June 1st, 2011

In 1921, when my mother was ready to graduate from Sacred Heart Elementary School, her grades tied for first place with another girl in her class.  My mother was proud when she, not the teacher, figured out how to break the tie by using decimals.  She was even prouder when the decimals revealed that she, and she alone, had won the coveted honor reserved for the girl graduating with the highest marks—the honor of crowning the Blessed Virgin Mary during the school’s annual May procession.

If as a child I had any pride in my mother’s accomplishment, it was lost in my efforts to wrest the story back from her and change what happened next.  

According to my mother’s story, the other little girl got to crown the Virgin after all.  The nun who was their teacher announced the decision to my mother several days later, justifying it because their grades had been so close and because the other girl’s father offered to buy a huge bouquet of flowers for the ceremony

My mother’s unquestioning acquiescence to her teacher made me feel physically sick when I was young.  When I’d hear the graduation story, one of her favorites, I tried to make it come out differently—asking her why didn’t she do this, and telling her she should have done that.  After her rejecting all my revisions, I decided to settle for trying to add a part to the story where all the bad people were punished.  I had in mind something that seemed fitting to me as a child like total humiliation followed by gruesome deaths.  My mother would have no such addenda to her story.  She insisted all involved were oblivious to her suffering and had remained forever free of the slightest tinge of remorse.

Unable to make the perpetrators care, I decided to work with material closer to hand—I’d make my mother care.  I fenced with her for a flash of righteous indignation, a moment’s railing against injustice.  I sought a break in her defenses that might release some of the venomous bitterness that I could feel poisoning her life and seeping into mine.

When she refused to care, I refused to care about her.  I struggled to free myself from her and her pain the way a drowning person would struggle to be free of a millstone tied around the neck.  In this as in so many other instances, I simply could not understand nor bear her refusal to struggle on her own behalf.

I could understand that she didn’t seek help from her stepmother, but I was baffled when she insisted that she had never told her father what happened.  She tried to explain that she couldn’t tell him because he was such a good man that he would have gone without lunches for a month to buy her a bigger bouquet for the Virgin Mary.

I always had my doubts.  As the pampered daughter of an adored father, I knew I would have told my Daddy immediately.  This made me suspect that deep down she feared her father was not the hero she wanted him to be.  I realize now that perhaps I just underestimated the impulse of children to protect their parents.  Despite my driving need to edit the elements of her story, I never hinted of my suspicions about her father because I couldn’t risk depriving her of the comfort she drew from his imagined sacrifice.

When I started high school in 1963, I understood that my mother’s somewhat envious excitement stemmed from the next part of her story.  The other little girl went on to high school where, in those days, one had to pay tuition and buy books.  My mother’s education, on the other hand, ended.  As was typical of working class eighth grade graduates of her era, she was expected to get a job to help support her family.

Her first job was seemingly a dream-come-true for a fourteen year old.  She knew just where she wanted to apply and, much to her delight, she was hired on the spot by the candy factory that not only made her favorite candy, chocolate-covered cherries, but had an all-you-can-eat policy for employees.

From mid-day when she was hired, she worked on an assembly line where she feasted on creamy cherries coated with thick milk chocolate.  When the chocolate, which also coated the floors, would build up on the soles of their shoes, the girls who worked there would clean them on a metal strip attached to the top of a huge bucket filled with the blackened scrapings.  Her co-workers teased her that the contents of the bucket were used to make licorice, my mother’s second favorite candy.

At quitting time that day, my mother helped the other girls spread protective sheets of canvas over the unfinished candy that remained on the assembly line.  The next morning when they lifted the sheets, mice feces dotted the line, and my mother was told to run the cherries through the chocolate a second time to hide tell-tale little footprints on the soft little chocolates.  Instead, she walked off the job and it was many years before she ate either chocolate-covered cherries or licorice.

This, however, was the first and last time that my mother afforded herself the luxury of letting personal feelings get in the way of steady employment.  From that point, she began a long series of jobs that didn’t even pretend to any niceness—jobs in dirty, hot factories making uninspired things like machine parts.  Meanwhile, she had thoroughly absorbed the lesson that good things may seem to happen, but only to make you feel worse later on when they are taken away.

My mother at her high school graduation with her valedictorian award

In the early 70’s, I held one last pitched battle against such notions of hers.  I was a young wife and mother when she came to live with me and my family.  Against great odds, I talked her into attending night school near our home.

She excelled at her studies, and her teachers, who all had heard her eighth grade graduation story, seemed more moved and excited than she was when her grades qualified her to be valedictorian of her high school graduating class.

I was so proud, and I happily accompanied her when she went shopping for a graduation dress.  We agreed we’d found the perfect one, a soft pink dress with gentle ruffles around a V-neckline.  The color and style totally flattered her pink face and short white hair.  The only trouble was that the dress cost almost $50, and she had never paid over $20 for a dress in her whole life.

I coaxed, cajoled, begged, and offered to pay for it.  I finally won, not through some brilliant argument on my part or some major insight on her part concerning her worth.  I won because she decided she could make the dress cost-effective by having it do double duty for both her graduation and her funeral.

Almost fifteen years later when she was 80 years old, I indeed had her laid to rest in her beautiful  graduation dress, and I cried not just for her passing, but for the ravages of all her life’s battles.

This is a piece that I originally started shortly after my mother’s death in 1988 as part of my grieving process.  It was rewritten recently to present at a reading sponsored by my local writers’ group.  During the rewrite, I realized that these incidents probably help explain both why I became a writer (so I could control the story), and why I have such a passion for justice.