08 May 2011

On Mothers

Happy Mother's Day. When you're a child, your mother is Super Woman: she takes you everywhere, bathes, dresses, and feeds you, fixes your hurts  - and seems to have eyes in the back of her head. As you grow older you begin to see cracks in the shiny armor in which your imagination clad her and perhaps it tarnishes a little. When you become a parent yourself, she is Mother Wisdom in your eyes, someone who knows everything about babies. 

None of these incarnations are entirely true, of course. Mothers are human beings with strengths and frailties just the same as everyone else. Some have motherhood thrust upon them as a surprise and struggle to cope as a small wriggling screamer is laid in their arms. Others have prior experience and it's all old hat.

But one thing is certain: you mother influences your life like no other being on the planet. Whatever your relationship is or was with your mother colors your outlook. When you realize this, you can then seriously consider what you want to keep and what you may need to change. 

Rosemary Olivas Johnson (R) circa 1944
My mother was a stronger woman than many in my immediate family gave her credit for. Rosa Maria Ceballo y Olivas grew up in Depression-era Tucson in the historic barrio where the Community Center Music Hall now stands; a smart Mexicana who graduated from Tucson High and married an airman who was shot down over Germany barely two months later. Widowed, she left her home and and the comfort of the barrio culture to join the Navy and be sent East among primarily Anglos with strong prejudices. She married a Navy corpsman who took her to his hometown area of western Pennsylvania at a time when there were no Latinos there (let alone Mexicans), no one spoke any  language other than English, and even her mother-in-law treated her badly because of her brown skin. As the 1950s became the 1960s, the pressure to be like everyone else was huge. She became Rosemary Johnson and didn't teach us much about being Mexican. She never made tortillas but once in awhile she'd buy canned ones (Ortega corn -- nasty) and make tacos. But ooh, she made a mean salsa with banana peppers and chile con queso...

I spoke Spanish as a child but that was drummed out as soon as I started school at first grade. Grade school Spanish was that of Spain not Mexico and the words I knew were dismissed as "peon." ( I can still see my third-grade Spanish teacher's puckered up, sour-lemon face when I told her my name most certainly was not Cochita -- because that meant pig...) American culture back then had no room for hyphens: we weren't Mexican-Americans, there were no African-Americans or Asian-Americans or whatever. We were supposed to be Wonder Bread-eating, Stars and Stripes Forever, plain old Americans. Which wasn't really a bad thing to hope for as an ideal: that all Americans were Americans first. Reality being something vastly different of course.

My mother fed a family of five kids, two grandparents, her husband, her eldest children's friends, and herself on a budget of $200 per month. She managed to put wholesome meals on the table at least nightly, cleaned her three-story farmhouse totally by herself, did laundry and ironing - even starching my father's shirts - and tried to have a little life for herself with two or three women friends. My father put a halt to her bowling league days because he thought she would "get a reputation." (Translation: she was having too much fun.) She learned to drive at age 40 and ran us all over the county until we learned to drive ourselves. She learned to thrive in a culture not her own, assimilated into the local farm community, and supported my father's activities in the Lions, Shriners, Masons, and Rotary.

Now I see the similarities between my mother's life and my own. She left the barrio and her family behind - I left the East and Wonder Bread ways to embrace my heritage in the town she abandoned. She had little to no contact with her siblings; neither do I. She had a few close women friends; so do I. But where she was not permitted to be her own woman, I am more than fiercely independent. I watched what she went through, how hard she worked for little appreciation, and vowed that would not be my way.

Yet what she taught me with rules and consequences, respect and manners, has forged me into the mom I became with my son. And I can only hope to emulate what a loving and giving grandmother she became. (Just not too soon, okay?)

Feliz Dia de Las Madres. Happy Mother's Day.


  1. That was a lovely tribute to your mother. It shows maturity and understanding, compassion and appreciation.

    Blessings on you,


  2. Jude,

    What a wonderful blog. Mothers, no matter what the culture are special. Some endure so much to make a family. Sounds like you were especially blessed. And being a grandmother is super. You 'ain't' responsible - no matter what.


  3. Thank you, Julie. And a Happy Mother's Day blessing to you.


  4. LOL Allison - I've heard grandparenting is the best of both worlds. My mom thoroughly enjoyed being The Nana - and almost all of her grandchildren were especially lucky to grow up either in her house or very close. And she made the best pie crust ever.