Ann L. Beckham
Photo of the author.
© Copyright 2000 by Ann L. Beckham2000 First Prize General Nonfiction
My mother was a woman who made chili sauce and cakes for her neighbors; taught Sunday School and gave devotionals; delivered babies and gave allergy shots; wrote poems and volumes of her thoughts; was unhappily married for 40 years; and inspired her children to believe in God, get an education and "be somebody." She was a woman of courage and determination. She was a complex mixture with many facets.
Zadie was born on May 8, 1911, in Rocky Mount, Virginia. She was the third of six children. There were four girls and two boys. Her father was working in the office of a railroad at the time of her birth and was later transferred to Philadelphia so she spent most of her childhood in West Chester, PA. Apparently her father's side of the family was primarily merchants and office workers. Her mother's side was southern farmers in Mississippi raising large money crops. Her great, great, great maternal grandmother was Cherokee Indian. Her father's ancestors were Black Irish and English. Her mother's side of the family was beautiful women and handsome men. Her father's side was distinguished looking with distinctive dark eyes and hair. My mother inherited her mother's line of attractiveness. She was proud of her family and loved them dearly.
Mother told me many stories of happy times in the big, old house in West Chester. The house had so many rambling rooms that the kids played hide and seek inside the house on rainy days. I picture the kitchen as one of wonderful smells, the laughter of children, and the gentle smile of my grandmother. Mother learned to cook and sew from her mother and got a large dose of responsibility from both parents. Her place in the birth order made it her frequent responsibility to look after the younger children. Her older brother and sister were involved in numerous social activities and school functions. They were both busy, outgoing extroverts while mother was introverted and studious. Mother felt like she never quite measured up to her older sister. She watched her go to dance recitals, win various contests at school, and later entertain beaus in the parlor. My mother believed that her older sister got all the charm and talent with her getting very little of either.
Stories of her times with her parents included lots of responsibility but also lots of family closeness and fun. School was very important in the Matthews house. Mother told of her mother requiring all of the siblings who were in school to sit at the dining room table and do their homework immediately after they came in from school. Good grades were expected and mother did very well with her studies. She talked about her parents' strictness in regard to their behavior but she never considered it punitive or excessive. She thought it was valuable and necessary in a house full of six children. Mother's relationship with her mother was very close. She helped her mother with the younger children; she helped in the kitchen and she did some of the ironing for the girls. Her mother gave her lots of praise for her help and rewarded her with an extra nickel or an extra piece of dessert. Her relationship with her father was not as close but was very respectful and adoring. She saw him as wise, responsible and loving. She talked about the long hours he worked and how much they looked forward to the time he spent with them. He was her idea of the perfect father and husband. He would occasionally surprise them with an unexpected trip to the ice cream parlor or some other family outing. He enjoyed entertaining and would frequently bring home guests from the office for dinner. Mother described this as a fun time when they were allowed to sit for a short time with the guests and listen to stories that were fascinating to children.
One of the traditions in my mother's family was around Christmas. The unveiling of the Christmas tree was very special. This was not done until Christmas eve. The tree would be in the parlor with the doors closed and no one was allowed in until they all gathered on Christmas Eve and went into the parlor. Any of her parents' friends who did not have family to be with on Christmas would be invited over for the Christmas Eve party. Mother's older sister played the piano and everyone sang Christmas carols after the tree was unveiled. She says they didn't get elaborate gifts but the fun was seeing the tree for the first time and getting the fruit and candy from their stockings. Mother learned well how to create this sense of excitement and fun and did it often with me as a child. On my sixteenth birthday she woke me up to the music, "Sweet Sixteen," and had the entire day planned with various surprises.
This seemingly idyllic life came to a screeching halt when mother was twelve years old and her father died suddenly. This was the first of two situations outside her control that had a major impact on her life. Her mother did not know what to do to support herself and her children except to sell most of what they had and move her family to her relatives in Mississippi. Her older brother left shortly after the funeral and moved to California. Mother and her older sister helped take care of the younger children as they moved south. From her stories, it sounded like grief and chaos had dismantled the whole family. Mother's childhood had ended abruptly.
Culture shock awaited the family in Mississippi. They were accustomed to a higher standard of living in Pennsylvania with such conveniences as indoor plumbing and running water. Now they had to get acquainted with outdoor toilets, drawing water from a well and living in cramped conditions. Their cousins teased them because they talked differently and because my mother wore glasses. She remembered feeling lonely and lost in this whole new world.
After the Depression hit the country, it was decided to send Zadie and her older sister to Memphis to try to find a job. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade and started working in Memphis at Sears. She lived with her sister until Roberta moved back to Philadelphia to get married. Mother continued to work and would send money back home to her mother in Mississippi. When they had enough money, the rest of the family moved to Memphis. Even though there was very little food, Mother talked about the amazingly good dinners her mother could fix out of little of nothing. She always wanted to be able to cook as good as her mother and according to my aunts and uncle, she accomplished that task. Mother usually rode the street car to her job, but if the weather was nice, she would walk to work and save her street car money so she could take her brother and sisters to the movie.
She continued to work supporting the family and took an LPN course so she could get a better job. She worked as a nurse in several doctor's offices until she married. Her first marriage ended quickly in divorce. She never talked to me about this marriage so I don't have many details about it. I have been told that she was married to a doctor who was unfaithful to her and she divorced him immediately. She met my father in 1941. He told her about his infant son he was trying to raise whose mother had died in childbirth. The baby captured Mother's heart and she married my father three months later. Five years after my parents were married I was born. I think of the myriad contributions from my parents to my personality before and after my birth, all of the influences of my mother's and genetic heredity were shaping me before I ever took a breath. This was my first birth. My mother's description of her longing to be pregnant indicates her attachment to me during my time in her womb. My second birth was my physical entry into this world of this particular family with this woman as my mother. My own total dependency as a helpless infant and my desire for human attachment was necessary to make both births complete and successfully begin the attachment process.
My mother's life was shaped by the death of her father at an early age, the Depression, and now her marriage to a man she barely knew in order to be able to mother his infant son. She and my father were from two very different cultures. These two people who were my parents were as opposite as night and day. She was a city girl who aspired to do well in life. He was a country boy trying to make a living with no particular goals beyond a simple life with the basic necessities. Their relationship was full of tension, arguments, silence, distance, and minimal tolerance. I don't think they even liked each other most of the time. She would not divorce him because she believed she had taken a vow to God about marriage and would not break that vow. The other factor was survival. I asked her once when I was in college why she had remained in the marriage. She explained to me that she could not see any way to support my brother and me on her own. She married for one child and chose to stay married for her two children.
My parents were living in the city of Memphis at the time of my birth. When I was one year old, my mother finally gave in to my father's wishes to move to the country where his family lived. My mother described her first years in the country as hell. She didn't know anyone except my father's family. Most of his family thought she was "uppity" so they were not welcoming to her. Some of the women in the community that she met also thought she was an enigma because of the way she talked, her love of books, and the way she dressed. She always looked sophisticated and neat and made sure that my brother and I did also. Her friend told me that she would put a piece of plastic in between the folds of my diaper because it looked better than the rubber pants that were available then to cover diapers. She had an eye for beauty and it was obvious in her home and her dress.
During my infancy my mother was my primary caretaker. I learned to take cues from her responses to me. My mother was my most important teacher and her cues helped me learn to feel comfortable in my new world. He face was a mirror for me. I looked into my mother's face to see myself reflected. My mother looked at me and either reflected back what she saw in my face or reshaped my environment with another look or gesture. Whatever was affecting my mother in her environment was affecting me in many ways.
She longed to be back in the city with her family and friends but getting there was not an easy task. My brother remembers when they did not have a car and they would flag down the train with a suitcase and ride into town to visit and then catch the train back to the country in the evening. Mother was not content to sit in the country. She would walk two miles with my brother and me in a stroller so she could catch a bus into Memphis. In time they were able to buy a car which my dad used for work. Eventually she forced my dad to teach her to drive and she would take him to work and keep the car so she could get out more.
My dad's relatives gradually accepted her but frequently reminded her that she was a "Yankee" and had Yankee ways. She was proud of her heritage and made me proud of it also. She was tenacious about making her place in this new environment. Mother became socially involved in the community of Lucy that we were living in. Because her father had believed that they should never pass one church in order to attend another church, she went to the church closest to our house which was Baptist. She began to take leadership positions in the church and took us to almost every service there. My brother and I both developed an appreciation for faith even though we took different paths to get there. She became involved in our school with the Parent, Teacher Association and soon rose to the presidency of that group. She met some women in the community through the PTA who became good friends and together they organized the Lucy Fine Arts Club. Mother went from being an outsider who didn't belong to a respected and loved member of the community. She was determined to make the best of the path she had chosen and she did it with grace, charm and an iron will.
Mother's friends tell me that she took great delight in her children. I remember her telling me how much she wanted to have a child and was worried because she could not get pregnant. She had picked out my name long before I was ever conceived. After x-ray treatments to her pituitary gland she became pregnant with me. With five years difference between my brother and me she had space to give us each the attention we needed in those early years. She loved her children and did everything she could to nurture us in ways she thought best. My attachment and my brother's attachment to my mother was secure. My brother believes that my mother saved him from becoming a country "redneck." l She read to each of us as often as she could and had us reading long before we ever went to school. I remember vividly our ritual bedtime reading and two books in particular, Davy Crockett and Heidi that were my favorites. She took us for long walks in nature and we dug wildflowers to bring back home and plant. She grew to love nature and her exposure to it living in the country.
When I was in the second or third grade she took a part time job at a doctor's office in a town about four miles away from Lucy. These were country doctors who made house calls, delivered babies, and performed minor and major medical miracles on a daily basis. When I was in the seventh grade she started working full time. This job was to become my mother's career and a new big piece of her identity. She learned how to do almost everything the doctors did and soon became "Nurse Zadie" whom everyone called for medical advice when their child had an accident or a high fever in the middle of the night. Our house became an unofficial clinic for allergy shots, blood pressure checks, smashed fingernails, etc. Mother loved this work and the people loved her. She blossomed with renewed self-esteem and pride in her accomplishments. This job opened the door for her to make friends in the larger community expanding her social horizons as well as her professional accomplishments. I can remember fondly how my mother would smell of medicine and alcohol when she came home after work.
After my brother and I left home for marriage and college mother expanded her social life beyond the church group and began to attend theater and symphonies with her friends she had met through her work. She didn't abandon her church friends but she enlarged her circle. She took one trip abroad and loved traveling. She always wanted to know more and see more of the world. She traded the PTA for the Business and Professional Women's Club. She joined the Memphis Storytellers League and gained a reputation all over the county as a storyteller. Mother's interests did not seem to change that much over the years. With the addition of grandchildren, she took time to go to see them and spoil them as much as possible. Her kitchen probably resembled the one of her mothers with wonderful smells and delicious food for family and friends. She never lost her love for nursing. She worked until she was almost seventy years old. She continued her activities at the church and was sought after for leadership positions and advice. She was a great support and counselor for many of her friends and people she met at work. She felt everyone had importance in God's eye and no problem was too big to conquer.
One of the primary reasons my mother went back to work was to have some money to buy furniture for the house and give my brother and me more opportunities to go places and do things. She wanted more out of life than my father thought was necessary or was willing to pay for. I also think she was bored intellectually and wanted a more stimulating environment. She saw to it that we were exposed to as many educational experiences as possible. She encouraged us to expand our interests, "branch out" as she would say, and do things that would broaden our horizons. This was another source of tension as my father did not believe that girls needed to attend college and told me from an early age that I should marry a doctor or dentist and not worry about going to school. He refused to pay for my education so my mother financed my college years. My father did not attend my college graduation ceremonies, which hurt me deeply. It also rang true of his belief that my mother was throwing away her money to send a girl to school who just needed to get married and have babies. My mother's determination to give me every opportunity she could continues to motivate me today.
I would think that raising children in a marriage like that would be difficult with some great risks of depression and apathy. I don't remember my mother being depressed until about a year before she died. She was never apathetic about anything. I think my father was periodically or chronically depressed because of the relationship with my mother. My father was much more vocal about his unhappiness with my mother. In his late seventies, he got very depressed and virtually gave up when he found out he had cancer. He died ten years before she did and it was only after his death that she expressed any guilt about the way she treated him. I believe that my mother was motivated by her children and her religious belief to stay in the marriage. Without the aid of any therapy, it was not an option for my parents, they never could acknowledge their basic, inherited differences and allow each other to be who they were without pulling and tugging at each other to be someone else.
Growing up with parents who were living together but not liking each other was difficult to manage for my brother and me. We basically grew up being exposed to two cultures in the same house. My parents led separate lives under the same roof. My mother liked to invite her friends or couples from the church over for dinner. This would make my father angry and we never knew whether or not he would make some embarrassing remark to the guests. There were frequent arguments and almost constant tension. My mother wanted my father to be someone he could not be and my father wanted my mother to be someone she could not be. My brother took my father's side and I took my mother's side. This came between me and my brother as well as me and my father. After my brother left for college, their arguing increased. If my mother was leaving the house, this would cause an argument between her and my father but she would leave anyway. I would try to talk my father out of fussing at my mother when she came home. This usually made him angry with me and less likely to fuss when she returned. I was trying to protect her from my dad. Unfortunately, this put me smack in the middle of the two of them. As an adult I was able to be more objective about my parents and less blaming of my dad. I developed a better relationship with him before he died and a more balanced relationship with my mother. Writing this paper has forced me to re-examine some of these old feelings about my parents fighting. This has been helpful in recognizing how trapped we all were, not just my mother.
This relationship my mother had with my father sent me many messages about men that I have had to grapple with over the years. I saw men as either all bad or all good but no in between. I was afraid of anger because I had never seen it result in anything but pain. I never saw my mother angry. She would get her feelings hurt during an argument and go into another room to cry. I watched my mother "suffer in silence" and I was furious with her for doing that. I thought maybe she believed that as a woman she had to be submissive. I was also intolerant of fighting and fussing. I longed for peace and tranquility and it seemed to me that men were usually the ones who disturbed that sense of peace.
I also watched Mother behave like a feminist going to work even though my father didn't want her to, learning to drive, going places and taking us kids places in spite of my father's displeasure. Her relationship with some of the men at the church was respectful and admiring. It took me a while to realize that there were as many or more good men outside the church as were in the church. My mother was living in a time when a woman needed a man for survival and for any kind of social status in the community. She wanted me to be happily married and well cared for if at all possible doing whatever I thought was right for my life. I learned what it meant to be "feminine" from my mother. It was a good mixture of modern day feminist strength mixed with an appreciation of being a girl. My mother was my idol for a while and I could not imagine being anything but exactly like her in every feminine way. .
I was extremely close to my mother for as long as she lived. As an adult, I realize that she lived most of her life with a backdrop of struggle and difficulties. Her own childhood influences and her strong faith that she developed as an adult fueled her indomitable spirit. During my childhood she was my home base. I depended on her for support, approval, affirmation, love and definition. I admired her and respected her and loved her deeply. I can remember how pretty she would look on occasion and how happy I was to see her when she came in from work. I learned to be gracious and strong and independent as she was. I learned the ways of southern women from this "Yankee" woman. She told me many times, "pretty is as pretty does." She was definitely southern in regard to "not saying anything unless you can say something nice." I think she was sometimes motivated by fear of what others would say and of course this made me cautious and conforming until I could understand this behavior more objectively. She was a paradox of trying to please and trying to be true to her convictions. She was at times self-deprecating and apologetic for things not being quite right or wishing she could have done better. I recognize those behaviors in myself. She was passive and retiring in social situations and I am a carbon copy of that behavior. She was a dreamer, a writer, and a romantic. She loved the excitement of bright lights and fancy dress as well as the smell of honeysuckle and the sight of a cardinal. She became a mixture of the sophisticated city girl and the educated country girl. She made me believe there was no limit to what I could do with my life if I found my calling. She encouraged me to dream dreams and make a place for myself in the world.
Adriann Rich says in her poem, "You put your arm in the sleeve and your mother's hand comes out." I am like my mother in many ways. I absorbed my mother and reacted to life as I had seen her do it. I have some of her best and some of her worst characteristics. I have her eye for beauty and her passion about "feeling" life. I can be tenacious about things I believe in with little or no objectivity. I am a romantic and a dreamer like her. I have a deep spirituality but without the trappings or the rigidity of the traditional. I am a southern woman in many ways but much more of a feminist than my mother would ever have approved. I have relationships with men as equals rather than the one down position my mother took with every man except my father. I am like my mother in my love for nature and animals and my protection of the under dog. I am not prejudiced like my mother was. I am quiet and reflective like she was and I have her skill in using her hands. I am like her in having a huge amount of personal strength coupled with under valuing that strength.
If she were a young woman in the year 2000, she would probably be involved in all the environmental causes, the human rights issues, peace and justice demonstrations, and maybe medical services for the poor. Or with her love for learning she might be a Ph.D. professor teaching religion or ethics in some university.
To write this story I had to step back and look at my mother as a woman as objectively as I could rather than thinking only of her in the role of mother. I was not eager to do this. I felt it would be hard to get some of the information pulled together through friends of hers and my brother and family history that I had in my head. That part proved to be much easier than I expected. I was also dreading the discussion of the relationship she had with my father. Even though I have dealt in therapy with the effects of their relationship on me, I had never written it down or tried to make sense of it across her adult life. Seeing it on paper makes it a fact rather than just feelings. It makes it easier to deal with it more objectively. The writing project gave me an opportunity to discuss some of our childhood with my brother. Although he and I have been supportive and caring of each other as adults, I was never sure if he felt reconciled with my mother. It was a gift to be able to talk freely with him about what were once family secrets.
Once I did an collage' of Mother for a class. The first image was a woman's torso and four arms on each side. I constructed the torso out of white eyelet material representing the nurse's uniform that was such a huge part of my mother's life. I also used the eyelet material rather than plain cotton representing my mother's desire to look good. The arms are different materials indicative of the many facets of my mother's personality. The image is one of giving to others in many different ways from a strong body of inner and outer beauty.
The process of finishing this story and pulling together my reactions helped me to look at all the various pieces of my mother. The second collage' was of my mother's life. There are photographs of her at various stages of her life, pictures of her parents and of her mother as I knew her, newspaper articles about my mother and my brother and me, her address book, postcards from her trip abroad, the Lucy Fine Arts Club booklet, her invitation to the Business and Professional Women's Club, a picture of my dad, her wedding ring, her mother's ring, and an emerald ring she bought herself, and some other pieces of her jewelry. The first image feels restrictive after finishing the second one. This second collage' is much more inclusive of all the various pieces of my mother's life. It also gives testimony to her strength and accomplishments.
My mother died in 1993 at the age of 82. I was devoted to her throughout my life. Her influence on my life was enormous. I never believed I had lived up to her expectations until after her death. She had tremendous expectations of herself and of me. After her death, I was able to distance from her and begin to look at who I was and wanted to be. I didn't need to disregard all of her influence but I did need to pick and choose which pieces I wanted to keep and which pieces I needed to discard. Writing this paper has helped further that process by enabling me to look at her as a complete picture of both facts and feelings. I see circumstances of her generation that forced her to make certain decisions that I have never had to consider. I now have a greater appreciation of her indomitable spirit and more objectivity about the choices she made in her life. I see her now with all of her own personal genes, intelligence, mothering and life experiences swirling around her and creating Zadie Matthews Loller, the woman I called "mother".
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