Although the thoughts that plague me right now are all pertinent to my pending life change, divorce – I want to take a minute to just write about my mom. I had to tell her today, about this huge change and she was supportive, as usual (although it terrified me to think that she would yell and scream and tell me we were wrong). Instead, she sat there, and she cried for me, while I sat in the chair across from her, bravely trying to fend off my own tears (and failing, although not as badly as I did when I told my father).
My mom has always wanted to write her stories – her life, which is so filled with mystery and pain of her own, and the strange malarky of family and friends and her own stubbornness. Yet still, she claims she can’t write, and urges me to write these stories for her. I’ve always tried to convince her to write them herself, convincing myself that I could never do her stories justice, these epic tales that she stored up and told me in childhood on rainy days or while the power was out, or saved for when all of her kids were around the table with her, stuffing our faces with homemade lasagna and apple pie (these are her trademarks, and she makes the best).
Now and again, she’ll pull one out of her little storage compartment buried at the back of her mind, finding solace in bad situations with something that maybe will make us laugh, or cry, or just bring some kind of insight to our lives, our situations. She keeps this idea of an oral tradition alive in a culture that no longer values it. I can’t feel like I will ever give them justice because the way she tells them – with her eyes, her hands, her voice – will not be the same. She is an animated woman, gesticulating wildly like her own mother did and, as I’ve been told, her father too.
Her father died two years before I was even born, but my older siblings (18, 13, and 11 years older than me respectively) all tell wild stories of him, of the house he built himself, of the old pine-plank swing he had in his kitchen and the soda fountain he installed himself so that he could make his grandchildren soda (maple too, apparently, the product of carbonated water and his own maple syrup). He worked his own sugar shed, shimmied up giant pine trees to cut the tops off for 25 foot tall Christmas trees, and was generally a little wild. My mom has a pretty great story of a time when she was traveling to Florida, and there was a man on his way to Vermont – a “wild Hell’s Angels looking kind of guy” as she puts it – sitting near her. And somehow, as people are want to do with her, they started talking.
“So where are you headed in Vermont?” My mother asked him.
“Oh, this guy – Lynn Copeland, you know him? – he’s putting on some big music festival at his house in Plainfield. I’m going up there for that.”
And my mom (in her version, anyway) looks at the guy and laughs and says, “that’s my father.”
So of course it should go without saying that my mother’s stories are all kind of strange, tales of strangers meeting in brief passing and making a connection, or tales of bears and wild things coming after her, tales of her summers on her grandparents’ farm in Plainfield.
Anyway, my mom is a little less wild than her father, in that she never held wild music festivals on her property with hundreds of people, but she did have “Family Gatherings” (her title for these family reunions) that often not only included immediate family, but family members that were so distantly related and yet who she knew well. And, her stories from her teen years were more tales of stubbornness than wildness, although I guess that subjective view is based on the teller of the story. Great aunt Bea, her mother’s sister, likes to say she was the “wild child” and would often remind me, when I was a teenager, that I took after my mother. I used to laugh and envision myself as wild, and maybe I was (a little bit, or a lot – that again depends on the teller of the story) but I see myself as stubborn, like my mom. Stubborn for the freedom that is deserved. Nothing is ever handed to us – I learned this well from both parents – but my mother especially.
My mother graduated from high school in 1968, barely squeaking through and only with the help of an English teacher who championed for her against other teachers who were grading her subjectively and not objectively. She likes to say, “I was too stupid to understand the material,” but this one English teacher made it clear that wasn’t the case – and as a successfully self-employed woman of 40 years, that speaks for itself. She was once easily discouraged, and still very carefully chooses which battles she is going to fight, but when she digs in her heels, she digs them in deep deep, carving grooves into the hard granite floors of societal expectation.
She bought her first motorcycle in high school, and that was the vehicle she used to get around Barre, where she pretty much stayed until she was seventeen (except for her trips to Plainfield to see her grandparents). Her first trip outside of Barre/Plainfield was to Montpelier, and she says even now it was the most terrifying trip she ever made. I laugh every time she tells me this. “You’ve come a long way since then, eh?” She smiles her little knowing smile, like she has a secret to tell. “I guess. You kids were always braver than I was. Remember when you took your Chrysler to Burlington when you were 16? Remember when you were 17 and drove yourself to New Hampshire on your own, without permission, and your father found out and was pissed to hell? I was proud, a little bit – also worried and pissed too, but I was proud. I was never brave enough to do that. I had never gone anywhere except Barre or Plainfield, and I knew those places so well – so it was like walking into a foreign country the first time I went into Montpelier.”
Back to the motorcycle, though, she has a hilarious story about needing to bring a big piece of plywood to school so that she could paint on it – and, since she only had a motorcycle, she naturally figured she would use that to haul this piece of wood. “Only problem was, though, that I couldn’t carry it under one arm while steering the bike. So I tied it to the back of my bike and proceeded to pull it down Main Street, where I was almost immediately pulled over and the cop asked me what the hell I thought I was doing.”
I mean, you do what you’ve got to do. And she apparently got the officer to laugh so hard because she explained the situation to him that he let her go without a ticket or a warning, and then said something to the effect of, “But next time, please use a car. Or a truck. Don’t drag it down the street.”
Mom didn’t need permission to do anything (she still doesn’t). She just did it. She fought to join the boys-only drafting class in the 60s – not because she was making a point for the sheer fun of it, but because she genuinely wanted to learn drafting. She wore pants to school because she was riding a motorcycle and got chastised more than once because she was a “young lady, and young ladies wear skirts.” But motorcycles were cheaper than cars, and her younger brothers knew how to fix them (now they all know how to fix everything) and she quite frankly told anyone who had something to say about her clothing choices that they weren’t very logical and she wasn’t about to ride a motorcycle in a skirt because “it would just fly up over my head, blind me, and flash the public with lewd views anyway.” In her mind, pants were a lot safer than panties, and she didn’t care what any of those teachers had to say.
But when you’re the grand-daughter of farmers, of people who have never given a frank shit about what others think about their clothing choices, you sort of give up on that too.
So many stories are floating in front of my eyes right now, so many of her stories that just want to come out and tell themselves again and again, a steady stream of run-on sentences and misplaced adjectives, but for now, I’ll leave my readers with this: if nothing else that my mother said today comforted me in telling her I was getting divorced, this one thing did: “You have to do what’s best for both of you. You have to do what you need to do. I’m not going to tell you one way or another what to do, because only you can decide that for yourself.”