When I was nine, the same age as my daughter is now, my best friend and I were lying on the living room floor flipping through my family’s photo albums. She stopped on a page and delicately fingered the black-and- white photograph of my mother and father at their wedding. “Wow,” she murmured, “your mother is so beautiful. Like a Fifties movie star.” I had never thought of my mother that way. My mom was never the glamorous sort. The only make-up she ever wore was lipstick; she never wore heels, only sensible shoes and long dresses that ran past her knees. But from that day on I saw my mother as my friend saw her: without a stitch of make- up, without so much as a clip in her hair, my mother was beautiful. Though if you ever told her that she would wave it away. That would be a waste of air and, besides that, not true. Most compliments would, in fact, be met with the same sort of dismissal. My mother was brought up Protestant, poor, on a farm, part of a big family in the American Midwest. I suppose that is what came with the territory.
My daughter usually wears pink when she is not in her school uniform. She prefers dresses and skirts to pants or shorts. She cries easily and does not take it well when you tell her she has done something wrong, no matter how minor the infraction. She has more than a dozen Barbies, which I know is not quite right. But I did not have a Barbie when I was a child and, well, these things happen somehow. My daughter does not like team sport and will only sort of tolerate swimming and tennis and then only if she is pushed to participate. She likes video games and reads voraciously — Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Harry Potter and Judy Moody and comics such as Tintin, Asterix and Madame & Eve (go figure) — and calls herself a tomboy, which she is not. But it is not that simple. After her bath the other night, I fished out a silver tiara, a Dragon Ball Z action figure, a tiny soft pink bunny and a plastic snake.
I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents, both dentists with their own practice, were well off and when we were young we lived in a comfortable suburb in a ranch-style house with a generous swimming pool, which was situated across from a perfectly manicured park with swings and sandboxes. My mother worked a lot. She says she worked part-time but then you must understand that my father would say he worked only a halfday when he worked 12 hours. We — my two older sisters and my younger brother and I — were latch- key kids. We had the keys to the house and looked after ourselves after school. This was how it was done.
My mother, my father would always say, is an intellectual. He would say this with his nose up, teasing her for it, and telling us, in her presence but as if she was not there: “Your mother is an intellectual.” He would also tell us, when she was not there, that she was the smartest person he ever knew. When we were young, I can remember her reciting poetry. She loved Shakespeare. She was a reader of the political and the historical and she knew her subjects well. At 76, my mother still reads Foreign Policy, The Economist, Science, The Nation and Mother Jones. She reads biographies and non-fiction and some select, usually socially conscious fiction. She always reads the last pages first when she reads fiction. I told her that is cheating.
When I was young, I was spoiled and I had many new dresses for the many parties I attended. My mother used to tell me that when she was young she only got one new dress a year. I only sort of believed her.
My mother is in the Rotary Club, the Historical Society and the Women’s Club and the united Nations Association of the united States of America. She still works as a dentist two days a week and does volunteer dentistry for the Salvation Army. She likes to keep busy. Ever since my father died, now 14 years ago, she has kept very busy. The first Sunday of the month she stands on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles, with a handful of others, and they hold up signs and peace flags protesting the use of drones, getting an occasional hoot from passers-by, but mostly are roundly ignored as the shoppers carry on in their treks to the malls and the grocery stores. This does not deter her.
Mother and Daughter
When my daughter was still a baby and could not yet speak, she would wail like all babies do when something was not quite right. I would do all the things mothers do, check her diaper, see if she needed milk, see if she needed sleep and try to take her there by holding her and rocking. “Tell me all of your problems, my angel,” I’d whisper. I still hold her in my lap, although she is far too big, and I tell her to tell me all her problems so I can take them all away. I know I cannot, that my words are not enough. But I persist. I tell her that when she is my age and I am an old granny I will still hold her in my lap and she laughs.
My mother and I can talk for an hour on Skype, me in Johannesburg, she in LA, about American politics. We egg each other on about the countless sins of the Republicans, their stupidity around gun-control issues and healthcare. She’ll switch over to attack Obama on his immigration policies, on drones, on Guantanamo, and I’ll try, feebly, to protect him, although with the citizen spying it seems a losing proposition more and more these days. When she is done with our conversation, she is abrupt. “Okay, love you,” and she puts down the phone. Time’s up.
Mothers and Daughters
My mother’s mother had a child out of wedlock. This was not done. Which is to say, of course it was done but it was hidden, an embarrassment, a wicked curse on whoever’s family it fell upon. What happened was that my grandmother fell pregnant by a local boy after an encounter in the back seat of a car. She took the child to another town to put it up for adoption. But her parents would not stand for it. They brought the child home and tried to convince my grandmother to take the child back. She refused. My great-grandparents ended up raising their daughter’s child as their own. A few years later, my grandmother married my grandfather and they started their own family. My aunt found out at the age of 13 that the woman she knew as her sister was actually her mother. My mother was told that her aunt was actually her stepsister years later through some town gossip. She refused to believe it. This was not done.
I was not an easy or a particularly well- behaved teenager. This is an understatement of Himalayan proportion. Besides that, I was terrible to my mother. I shouted at her more than a few times, and at least once called her a name that makes me cringe each time I think of it. It was something I paid for dearly when my father found out that evening. My mother did not like me then, and has said as much. I can’t blame her. Much.
My mother, who had planned to become an English teacher, became a dentist instead. She was the only woman in her class. The men in the university of Southern California dental class of 1967 were not kind to her. In her second year, she gave birth to her second child while taking exams. My mother was a trailblazer. She would blush to read that. But it is true. I can remember being in high school and accompanying her to dental conventions and even then, even in the Eighties in America, the vendors would speak to her as if she was the receptionist or, at most, a hygienist. My mother would tell you there were other women dentists, a handful, but certainly she was not the only one. She would say: “But look how many women dentists there are now.” It’s true. My sister is one.
My daughter is an American South African. She will tell you she is an American in the sweet South African drawl of her father. She was born in San Francisco but from the age of two she has lived in Johannesburg. She goes to public school and her first additional language is Zulu. She has only been back to see the rest of the family in the uS three times since we left in 2005 to return to South Africa. My family is a considerable force, with the immediate family plus cousins and aunts and uncles. We have always been close. The time my daughter has spent in the uS has been filled with a series of boisterous family gatherings, which she calls parties. At home she only knows our compact little family and our quiet little flat. She does not like it when it is too loud. Although she loves a good party.
Mothers and Daughters
One time my mother told my older sister that she probably shouldn’t have had children. Maybe my mother shouldn’t have said that. But she did because that is how she is. My mother says these sorts of things. Maybe she is right. Maybe she shouldn’t have had children. But she did because that is what you did. She was a professional, ran her own business and raised four children and put us all through university. When we were young she took us to museums and plays and drove us to soccer practice and every Christmas she would read us Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and sing us to sleep at night. She did not bake many cookies. I love museums and cookies and plays and A Christmas Carol. Soccer, not so much.
I worry I don’t spend enough time doing homework with my daughter. I worry that I don’t take her to enough plays, or to enough museums. I worry that I don’t stop her from watching too much TV on weekends, or from playing too many games on my phone. I worry that I don’t play with her often enough and I will regret it. I worry that she does not get enough exercise. I worry that she is not tough enough to take on the world, and that it is I who make her soft. I worry that she will not get into a good university and that if she does I will not have the money to pay for it. I worry about climate change and the widening gap between the rich and the poor and I worry about which side she will fall on, and I hope for the best.
My mother has always given money to charitable organisations. She told me many times when we were growing up that when she was young she wanted to be a female Albert Schweitzer. “Your mother wants to save the world,” my father would say. When she would write cheques to Save the Children, my father would say: “Why don’t you save your own goddamned children?” I often wonder the same thing.
Mother and Daughter
Whenever I write something substantial, or something that I’m proud of, I send the piece to my mother. She, in turn, sends it to everyone in the family and everyone she knows. She thinks it is the greatest thing ever and tells everyone so. When I don’t send something for a while, she always says: “I hope you have some time to write.” This is her way of telling me she loves me, that she knows me. This is her way of reminding me to be true to myself.
My mother forgets birthdays. She does not send presents very often. One time, when I was in my 20s, she sent me a letter for my birthday, very likely late, explaining this. I saved it. The gist of it was that she doesn’t remember these things, doesn’t put much stock in birthdays or anniversaries or other moments labelled for celebration. But, she wrote, even if she doesn’t, she still loves me.
My daughter says I have a toes and feet and hair obsession. That is, I am always touching one of them if she is next to me. She has to fight off my kisses. She holds up her hands and pushes me away to keep my lips from her body. Some days she outright forbids it. Occasionally she gives me a specific kiss allocation. I always exceed this and then she growls at me for my inability to control myself.
Mother and Daughters
My sister sent me a note the other day to say my mother was sad. She was sad because she had recently spoken with me and I didn’t tell her what was happening in my life. I have never been a good poker player. Apart from a few years of my life post-university and in the early days of my marriage, I have never really talked to my mother about my problems. I took on the habit of not saying too much when things were not going well. So, if we are not talking politics, I listen to her stories about the family, her friends, about her volunteer work or her choir group at the unitarian church. My sister has this theory; she says my mother speaks in monologue because she was a dentist for so many years that she is used to making small talk with people who have no way of responding.
I recently read a Q&A in Time with a country singer, the former Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, in which she spoke of her latest album, Mother, saying that she titled the album that way because everyone has a mother, “so it would make people feel something — either good or bad”. Around Mother’s Day, pieces about incredible mothers abound. These essays gush. These mothers have no faults. These mothers fly to their daughters’ side at the hint of a crisis; they say a few perfect words that make the world clear again; they bake gourmet cakes and their home- cooked Sunday dinners could be a catalyst for world peace. They dedicate their lives to their grandchildren. I measure my mother against these impossible standards and she falls short. My mother does not cook, and my mother doesn’t dote on her grandchildren. My mother does not always say the right thing. Often, she makes me feel sad.
Daughter and Mother
I wonder how my daughter will measure me when I am old. I wonder what will exit from her pen. I wonder if I will have shoulders big enough to take it all, to accept my many failings, to embrace what I might have done right. I wonder, I hope, my daughter will love me as I love my own mother. Because I do love my mother, my beautiful mother, with all of her integrity, all of her intelligence and all of her imperfections. The imperfections so imperfectly intertwined with my own.
Published August 2013 in the Mail & Guardian’s Book of South African Women.