I am not my mother

by cin on May 9, 2010

Usually when someone says that, they’re about to erupt in a nasty cloud of mother-daughter resentment, but that’s not going to happen here.

I come from a line of strong, independent women who were brave enough to be unconventional and live life on their own terms.

One of these, Elizabeth Rinker Dodge, was raised in Philadelphia and was a nurse in the Mexican American War before making her way to California at age 34. She became a schoolteacher, married, and had two children. Just six years later, for unknown reasons, she returned to Philadelphia with her children and lived with family and friends for a while. She was again an army nurse, this time during the Civil War, and afterwards she rejoined her husband in California. She was widowed a few years later and was once again on her own. She moved to Southern California where she lived for some years before moving to the San Francisco area, where she passed away at age 88 the day before 1906 earthquake.

This is extraordinary in a time when most women rarely traveled and those who did travel usually did so in the company of their husbands. Elizabeth was willing to go to the rough-and-tumble city of New Orleans to be an army nurse, a job which requires more grit and fortitude than I can imagine. Then she undertook the dangerous six-month trip to California, walking next to the wagon train much of the way, eating only dried applies, coffee and milk when rations ran short. Reconstructing her journeys amazes me: Philadelphia to New Orleans to Sacramento to Philadelphia to Sacramento to Santa Monica to San Francisco – and that’s just  the parts we know about.

There were several more generations of women: Elizabeth’s daughter Mary, Mary’s daughter Laura, and then my grandmother, Margaret.

Margaret grew up in a tiny California desert mining town. It was not a kind existence: both the climate and her father’s temperament were unduly harsh and young Margaret found escape and solace in books. As she said to me one time, “I read my way out of it.”  She also married her way out of it when she met my grandfather, an engineer at the local chemical plant, and they moved to Los Angeles with their two little girls a few years later.

Somewhere within her, she always had a yearning for something different, something better, which probably explains her six marriages in a time when divorce just wasn’t done. She was not your typical apron-clad, cookie-baking grandma, but she was one of the most well-read and articulate women I have ever met. She loved jazz, she was fascinated by metaphysics, and for a while she ran a theatre company. She was something else.

Mom was born in the middle of the Depression and spent World War II living with her father’s mother, her beloved Grandma Louise, who would take the girls to the movies twice a week as a treat. A bit of Hollywood glamor definitely rubbed off on Mom – in her high school graduation picture she looks like a young Elizabeth Taylor and she has always had a sophistication that I do not. But Mom has always been more about substance than style. Like many people who grew up in lean economic times, she learned the value of hard work and persistence. She worked so hard to make sure we girls never had to experience the hardships she had faced earlier in her life – a fact that we did not fully appreciate as children in our comfortable suburban home where it was always clean, it was always safe. She started her own business 35 years ago and has stuck with it through all of the booms and busts of the California real estate market. She is stronger and tougher and works harder than any other person I know.

But along with that is a bit of bohemian magic from her mom: a yearning for something else, something spiritual, and a hope for a brighter tomorrow. She’s the one who thought we could do anything, that we had it in us if if we stayed true to ourselves. She’s the one who always said that it didn’t matter what mean, crazy things other people did because they had to live with being that kind of person, but that we were different. “Look what they have to live with. But you get to be you.”

And she’s the reason that I have had the luxury of being able to live this life in the sun.

I am not my mother or any of the other women who came before me. I have not had to endure anything like they endured. With each generation, they learned the lessons of the hard things, kept what was good, and passed it on.

Thank you for the courage to not be ordinary. Thank you for the freedom of spirit and independence of thought. Thank you.

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