When my parents were to be married, my Grandmother didn’t want her daughter marrying my father, a Catholic Italian. Grandma insisted her daughter would end up barefoot and pregnant all the years of her life, a life filed with nothing but drudgery.
For the most part, Grandma was right. Mother had eight babies, seven of which survived and needed to be raised. Grandma was never happy about this and consequently never showed any affection for her grandchildren.
She did, however, care enough to insist that I not wear a sleeveless dress one Easter because, according to Grandma, one needed to have “nice arms” to get away with that. Apparently, in her critical point of view, I didn’t have particularly nice arms.
This put Mother in the sticky position of having to either defend her daughter or acquiesce to her mother, the latter of which would guarantee a pleasant visit with her mother yet hurt her daughter’s feelings. I was always surprised by Mothers unfailing defense and support of her children. Grandma’s presence was so intimidating I knew it would have been easiest for Mother to just go along with whatever she said, yet she always chose to stand up for her kids.
As anyone can see, Mother had more challenges in life than she’d ever bargained for. I saw her love for her children in everything she did, yet as I grew older, I also saw the longing to be herself, Jackie, the original person God created. In the midst of mothering, housekeeping, and being a wife, I saw Jackie standing in the background, wishing upon wishes she could step to the forefront before she was either too old to care or too worn out to do anything when she got there.
Where was she? The role she played swallowed up the person. She was suffocating under a ton of demands and responsibilities only to be rescued once a year, the week of the convention.
As it turned out, my father was not oblivious to this. As he labored away to put food on the table and build a house large enough to accommodate his growing brood, he initiated a life altering, marriage saving, tradition. It was called “Thursday night date night,” and it just may have saved my mother’s sanity.
Jackie began Thursday night date night by pouring a glass of wine, taking a sip with closed eyes, then walking slowly to the closet to pick out something special to wear for dinner at “The Club.”
“The Club” was a fancy place where dinner was served at tables with crisp white linens, candle light, and salad forks. Waiters stood at attention near each table to refill water glasses should one take a sip, and swoop in to clear bread crumbs from the linens should they happen to fall. Not a glass of wine was allowed to go dry nor a plate emptied without the next course assuredly on the way. Desert was not only offered, it just may have been mandatory.
Jackie waltzed out the door of our house in her clickety-click high heels and walked back into the house later that night in nylon feet, shoes in hand, smile illuminating the whole place.
How were our TV dinners? She’d ask. Wonderful! we exclaimed. We loved Thursday night TV dinners as much as Mother loved Thursday night date night. My favorite was something with chicken and mashed potatoes and corn. I loved to mix the corn and the mashed potatoes all together. There was a big dab of butter and some kind of gravy on it too and it was real salty. I thought, as I ballooned up, it was the best food in the world.
Mother looked forward to Thursday night date night all week. As long as Thursday nights were on, she could make it to the annual convention week. Between the two, she had just enough escape for survival.
Looking back, I realize that even as a kid, I got it. I don’t think I knew what it was I got, but I knew I got something and it was important. In my innocent view of my mother, I saw a person whose identity was lost in her commitments and daily demands. Even as a little girl, I could see a conflict in Mother, a conflict between whom she was and who she had no choice but to be. Don’t misunderstand; I believe she was happy for the most part. Yet, I also believe she tried in many ways throughout her life to stand as herself, to let someone know who she really was; a person uniquely created and as individual as a soul could be. So interwoven was her life with so many others, it was nearly impossible to step outside the lines and declare herself to be just that; herself.
Yet, Mother persevered, and as the years went by, the seven of us came to recognize there was a real person behind the vacuum cleaner who had not only birthed us, but had raised us with a tender heart, gentle hands, and an incredibly odd-ball sense of humor; a humor that, thankfully, rubbed off on me.
To Be Continued Next Tuesday