My mother, weakened and exasperated by her second bout with cancer, wailed to her oncologist, “I have two daughters, and they’re both crazy.” I know this because she told me. God knows what the oncologist thought, but any doctor who has been through medical school in the last 40 years knows my mother stood condemned out of her own mouth.
If she had said that one of us was crazy, she might have been believed. The truth is, neither of us was crazy. We were confused. But in the Bible Belt, where everyone is confused, we were more confused than most, because we had been raised by our mother.
She was a saint. Everyone agreed on that. She was the most credulous, put-upon and wholly innocent person I have ever met. So what could her two daughters do but what we did? One of us became a depressed perfectionist, the other an angry slob with a short fuse. I suppose we thought that if we divided up the territory, one of us would eventually get it right. My mother died believing she could still somehow change us into admirable women, and the effort wore her out.
I’m certainly not proud of having disappointed my mother. I think my sister was sometimes defiantly proud of her rebellions, but she bore the brunt of my mother’s good intentions and deserves the benefit of the doubt. My quiet perfectionism kept me out of sight and out of mind most of the time.
Our family problems centered on the fact that neither my sister nor I could drive–dared drive–the family car, and later, any other car, farther than five miles from home. Not that we didn’t want to; we were not allowed to. That distance would get us to town, to church and to the homes of several friends, but it precluded any real escape. Nobody blames you if you run away from home to save your life or sanity. But when your mother is a saint, how can you run away? How can you want to drive a car or go away to college or be different from the person you’ve always been?
My mother, her sisters and all but one brother (the black-sheep alcoholic) lived their whole lives within a five-mile radius of their mother–who was the saintliest of them all.
As I grew older, I began to see the pattern of family values that made these saintly mothers figuratively break the legs of all their children so that they could never run away from home. In some kind of time-honored tradition, this was how family worked.
Nobody ever says it in so many words, but it is the purpose of mothers and fathers to socialize children, to help them–make them, if necessary–fit into the times and places where they can expect to live out their lives. A wise mother would foresee that her children might have to live in a different time and perhaps a far different place, and she would bend all her efforts to ensure their survival in novel circumstances. Unfortunately, that was never spoken of in North Carolina, because it was unimaginable that any of us would ever want to leave.
After World War II ended, the Southern men who had been drafted and sent overseas, came home eager to marry and have families. Maybe they were tired of taking orders or of the tedium of boring duties, the purpose of which nobody bothered to explain to them. Some of them had been prisoners of war and had seen firsthand the similarities between their mothers and the camp commandants. They came home to marry Southern women like us, who had been driving around in five-mile circles for four years and were ready for adventure. There were more weddings in the years between the end of World War II and the early months of the Korean conflict than there had been since before the Civil War. But there were no jobs at high pay in our little notch on the Bible Belt, which meant that after the wedding, the bride was expected to move away with her new husband. Most of the young women who married and moved away from home learned to drive. At least once a year, they packed the kiddies into the station wagon and made the long trip home, with or without their husbands. But not my sister and me.
To this day, I don’t know whether it was because we believed we couldn’t drive or we didn’t want to go home that made us crazy. We both had driver’s licenses. My sister, while making scenes reminiscent of Bette Davis in some of her more vicious roles in movies, maintained that she was perfectly sane. I dutifully took my tranquilizers and prayed that I would make it through the monthly mood swings. Both of us smoked like chimneys.
We both became mothers, too–but luckily, we only had sons. Boys don’t take kindly to being denied the use of the car on Saturday nights. As soon as they’re old enough to go to college, boys light out on their own and come home only get their laundry done. It’s harder and harder these days to tie men down, and neither of us was saintly enough to want to try it.
Two years after my mother died, my long-suffering husband died of cancer. All my sons lived much too far away to drive me anywhere. After the funeral, they all went home and left me to my own devices. Putting a disastrous love affair and an equally disastrous move to another city behind me, I decided to go back to the town I’d lived in as a wife. The hardest thing I ever had to do was make the four-hour drive all the way back to independence.
Two months later, my sister died, alone. A neighbor found her on the kitchen floor in front of the still-open refrigerator door. The autopsy showed she died of heat stroke.
Such are the ends of saintliness, and crazy women everywhere will understand why I still cannot go home again to the town where I grew up. I still drive mostly in those five-mile circles. At last the PMS is gone, and, if I live alone, I don’t need half as many tranquilizers.
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