"A Woman's Place is in the House...and the Senate," read the banner on the door of the cabinet that housed our dinner plates and cereal bowls. Similar posters peppered the kitchen walls: "What if Prince Charming never comes?" "Housework is like stringing beads on a string with no knot." I remember pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams, quotes from Margaret Sanger, and a dishtowel featuring Ronald Reagan that read "Doormat." As I was becoming a teenager, my mother was becoming a feminist. Or maybe she always had been and just felt more free to express herself as I started forging my independence.
Mom stayed a feminist ever after, so it might seem odd that the phrase that comes to mind when I think of what she taught me is "Stand by your man." She has stuck with my dad through thick and thin, and it didn't take long for things to get lean. My parents had been married for two years and were living on an Air Force base in Wiesbaden, Germany. One child, my brother, had been born 18 months earlier, and I had been nestled in Mom's womb for eight months. Shortly before I was born, my father had a brain aneurysm and was rushed back to the United States. Saving his life required brain surgery. My mother remained calm through the surgery and after. Like roots deep underground, she nourished him.
My father made it through the surgery, but even after several years of therapy, he was unable to perform his military duties. He was granted military retirement, but the pension wasn't quite enough for the family to live on. Mom went back to work as a nurse.
Dad lost more than some of his faculties to execute precision tasks. He also lost part of himself. Years later, Mom confided in me that his personality had changed after the aneurysm; he wasn't quite the same man she had married. Tender parts of him had hardened. Patience had drained away. A bridge between them had been broken and could not be repaired. But my mother remained true, true in love and true in deed. Her fidelity was not built on religious convictions — she left the Catholic Church long ago. Rather, she had a sense of personal responsibility and deep reserves of sacrificial love. She knew my father needed her. She had promised to remain with him in sickness and in health. She also knew that a fractured family would damage the children. No matter what forces encouraged her to put herself first, she continued to take the road less traveled by, always emptying herself in small ways.
I remember trips to the discount aisle in the grocery store, buying mushrooms with black spots for 15 cents, slightly wilted lettuce for 30 cents. Generic chicken noodle soup in stark white cans with bold black print. I hated the mushrooms and was embarrassed by the soup. My mother's coupon folder seemed to have endless folds, all filled with meticulously organized coupons; she never shopped without it. She never bought a dress, slacks, or even pantyhose unless they were on sale. Dad taught us kids a song that we used to tease her with, crooning, "Mommy bird, Mommy bird, cheap, cheap, cheap!"
Now I realize that she was not cheap. She saved money all through the year so that we could go on a family vacation. Every summer, Mom would pack up our ancient orange Volkswagen camper van, and off we'd go to places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Corpus Christi. We ate bologna sandwiches for lunch and Hamburger Helper for dinner, and after the dishes were done, we roasted marshmallows by a fire.
I never think about the spotty mushrooms now or about the fights between my parents. I think about the boiling mud pits we saw on vacation, the yellow geysers, the burnt orange and rich brown of the Grand Canyon. I think of the trolley in San Francisco and the white sands of Corpus Christi beaches. Memories I might not have had if my mother had chosen another road.