Thursday, February 02, 2006

Memories of My Mother

My mother, Alice Whitfield Howell - well, now that could take a book in itself. As I wrote in an earlier post, she was raised in a country store in northern New Jersey, in a family that struggled to make ends meet. There was a strong religious streak in the family (Presbyterian), as her grandfather had been a minister, and her parents both were quite religious. My mother was educated at Stroudsburg State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, and went on to become an English teacher at Wharton High School, near Dover, N.J. For ten years she shared an apartment with her dearest friend, Anne Sliker, who was a physical education teacher at the same school. Those two teachers/pals took trips together, attended each others' family events, and were the closest of friends. I'll write lots more about Anne in an upcoming blog, since she became an integral part of our family. Here's an early photo of Mom on one of those trips with AnneIn 1942, when my mother was 33 years old, she was introduced to my father, Tom, who was already 40 and had never married. What followed was a whirlwind courtship and marriage within a few months. Tom and Alice lived for their first year in Allamuchy, NJ, on the estate of Clendenin J. Ryan, the son of wealthy financier Thomas Fortune Ryan. "Uncle Clen" was a millionaire who hired my father as his estate manager. Already by that time, Dad had decided that living in New York and working in the sugar business was not for him. He was determined to live in the country, and had made a break with the family business. During that first year in Allamuchy, I was born and my parents soon bought a 100 acre farm outside Califon, New Jersey, a beautiful valley with gently rolling hills. The family lived there for the next 25 years.Here is a photo of our family on a Sunday walk in the woods behind our farm. My mother gave up teaching school as soon as she was married. She also gave up driving a car, and she never was employed or drove again. That, I guess, was how they did it back then but it still astounds me when I think of it. The other astounding thing was that my parents invited my mother's c0-teacher/best friend, Anne Sliker, to move in with them at the farm, and she did indeed live with us for the next 25 years - a third adult in our home.

My mother was in every way a marvelous farm wife. She cooked, cleaned, baked almost every day, canned and froze food from our gardens and orchards, prided herself on making 100 jars of jam every summer. She kept a beautiful house, and loved to entertain. She loved pretty china and linens, and gorgeous silver. Our flower garden was spectacular, and she grew to love flower arranging . Later in her life, she entered flower shows and belonged to garden clubs. She was gregarious and had many friends in our neighborhood. Our home was frequently the location of huge Whitfield family parties - of course Grandma's birthday every December. But there were picnics, church suppers, Thanksgiving, other birthdays and holidays. She embraced any opportunity to entertain. When she and my dad retired, they did the opposite of most people their age. They bought a 6 bedroom home on the Chesapeake Bay, the "Garden of Eden", on 7 acres of waterfront land, and there the entertaining reached new zeniths.

My mother was strict with us children, and critical. Everything we did or did not do reflected on her. She was a black and white thinker where we were concerned. She was the arbiter of good and bad, and she (and God) would punish us if we strayed over the line towards badness. She took great pride in our achievements (such as good grades) but she also did not hesitate to take a bar of soap and roughly wash our mouths out with it if we sad "hell" or "damn". She monitored what we wore, what we said, who we played with, what we thought, and just about anything else she thought she could control to keep us on the straight and narrow pathway she saw for us. When I was a teenager, she frequently listened in on my phone calls, steamed open my mail, read my journal, examined my underwear, all in the name of keeping me under control. We had many painful confrontations during those years.

I think the dynamic that drove our mother most strongly was her desire to measure up to the family she had married into, and to make us children measure up as well. She drove me crazy with what I called "name dropping", littering her conversations with the names of the wealthy and famous friends of my father's family. She browsed eagerly through the New York Social Register (where our family was listed), and gleaned nuggets of information from it which she used in various ways. She forbade us to play with certain children in the nearby small town who came from poor or uneducated families, and would not allow us to bring home anyone who was "not good enough". I was ashamed and fought her constantly, especially in my teenage years, for what I perceived as her immense snobbishness. I now realize that she was probably scared to death underneath it all that somebody would see her as "less than" and "not good enough" for my father and his family.

In fact, we rarely saw my father's family. Most of our family gatherings were those of the Whitfield side, my mother's family. When we did get together with the Howells, it was a rare occasion. To this day, I don't understand why, except that our lives were so different from theirs. We were a sprawling family with 4 kids, struggling to make it on a farm. They had yachts, servants, money, and commuted to New York from their homes in exclusive suburbs.

My mother lived alone for 10 years after my father died in 1985. She was a great reader, loved to do the crossword puzzle every day in the New York Times. She took long walks and exercised on the floor of her bedroom. Although she was obsessed with weight (hers, mine, and everybody elses), she rarely weighed above 125 pounds - quite trim for someone 5'4" tall. It seemed as if she was on a lifelong diet, and indeed she talked about her weight (and my weight) almost every time I saw her.
I can't say that I was close to my mother. She was judgmental around me, and critical of my choices and decisions. My teenage pregnancy and abortion (in the late 1950's) certainly made things worse, although the lack of any information I had at that time about sexuality and birth control, played a large part in my dilemma. She was bitterly opposed to my first marriage, and sobbed with rage at my wedding, after screaming at me all the way to the ceremony "I won't allow you to do this. I won't allow you to throw your life away". Over the years, she mellowed somewhat. Since my marriage lasted 16 years and produced three lovely children, she relented enough to be a loving grandmother to them.

In her last years, she and I made a truce, of sorts. We were able to talk about the hard times, and forgive each other for all the painful years. She died in December 1995, taken away by a stroke in her sleep from which she never regained consciousness. She was 84 years old. I still miss being able to telephone her and have a chat.

1 comment:

Linstilllife said...

you really brought her to life. What an amazing life for you both. Certainly what we push away from creates us as much or more than what we are attracted to, yes? Both 0f you fine and beautiful loved women at last.