Sometimes when feminists gathered in the 1980s, a meeting would start with naming. A woman would say her own name, then name her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and so on, Some could go back five generations, but after I said, "I am Bernice, daughter of Jean," I was pretty much out of luck.
My mother was only 9 when her mother died, one of millions who did not survive the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Her father married another woman and gave his own four children to a childless relative to raise. As the oldest, my mother was expected to do household chores, The youngest child was only nine months old and knew no other home, but my mother was bitter over her losses for the rest of her life.
She escaped from the small coal-mining town in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania by running away to Philadelphia as a young woman. Much later, she returned as a wife and mother. Her baby sister grew up in the house and in turn took care of the woman who raised her. She married and lived in the same house for the rest of her life. We children loved our summer visits to that house after my mother and her sister reunited.
Maybe because she was taken in as a baby and knew no past life, Aunt Kay was very nurturing, in contrast to my mother's toughness. While my mother tossed my notebooks and artwork when housecleaning, my aunt subscribed to my high school newspaper as a gesture of support for my writing.
Although they enjoyed telling tales about the neighbors and mimicking them, the sisters had little to say about their own family history. In the 1940s and '50s, children went out to play and did not inquire about family secrets. I did know they had recreated themselves, Catherine becoming Kay and Mary Teresa becoming Jean.
My mother saw a parallel in her four children to her siblings. As the oldest, like her, I was expected to do everything right. My sister Jane equated to my mother's less capable sister Helen and got a dollar for every "A" on her report card. My brother Robert and my mother's brother John both escaped the family, Robert joining the Navy and John moving to California, both dying early. My sister Ellen and Aunt Kay were the babies, enough said.
Motherless, growing up in forbearance in a relative's household, my mother developed a cynicism and a sarcastic attitude as an adult. She was a demon shopper, intimidating salesladies into giving her discounts and defying the rules when rationing was in effect. Near the end of her life, when asked in a hospital if she knew where she was, she snapped, "Yeah, Folsom Prison!"
She did her best for the four of us, despite her hard childhood. I think she enjoyed having grandchildren more than raising the lot of us. My son and daughter revere her memory. I also fondly remember Aunt Kay for her encouragement and have to respect Great-Aunt Ellen for raising my mother and her siblings.
On Mothers' Day 2017, let us remember and pay respect to all who raise and nurture children.