By Lisabet Sarai
Today, May 9th, is Mother's Day. Yesterday was the seventy eighth anniversary of my own mother's birth. The juxtaposition started me thinking about my mom—her strengths and her weaknesses, and how they've influenced me.
Mom died nearly three decades ago after an ugly two-year battle with leukemia . She was younger than I am now. Her death was a genuine tragedy, cutting her life short just as she was finally getting it together. After years of bitterness and anguish, seeking for meaning in gurus, art, politics, sex and the bottom of a bottle, she had succeeded in finding her spiritual center. She felt cherished and protected by her God and her church community, at home at last. To have that comfort and security snatched away—well, it hardly seems fair after all that she endured in order to achieve it. On the other hand, her faith made her last months and days easier to bear. It gave her the courage to let go at the end.
My mom was a multi-talented superstar. She excelled at anything she attempted. She got straight A's through high school, college and graduate school. She drew, painted, sculpted in clay and marble. She could sing like an angel and dance like the devil—jitterbug, rock and roll or the danse de ventre. She earned a life saving certificate. She refinished furniture. She knitted sweaters that made L.L. Bean look cheap and crocheted an afghan for each of our beds in the colors we requested. She created Halloween costumes that were the envy of the neighborhood. She could whip up a sumptuous meal from pretty much any ingredients that happened to be in the refrigerator.
She was articulate and compassionate, a champion for the underdog and a lifelong feminist. She demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, with her three kids in tow. She even ran for a position in the state legislature in order to fight for peace and justice.
Mom had a figure like Marilyn Monroe, all curves. (The drawing above is one of her works that I've salvaged. It portrays a studio model, but I think it was also in some sense a self-portrait.) She loved bright colors, short skirts, high heels and dangling earrings. I remember when she wore a yellow polka dot bikini—I'm not joking. She could be the life of the party.
When it came to emotion, she didn't believe in holding back either the positive or the negative feelings. So I also remember her screaming and crying, sulking in her room and throwing a plate of spaghetti at the wall. In the bad times, she was a volcano waiting to erupt.
For a chubby, shy, introspective kid like me, she was a bit intimidating. But I adored her. I'd do anything to win her approval and ward off her blues.
For most of her life, she was remarkably open about sex. She and my father divorced when I was a pre-teen. After that, she never tried to hide the fact that she had lovers. I didn't understand at the time that at least some of her sexual adventures were compensation for deep feelings of inadequacy. All I saw was a vibrant, desirable woman who wasn't afraid to take what she wanted.
I don't think she actually ever told me “the facts of life”–there were reference books available around the house—but I do recall our conversation around the time that I was besotted by my first lover. I was fourteen, I believe. Mom warned me to be careful, to remember that the first man with whom I had sex would have an emotional hold on me for the rest of my life. I note now that she didn't tell me NOT to have sex. Pretty remarkable. I guess she trusted me, or else assumed that a prohibition from her would not have had any effect. I've realized in retrospect that she and my father probably had a sexual relationship before they were married. For a nice respectable Jewish girl, that must have taken a good deal of courage.
I didn't understand until much later how fundamentally unhappy my mother was. Despite all her accomplishments, she was bitter and envious, convinced that she'd been handed a raw deal, robbed of the opportunities she deserved. Under her bravado lurked persistent self-doubts. She spent most of her short life searching for something that would convince her she was worthy. For years she was a secret alcoholic. Only when she got into a serious automobile accident did she “hit bottom” and start on the rocky path toward sobriety.
She found a Higher Power that soothed much of her pain. Unfortunately, she also repudiated the sexual openness of her earlier years. She criticized my lifestyle as sinful. When I showed her a nude photo taken during the same session as my Lisabet Sarai headshot, she condemned me as possessed by the Satan.
I suspect that if she were alive now, she wouldn't approve of my literary career. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't share it with her. Why cause her distress?
When I was growing up, I thought that she and I were quite different. Now I see how much we are alike and how much I've learned from her. Fortunately I seemed to have absorbed more of the positive than the negative. I'm fundamentally happy, content with my life and my choices—probably because I never doubted her love.
My mother is responsible for teaching me the value of thinking for myself. “Do you want to be a sheep?” she'd scoff when I complained that nobody else at school was wearing snow pants, or that all the other girls already had bras. She made me brave enough to make my own way without being influenced by the crowd.
Like my mom, I'm ready to try my hand at activities that I've never attempted. I may not be as skilled as she was, but that doesn't stop me from sewing, drawing, dancing or learning new languages. She never let anyone suggest there was something she couldn't or shouldn't do. If it were not for her example, I probably never would have submitted my first novel to Black Lace. When I'm feeling uncertain about some new venture, I remember her and think, what the hell. Why not?
I'm no Marilyn Monroe, but I inherited some of her curves and once I got to grad school and over my shyness, I discovered that I could throw a mean party. I love vivid colors and provocative styles, though I recognize that with each passing year, they look more ridiculous on me. Too bad.
I still have several pairs of her dangly earrings. (She pierced my ears with a needle when I was eleven.) I wear them on special occasions.
In fact, I think I'll go don a pair today, to celebrate Mother's Day.
I hope that wherever she is, she'll be pleased.