to believe in, is the darkness she enveloped with the falling of my dad. I mean, I was a kid and kids don’t really know what’s going on. As far as I was concerned, dark rooms and sad country music were the way of the grown-up world. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot I did understand, though being a kid I was just as underestimated as any other and learned to adapt.
What I’m saying though is that there are a lot of women out there with no-good, rotten, very bad cheating husbands who are willing to put up with an awful lot. My ma though, she didn’t.
This woman who was taken fresh from the farm straight to the wedding bed, who gave her entire existence over to her family, who never really got a fair shot at knowing herself did something that would scare the bejesus out of me. She stood up after 9 kids and twenty-something odd years of marriage and said, “Enough is enough.”
Can you imagine?