WOMEN

A FEW WORDS ON BEHALF OF MUM

Myrna Kostash July 1 1975
WOMEN

A FEW WORDS ON BEHALF OF MUM

Myrna Kostash July 1 1975

A FEW WORDS ON BEHALF OF MUM

WOMEN

Myrna Kostash

If she couldn’t actually be a boy she would at least have liked a brother. Preferably older. You know the picture: Daddy in a suit, Mummy in an apron, Big Brother with a baseball glove, Kid Sister with a doll, all beaming at each other over bowls of cereal inside magazines. It was the Ideal Family. And here she was, one of three daughters.

Poor Daddy. Masculinity cornered in its own house by a gaggle of females. No wonder it was he who got the big reclining chair, the reading lamp and the converted spare room with bookshelves. Jokes about men in his position — Daddy fuming outside the bathroom door while inside Daughter plucks her eyebrows, Dagwood bedeviled by Blondie’s phone conversations — made her wince and feel guilty. As though she, through her femininity itself, were a kind of indignity for him. What Daddy really deserved was some freckle-nosed boy with wild hair and bruised knees who would grow up to be high-minded and dependable, someone with whom he could have that acme of human encounters, the Male Friendship.

But instead he had her and her sisters. She tried to make up for it. She did things that would please him. She worked hard at school, helped her mother with chores, made his favorite dessert every Sunday and wore pretty dresses. As she grew older, she monopolized his attention after dinner with questions about the Cold War, the development of the English novel and the death of God. She would reveal herself to him; show him the poems she wrote secretly and confess to having fallen in love with a boy in her political science class. Daddy would nod sagely, offer a 50-year-old’s wisdom and pat her hand. They were, you see, a team.

In this cozy arrangement, Mum was the intruder. She had no place there with them, really. I mean, what would she know of politics and history and the higher emotions? What could she say that would be helpful, she who spent her days preoccupied with budget meats and vacuum cleaner parts and her evenings at an ironing board in front of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.f (At five years of age, Daughter had been shown how to iron Daddy’s handkerchiefs just 50.) Mum was just there, cooking and cleaning, arranging appointments and remembering birthdays, curing colds and taking up hems. Useful. Hell, indispensable. Nice to have around with her efficiency and cheeriness, her thoughtful little gestures (a bouquet of sweet peas from the garden for everybody’s bedroom) and her unflagging loyalty. But when it came to the real stuff of growing up a human being — the intellectual challenges, the passions and the ecstatic arts — only Daddy really understood. He had an uncluttered mind, a dignified composure and a broad vocabulary. Compared to him, Mum was so, well, silly.

Then came the crunch. The face-off. Daughter and Mum finally met in a head-on clash of ambitions and the dust didn’t settle for years. It was a question of who Daughter was going to grow up to be. The Lady or the Tramp? And suddenly, where Mum had been accommodating and reassuring, her love and admiration taken for granted, she became unaccountably hostile and maddeningly unreasonable. She was, in short, the Enemy. A witch of stubbornness, meanness and pettiness whose fanatic concern (so it seemed to Daughter) with Daughter’s habits and attitudes was out of all proportion to the facts of the situation. In Mum’s terms, the facts seemed to be that Daughter was turning out selfish, foulmouthed, hard and cheap, in short unfeminine. In Daughter’s terms, on the other hand, she was becoming independent, free thinking, creative and interesting, in short, a human being. It was a battle over what constituted a female destiny. Of course it was nasty.

They fought tooth and nail. They shrieked and cursed, banged doors and spurted tears, insulted and sulked, while Daddy played go-between. Good old Dad. If it hurt him as much as it did Mum that Daughter wore dirty blue jeans, dated boys with beards, bought a poster of Che Guevera, smirked at magazine articles on chastity, played Bob Dylan records and came in drunk at four o’clock in the morning, he didn't let on. She couldn’t help thinking that there wouldn’t be all this fuss and anguish if she were a boy. And that she was all the son that Daddy was ever going to get.

She packed her bags and left home. To make the getaway from Mum and what Mum was all about: hell-bent on the ambition to turn a girl into a Lady, frog-march her into the land of panty girdles, recipe boxes and sleeping pills. Force-feed her with guilt and self-hatred. No thanks.

Years and a consciousness-raising later it all looked quite different. For the first time, she allowed herself to think of who the person had been behind the many masks of Mum. And what she saw humbled her and made her feel contrite, if not forlorn. The witch and fanatic gave way to a woman of formidable strength and resolve, incalculable love and tenderness and, yes, fierce pain. The depth of the hurt between them became a measure of the regard and respect they had secretly cherished for each other behind the wooden sets of domestic dramas. What she had once seen as Mum’s perverse commitment to sterile convention, she now saw as a mother’s concern that a daughter not be cheated of the hopedfor rewards of femininity; security and respectability. What she had earlier dismissed as Mum’s hysteria, she now saw as an expression of her mother’s need, as strong as her own, to say, “See me for who I am!” Now she saw that in her mother’s resilience, integrity and resolve, she had the best of models for womanhood.

Not that she wouldn’t fight Mum all over again in the struggle against panty girdles, but now she would make an appeal to the ally who lurked behind the masks. Sure, she still loved Daddy but she now had a commitment to the female bloodlines. So, if she were to have a child, she wished for a daughter. The womb within the womb that is the long chain of female generations. In a world that honors the privileged sons, husbands and brothers, who if not she would love women in the daughters that will come after her?