My mother hated housework. She did it only under compulsion and had a terrible attitude. She was also a dreadful cook and hostile. The kind of cook who tosses food on the table, glares at you, daring you to say anything other than “Thank you Mom” while choking on overcooked veggies and overdone meat.
I’m pretty sure she wasn’t entirely sold on motherhood either. But having birthed three of us, she did the best she could. Nurturing didn’t come naturally to her, though she made an effort. Her mother hadn’t been much of a nurturer either. It was an apology in the form of a story. I understood.
On the up side, she was a great mentor. She loved books, she loved learning. She an infinite curiosity about how things worked, history and art. She loved movies, laughter, and trips to Manhattan, which we called The City. It was just a subway ride away.
As soon as I was old enough to have a conversation, we talked. Not like a little kid and a mom, but like friends. She told me stories. About growing up on the Lower East Side when horses and carts were common and cars were rare. How, when she was little, she lived at the library. If she stayed after dark, she’d run all the way home because she thought the moon was chasing her.
Mom grew up doing pretty much as she pleased. In turn, she let me do pretty much as I pleased. Freedom and a passion for knowledge were her gifts to me.
Some of my happiest memories were the two of us walking through Manhattan arm-in-arm. Like pals. Buying roasted chestnuts from the vendor in front of the library. Sitting on the steps in the shadow of the lions, peeling chestnuts and talking. Going to the ballet, which was Balanchine’s company.
New York was culture central. Our local ballet company was Balanchine. Our local opera was the Met. If we wanted to see a show, we went to Broadway. We had the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, and the Guggenheim. City museums were free admission and the rest were not expensive, even for a kid on an allowance.
She wasn’t a great housekeeper. Stuff got done, and I did a lot of it because I was the older daughter. It turned out to be a good investment. The time I shared with my mother gave me tools to understand her world. It took me years to put the pieces together, but I got most of those pieces while I ironed my father’s shirts … and we talked.