Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wistful Words on Women

By an unlikely twist of fate, I was given the chance to teach Women’s Studies this Fall. As one friend commented when she heard the news, “That’s right up your alley.” And she is right. I have spent my life reading women, studying women and in general, being fascinated by women. In her bestselling novel, The Red Tent, Anita Diamant wrote, “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully. Stories about food show a strong connection. Wistful silences demonstrate unfinished business. The more a daughter knows the details of her mother’s life—without flinching or whining—the stronger the daughter” (2). Well, I never knew my mother. She abandoned me when I was still a baby. The woman who raised me in her stead despised me and never missed an opportunity to remind me that she was not my mother…

It is hard to describe the pain a child feels from being abandoned by her mother. It is something all consuming and, I believe, deeper, sharper than the pain that comes from being abandoned by one’s father. Perhaps Lily Owens, the protagonist of The Secret Life of Bees, describes it best: “My whole life had been nothing but a hole where my mother should have been, and this hole has made me different, left me always aching for something” (Kidd 293). To ease that ache, I went in search of a mother. I idolized and impressed my teachers. I fastened myself to friends whose mothers, to me, seemed perfect. I prayed, but even God could not fill that void. I was a mother myself, many years over, before I learned that I could never replace her.

Adrienne Rich wrote, “The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy” (Of Woman Born). My life-long interest in women, that thing that “has made me different,” is a response to that tragedy. But as Anita Diamant predicted, it has also made me stronger. I may not know my mother, but I know our mothers. Their stories fortify and uplift me. Their history is my history. In a very real sense, I am my mothers’ daughter.

And so, when I stand in front of a room that (I predict) will be made up entirely of women, I will begin by asking them—without flinching or whining—to tell me the story of their mothers. To correct the silence left behind by indifferent scholars and sexist historians. I will listen carefully. And with their help, I will work to create a generation of stronger daughters.

1 comment:

  1. I love this! I truly believe that silences like the absence of a mother or father speaks volumes, maybe more so than any words. While it is certainly important to hear the voices and words of those who are often silenced, I think we find much of our inspiration, courage, and hope in those silenced voices. We are given the chance, then, to find our own voices and learn to speak for those who could not.

    And it certainly has made you a stronger person. If it had not been for your mother's absence, you may not have sought out all the strong, wonderful mothers in literature and throughout history. Not an ideal scenario I know. No child should be without a mother. But I'm so glad you are who are you because I think you're pretty amazing.