I don’t know if this is true of everyone’s mother, but mine is part legend. She told me once, when I was old enough to understand that it wasn’t a statement about me, that she never wanted to have children until she had them. Thus, she retained more of her identity as herself than most other mothers I met growing up. Some of these are my memories, and some of these are stories she’s told me.
My sister and I chased two grumpy Siamese cats around an old farmhouse in Michigan while my mom went hunting in the woods. We were too young to know it, but my parents were struggling to pay bills. My dad worked three jobs and went to graduate school while my mom took care of us. We were surviving on bags of groceries left by church people on our doorstep. The deer my mom bagged that day with her old mule of a shotgun got us through the winter. She came into the kitchen to clean up after gutting it, her bloody Buck knife as long as my tiny forearm. The clearest visual I have of that day was of her hands – they were dry and cracked from housework. Blood seeped into every tiny little crevice, like a network of roads on an atlas.
In the Norse myths I studied in college, the women were always the little strings tying the community to the gods. They felt the pull when something was moving in the Ether. Warriors ignored their wives’ warnings and went to their doom. My mom has always been sensitive to the spirit world, which looks odd under her plaid flannel and practical attitude.
Yesterday, my siblings and I sat down with mom at her big Amish oak table for coffee.
“What are you looking for?” my mom asked me. “You are on quite the spiritual quest.”
“It’s not my fault,” I said. “I’m in a spiritual Bubble, where all the right people, books, and conversations are coming to me at just the right time. I can’t do anything about it.”
I paused. “And it’s not just me. Something’s building up. Something’s coming.”
“And you can see the backlash against it,” Sarah added, “particularly in current politics.”
“Huh.” Mom said. “I’ve felt the spiritual warfare heat up intensely lately.”
“Are you sure you’re just paying more attention to it?” Nate asked.
“No. No this is big. And on more than one front,” she answered.
We took this to be more true than the books and blogs we’d been reading, and considered ourselves fairly warned.
My mom didn’t work outside the home until I was in high school, but she told me about her jobs before she got married. She worked in a grocery store when she was a teenager, and was so good at her job that she was put in charge of the store while the owners were away. She spent a summer on horseback in the Great Plains as a cowherd, and worked with a team of draft mules on a friend’s farm in Alaska. The mules were so big, she said, that if they threw up their heads while she was hanging onto their bridles they’d lift her straight off the ground. She worked as a prison guard in a girls’ juvenile detention facility while she was in college, and as a truck driver somewhere in between.
One day, when I was in high school, I was grabbing a snack in my kitchen with some friends when my mom, dressed in her red flannel robe and sheepskin slippers and carrying a rifle, walked across the living room and out the front door. My friends went completely silent.
“Uh…stay here. I’ll be right back.” I followed her out the door to see what she was up to.
My mom was standing out on the front porch with her bathrobe and her gun (which turned out to be just a pellet gun), staring at the neighbors’ cat across the street.
“Thought I saw that stray tom that’s been tearing up the pets.”
“Oh. Why aren’t you shooting it?”
“Not the right cat. See? It’s got white on its chest. Always make sure exactly what you’re shooting at before you pull the trigger.”
“Yeah. That would be really awkward to have to explain to them why you shot their cat.”
I went back inside, while my mom stayed out to watch the cat a little longer.
Mom doesn’t really do fashion, or hair, or dating advice. She doesn’t decorate or enjoy being the hostess. She gardens sometimes, but only vegetables. She’s instant death to any houseplant. So most of her “womanly advice” over the years has been about surviving situations that her children may or may not ever find themselves in. Other than the “know what you’re shooting at” advice, here are some others I’m recording here for future reference:
“If you’re on a sinking ship, swim away before it goes under or you’ll get sucked into the sea.”
“If two dogs start fighting, don’t touch them or they’ll turn on you. Throw water on their heads to break up the fight.”
“If you end up in a knife fight, hold it like this” (as she demonstrates with her cooking knife) “so it’s easier for you to pull it out of their body quickly after you stab them.”
“If you fall out of a boat in a swiftly moving current, orient yourself so you’re going feet first down the stream. That way you’ll hit your feet, not your head on the rocks and reduce your chance of drowning.”
“Always check the back seat of the car before you get in so no one can get the jump on you. If someone is in your car holding a gun to your head, crash the car. You have a better chance of surviving a car crash than a murderer.”
“Always know where your exits are when you walk into a room.”
“Trust your gut. If someone feels wrong or dangerous, they probably are.”
“Always treat a gun like it’s loaded. Never point a gun at something you don’t want shot.”
And so on and so forth.
On my wedding day, I didn’t want to throw the stupid bouquet. So instead I presented it to Mom as a token of respect. She is part legend after all. I was going to tell the guests why, but their cheering cut me short.
I know a lot of women who look forward to their fifties as the part of their life when they run out of time, when their family takes priority over every dream they ever had and when they start to get ugly. My mom scares my ex-military coworkers by having friendly conversations with them. She rides a motorcycle to work where she plays with dolphins (which sounds cute, until you realize they’re 400 pounds of mischievous muscle that can hold their breath underwater longer than you). She’s still a damn good shot with her old shotgun (which I know she keeps loaded and ready in the house, but even I don’t know where). She still hits the gym with me and my dad is still completely in love with her.
So I don’t know what these other women are afraid of. Based on my mother’s precedent, my fifties are going to be one hell of a run.