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Personal Essays

Girl Lessons

Mothers and daughters don’t always have the easiest relationships, especially when the daughters try to recycle the mothers with the trash. A story of aspirations, generations, and pop culture quizzes.

Around the time my daughter was born, my hand began to stall whenever I wrote my first name. I write in fairly legible cursive, so my concern was that the two lowercase s’s would be asymmetrical, not have the same roundness with a little point cresting the top, the way I was taught. If I was signing a receipt in a store this was embarrassing. Stopping in the middle of your name is generally not acceptable to busy cashiers. It makes them impatient.

The problem only occurred during the writing of my name. No other word with a double s troubled me. After a time, I decided it must be the first sign of an identity crisis. That, and that it was somehow related to my mother.

 

“What if I’d been a boy?” I would ask when I was little.

“I knew you weren’t,” my mother always replied (and this was long before routine ultrasounds).

Apparently every night when my father came home from work, I would run into the kitchen and announce that now was the time to throw Mommy out.

“You didn’t have any boys names picked out? Not one?”

“I knew you were a girl,” she’d say simply. “I just always knew I would one day have a little girl named Jessica.”

Other women of my mother’s generation were going to college and pushing hard to have careers. My mom worked as a secretary until she married, then stayed home when I was born. This was in Berkeley, 1971. I’ve asked my parents what it was like to live there then, and they look at me blankly. The upheaval of the time seems not to have interested them much. My father was busy in the lab, he was a chemistry post-doc. My mother was busy with me. It sounds ungrateful, but I have sometimes wished my birth (and later my brother’s) was not the fulfillment of my mother’s only dream. For a baby to be one of many dreams is one thing. To be the only one puts a lot of pressure on the baby.

 

When I was three, my favorite game was trying to throw my mother out with the garbage. My recollection of this is based solely on the story’s frequent retelling in our family. Apparently every night when my father came home from work, I would run into the kitchen and announce that now was the time to throw Mommy out. Daddy was home; he would take care of me. We were all done with Mommy.

My mother would smile and say, No no no. People are not for throwing out.

My father would try to reason with me. “Are you sure? Does it make sense to put a person in the garbage?”

“Yes! Put her in the garbage!”

My father is the one who tells the story, usually when I’m home for a visit, and I do my best to play the abashed, grown-up child, shaking my head at my behavior. My mother plays the woman with endless patience, the sage who knew it would turn out all right in the end. The difference is I really am abashed and I think my mother has just perfected the act.

“It was funny. Really,” she says.

The story ends with the night the game ended. We had assumed our positions, I was pulling on my mother’s skirt.

“Throw her out! In the garbage!”

“OK,” my father said. “OK! Let’s throw her out.”

I was wide-eyed. My father took my mother by the wrist and started pulling her toward the garbage. I waited 10, maybe 12 seconds—the number seems to increase with each telling—before running to my father and grabbing his arm. I pleaded with him to stop. But my father loves to tease, so he kept the ruse up for some time, and after that night I never played the game again.

I imagine my father’s expression remained stoic through it all. Would he have gone so far as to actually lift my mother into one of our large green cans? Probably. He claims his next move was going to be phoning the garbage collector. My mother, though, wanted him to stop teasing the moment my reaction was clear. After her initial relief, she looked at him and said, “It’s OK now. Stop.”

And this is the part for which she’s famous: “We don’t want to break her spirit.”

 

In junior high school, my parents asked me a question. It was a late summer evening and they were sitting in the living room, the curtains open, lights off. They often sat this way at dusk. I probably walked in and turned on one of the lamps. As a family we are melancholy enough without the Chekhovian stage lighting.

“A father and his young son are driving together,” my father began. “There’s a terrible car accident and the son is critically injured. He’s rushed to the hospital, but when the surgeon enters the room and sees the boy, the surgeon says, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t operate! Call another doctor,’ and rushes out.”

My mother didn’t have a job, and it never occurred to us to wonder how she spent her time when we weren’t around.

I listened, mesmerized. It was important to me when my father asked me a question and it didn’t happen often. After a moment, my mother said quietly, “Who was the doctor?” Her voice came from the murky darkness around her chair.

“Mom,” I said. “Dad’s telling the story.”

“That’s the question,” my father said. “Who was the doctor?”

Now I knit my brows in concentration. But I didn’t have an immediate answer. “His grandfather?”

No.

“His uncle.”

No.

“Does the boy have an older brother?”

No.

This story, too, has been retold many times. What was my mother thinking while I guessed all the boy’s male relations one after the other? My parents had read about this parlor game in a magazine, how girls across the country were being stumped by the answer. Apparently my mother had been sure I would be different.

Finally she said, “Jessie, the surgeon was the boy’s mother.”

It is said I at least had the wit to blush.

How could it be that a little girl growing up in a liberal, academic family in the 1970s (Ann Arbor, now, after Berkeley) could not imagine a woman as a surgeon? Sometimes I balance my embarrassment against my answer to another question posed by my parents some time later. “If you could be 10 times more beautiful or 10 times more intelligent, which would you choose?” Without thinking too hard about it, I chose more intelligent. I knew from my parents’ expressions that they were pleased.

Score: tied.

But this is what I was learning at home: my mother did all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. My father fixed the house, mowed the lawn, put up and took down the storm windows. Sometimes the whole family would help in the yard, but my father never helped with the cooking or laundry. He cooked only when my mother was sick—pancakes, usually—and my brother and I thought these dinners were wonderful, 10 times better than anything Mom ever made. My father had a job, and when he dove into the domestic realm, it thrilled us. My mother didn’t have a job, and it never occurred to us to wonder how she spent her time when we weren’t around.

 

When I was in my twenties, my mother told me she didn’t like her handwriting. She thought it looked uneducated. Surprised, I said, “What do you mean? No it doesn’t.”

I was home for a visit. We were in the kitchen making a grocery list, not the kitchen where the garbage game was played, but still. Kitchens for us remain problematic.

My mother smiled. “Oh, yes it does. I’ve always thought so. It’s sort of a mix between script and print. Too rounded and loopy.”

I insisted she was wrong. I told her it was stylish, even as it dawned on me that it wasn’t. Not really. It reminded me of the handwriting of some of the girls I’d known growing up, girls who dotted their ‘i’s with little circles. And then I wondered: if my mother had gone to college, had a career, would her handwriting have changed, a different emphasis in her life molding her penmanship into something more like mine? Something I was more interested in emulating? I was married now and starting to think about having a family. I hoped to raise children as well as I thought my mom had, but I also wanted a career. For as long as I could remember, I’d tried to be more like my father, but it seemed the model no longer applied.

Yet how could I, the product of my mother’s devotion, turn on her like that? How could I say to her, “You’re right. I wish you were different. If you’d had a career, then I would have a model now.”

I didn’t say these things. But I also didn’t say what I could have to reassure her. It took me a few years to realize she wasn’t talking about her handwriting either.

 

My daughter has invented her own daddy’s-home-from-work game. When her father arrives, she looks at me and closes her eyes tightly, then opens them, disappointed at the results. I have not disappeared. If I try to talk, to tell my husband something about our day, she runs to my legs and yells, “No, Mommy! Daddy was saying something!” When my husband tries to intervene, I find myself saying, “No, don’t worry,” although not with quite the same patience attributed to my mother.

Still, I don’t want to break her spirit.

But I am also working part-time, and that means that my daughter sees me leave the house for work sometimes, too. There are mornings when I return and my daughter runs to me, tired, for the moment, of her father and his rules. She often asks if I worked well. Usually, I can say yes. I like this balance in my life, and I sometimes wish it is something my mother might have known. What’s true, though, is this: despite her different life, her different choices, my mother understands why I want to work. All these years later, she still worries about my spirit. Maybe that’s the only model I need to follow.

In a few years, I’m going to ask my daughter that question about the boy in surgery. The year will be 2012 or so and I wonder what her answer will be. As for my signature, I found a solution. If I relax my hand a bit and make the s’s round and loopy, a bit like my mom’s, they come out much better. I sent her a card recently, and she told me later how happy it made her to see my handwriting in the mail.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane