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Coming from Pagan Writers Press on March 8, 2013!

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Lessons from Mother by Dorothy Abrams

Dorothy Pearl Russell was the kind of child a mother wishes on her daughter as retribution. My Victorian grandmother often said she didn't know whether to spank her when she got up in the morning or wait until she deserved it. Deserved is a poor choice of words. There was guilt and karma, jealousy and fear all wrapped up in their relationship. To thrive in that milieu, Dorothy rationalized everything in terms of what would keep her from the worst punishments, or at least make it worth it. If she was late home from school, she figured she might as well be really late. The switching wouldn't be any worse for it. If the rule was one friend a piece to play in the back yard for each of the three Russell kids, Dorothy would take stock. She realized her much older brother was off with his friends. Her sister was inside reading because it was too hot or too cold to be outside.

"Can me and my 10 friends play in the yard now?" she would ask. My grandparents found it hard to say no.

When her 10 friends were not around, she climbed up the old apple tree and hid with a book. She cried and screamed on the rare occasions her sister was spanked. She made a room in the attic so she could have a dreaming space of her own in the summertime. It was too cold up there in the winter. She decorated the neighbor's pansies with fresh tar from the street because the colors contrasted so nicely with the black sticky stuff. She washed her friend's brother's tobacco pipes because they were sticky and smelly. They were a Catholic family, and that brother was a priest. He wasn't supposed to say bad words like that. He spanked her too.

Despite her mischief, the whole neighborhood admired Dorothy's spirit. She had been born with a clubbed foot in 1919 when medical science said she would be forever crippled. Her father would have none of that. He found a doctor who was brave enough to break the infant foot in two places, turn it, put it back together in a brace and hope for the best. Her leg was skinny, the ankle misshaped but she played tennis, rode horseback and walked without a limp most of her life. Dorothy was a survivor.

She also was my mother. I suspect she was a near genius undercut by old fashioned schools that failed to recognize her potential. She was in high school until she was 20 because she couldn't pass geometry. Feigning unconcern about her failures, she focused on her friends and having a rollicking good time. When a teacher finally figured out that she repeatedly failed the state test because she missed something in the beginning of the year, not the last semester, he walked her all the way through the book. On the 5th try, she got it. She taught it to me a generation later using music to sing the theorems I couldn't remember.

After the geometry incident and being stuck in Latin too many years and denied French or German, Dorothy refused college. Both her siblings had attended Syracuse University. She could have but she went to work instead. She took off the summer she graduated to work the state fair circuit on the midway. Her father gave her bus money so she wouldn't hitchhike. She and her friend Isabel took the buss out of town and then stuck out their thumbs. The ticket money kept them fed until they could meet up with the carnies. Mom was a rube among the cons. Fortunately she had Isabel to protect her. She found a department store job was waiting when she came back home, but first she saw the world's fair in NYC. It was 1939. Apparently she had a gift for retail sales. Working her way up she became an assistant buyer in a fancy local store.

Eventually, my mother married my father because he loved her so much, and would not go away. Marriage wasn't her goal, but after turning him down 3 or 4 times, she finally agreed. He had been her cousin's beau. Because she was so independent minded, men were usually her close friends not her lovers. Most of her dates were leftovers from her sister. She hadn't been interested in picking up after her cousin too. I think she was surprised Dad was so persistent. Who she might have married if she had married for love is a mystery she never shared, but although she liked and cared for him, I knew he loved her more.

One thing did happen in her marriage that was totally for love. Me. My mother had only one child, a daughter born 5 years after her wedding, after she had given up hope, after everyone else had given up hope. She was determined about several things.

My daughter will not be spanked or beaten.

My daughter will go to college if I have to spank her all the way there.

My daughter will think for herself and make her own decisions.

I don't know if she saw the inherent contradictions in those axioms. I didn't until I wrote them down. I did know what they were and that they were true. She started talking to me about college so early in my life I never questioned whose idea it was. I thought it was mine. I certainly didn't need threats or spankings to be cooperative in that regard, or any other. If my grandmother had wished a difficult child on my mother, it didn't work. I was 10 years old before it occurred to me I did not have to do what I was told. My friends laughed at my astonishment. By the time I was in my teens she declared I was a boring child and bought me Beatle albums to liven me up. I promptly fell in love with George Harrison. She seemed relieved.

As I went through adolescence of course, her resolve was tested. I made many decisions she thought were foolish. I heard her tell my father they had raised me to think for myself and they had better trust me. That was when I thought I'd be a missionary and live in Brazil. I never got there. They didn't want single women and I didn't want a husband--not just to go to work in Brazil.

My mother managed to be a great mom and my best friend. When my parents could not live at home on their own anymore, they moved in with me and my new family. Dad didn't like it because Eric and I weren't married. Mom told him she was going so he might as well come along. He was ill so he had little choice. Eventually he learned to like it. Reunited after 20 years of my moving around the eastern seaboard, my mother and I picked up where we left off, playing cards and scrabble, making dinner and generally befuddling the men in our lives. I didn't like watching either of my parents lose their edge, but I especially didn't like seeing it happen to my mother.

Her demise could have been different. My parents were in an auto accident that could have been avoided. Both of them received poor emergency care. We successfully intervened in my dad's case, but mom's got away from us. She had been home, readmitted to the ER and then everything went wrong. She had said if it was too hard, she didn't want to do it. It was too hard. No matter what we fixed something else went haywire. I hate that it was her time. She was only 74. We had more games to play!

At the end, she said I would have to finish her stories. We had taken writing courses together at a nearby community college. The one goal my mother left undone was to be a published fiction writer. She left me many beginnings, middles or ends of stories. None of them are complete, but none of them are my stories. I can't finish them. I must write my own. She knows that, of course.

My mother was magical. She read the clouds, saw visions in them and told tales about what she saw. I am sure that was what she was doing all of her life. The Monday after she died, I saw her write my name in block letters in the mackerel sky. Underneath my name, she wrote Wheeee.

One last lesson, I think. Got it, Mom.

Dorothy Abrams lives and writes in upstate New York. She met Ela when she visited Salisbury Cathedral with her partner Eric Reynolds in 2010. Dorothy's recent nonfiction title Identity and the Quartered Circle: Studies in Applied Wicca will be released in 2013. Her essay Moveren the Sea Queen appears in Sorita d'Este's anthology Faerie Queens to be released in 2013. Her current project is The Witches of Fawsetwood, a historical fantasy novel about medieval England.

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