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Ode to Mary Rose

17 Nov

Today is my mother’s birthday.  On this occasion, I would like to thank her for being the perfect mother for me and for being unflinchingly and stalwartly supportive of my (nearly) every endeavour.  Her career as my number one supporter began in February, 1970, at a hospital in New Orleans.  My dad wasn’t even there to hold her hand when I was born.  He was out somewhere having a sandwich, and apparently he didn’t even bring us home from the hospital — a friend of hers drove us.  From the photographs, he appears quite fond of me as a baby, but I have to give all credit for keeping me alive and healthy and happy to my mother.  I have seen her with my own babies and I have seen my dad with my babies, and there is no question that I would not be around today were it not for the tireless efforts of my mother.

She is a unique individual.  She was not like the other mothers.  Classmates would say “I saw your mother on Grand Boulevard taking signs off the trees this morning.”  She didn’t appreciate people nailing their garage sale signs into the hundred year-old water oaks.  She was like the Lorax – she spoke for the trees.  I wanted to die of embarrassment.

She wasn’t a cupcake-baking mother or a PTA mother or room mother.  She was the mother who would come into your class with slideshows of her trip to Africa or exotic birds or water lilies.  She was the mother who flew airplanes.  She was the mother who picked up stray dogs and found their owners.  She also might come in on career day and talk about being a newspaper photographer/journalist.  She always made it clear that she was a photographer first and a writer second.  She probably made them put that in her contract.

She was the mother who warned me when I was leaving for camp in Maine “Don’t let them think you are stupid just because you come from Mississippi,” and when I went to boarding school: “There will be some girls there who fly to the Caribbean for Easter.  Remember, we are not that kind of people.” 

She was the mother who forced her children to attend the art movie series at the public library.  She ordered Picnic at Hanging Rock; Babette’s feast; Black Orpheus…I know there were more, but my indignant, horrified, teenaged brain repressed them. 

While other families went to Destin for vacation, she and my dad took us to Mexico and Belize and forced us to ride the train to Chicago.  I resented her for making us stand in line in the wind and snow and slush to see a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the National Gallery.  All my friends were probably at the beach.  We were forced to listen to opera and classical music.  Other mothers were cooler than mine.  Other moms drew their daughters out about the high school gossip and current teen romances.  My mom seemed to think all that was silly and ridiculous.  She only seemed to care that we were educated and exposed to more culture than just what Greenwood, Mississippi, offered.

We were only allowed to watch an hour of television per week.  I was always out of the loop on the latest in pop culture.  She forbade me to wear makeup until high school.  She said all that blue eyeshadow made me look like a streetwalker.  She advised my friends and me not to “make ourselves available” to boys.  Whatever that means.

When I wanted to leave college and come home because I was homesick, she seemed sympathetic, but she still said no.  I was merciless.  I called her daily to tell her how miserable I was and how much I hated it there.  I did the same thing to her when I was in law school. 

From this vantage, I can see that she was in the trenches with my brother and me every single day.  We saw her as impossible and only interested in herself and my dad having a good time, while we unlucky children were just dragged along on these cultural excursions and family outings.  “Everybody else” could watch TV and listen to popular music and lounge around the house eating sugary cereals in their pajamas all day, and we were expected to DO SOMETHING.  Read something, write something, make something, think about something, be something.  We were convinced that she just didn’t want us to have a good time.  Ever.

When my marriage ended last August, my mother gave me the best advice I have ever, ever received – before or since.  She said simply: “He has made his plans.  It is time for you to make yours.”

She has always made her own plans.  She obtained her master’s degree and her pilot’s license after having children.  She almost went to law school at age 40.  She had her name legally changed back to her maiden name even though she was still married to my dad and had taken his name 20 years before.  She is a great role model for never losing your own identity just because you are married and have children.  There is never a time when she isn’t working on a big project.  

I have never stopped being homesick and she has never stopped being encouraging and supportive.  When asked why I am a certain way: how I learned to love dogs more than people, how I have been so secure through a separation and divorce that rocked us, why I don’t watch television, why I have such an appetite for shoes, I realize that it’s all because of having Mary Rose as a mother.

I hereby offer a public apology for thinking you weren’t cool.  I knew you were the prettiest mom, but I couldn’t see the value of your uniqueness when I was a child.  Now that I am learning who I am and how I came to be this way, I think I am the luckiest child ever born to have you as a mother.  Happy Birthday.

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