Susan Sheu | Longreads | December 2017 | 23 minutes (5,862 words)
In the early 1980s, my mother took a class at the local Wisconsin university’s student psychology center called “Assertiveness Training.” She was awakening belatedly to a version of the mind-expanding youth she had missed by marrying and dropping out of college at age 20 in 1967, during the Summer of Love. The class was taught by Dr. B, who told the students to use “I” statements to ask for what they wanted in plain terms during work and family interactions. (“I am unhappy that you said that to me. I feel that I am not heard when I speak to you.”) The idea was to learn to be assertive but not aggressive, to stop being a silently suffering martyr or someone who holds in all their anger and resentment until it boils over into inappropriate and ineffective rage or self-destructive behavior. It goes without saying that the class was all women. As she immersed herself in college again, my mother began to tell me that when I grew up, I could be anything I wanted — a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist. Even though the Equal Rights Amendment had not been ratified, she wanted me to believe that my future was up to me. Perhaps that was one reason she took Assertiveness Training, to be the kind of mother who raised a daughter who wouldn’t need a class like that.
My grandmother was the model of someone who regularly displayed inappropriate anger, someone my mom was trying to avoid becoming. My grandma Violet had once been docile, and my mom believed that she made the rest of us pay for that false submissiveness for the rest of her life. The short version of my grandmother’s story is that she didn’t marry the man she was in love with because he was Catholic and she was Protestant (this was Nebraska, circa 1928); she didn’t attend college despite receiving a debate scholarship because her mother feigned illness to keep her youngest child at home; and she tried to be a good wife in a marriage with a decent, practical man with whom she was not in love. She ran my grandpa’s restaurant while he was serving in World War II, and when he returned, no longer had any day-to-day responsibilities in the business operations.
By the time I knew her, my grandmother was smoking, alternating between Camels and Newports, drinking gin and, if she was feeling moderate, Mogen David wine (“The Jews” drank it. And Sammy Davis, Jr., “that talented Negro,” was a Jew. It had a screw top. And it was sweet.). She told off anyone who stood in her way, and for decades after her death, my mother made me pretend she was still alive, because it was the memory of my grandma’s fiery temper more than the restraining order that kept my father away. My grandma also took Valium, prescribed by the psychiatrist she began seeing shortly before her death in 1978. I was 9 when she died, but I already knew that her outspokenness and self-medication were a great source of shame for my mom and grandpa.
I’ve since come to understand that my grandma had the appropriate response to her circumstances.
Recently my boyfriend and I became completely absorbed in a PBS nature documentary about baby sea otters separated from their mothers in Monterey Bay, and the group of passionate scientists whose mission it was to rescue and rehabilitate them. One particular pup, a bundle of brown fur, dark soulful eyes and long whiskers, whom the scientists named 501, was weak and sickly and couldn’t groom or forage for food, crucial tasks its mother would normally perform. So the scientists took the pup to their research facility to nurse the orphan back to health.
At the rehabilitation lab, handlers wore dark ponchos and faceless Darth Vader-like welder’s masks so the otters wouldn’t become attached to them. Eventually the trainers brought in Tula, an older rescued otter, to act as a surrogate mother. Tula spent months teaching 501 essential otter skills, like how to roll, lick and rub her thick fur to keep buoyant and waterproof. After a few months, the trainers motored out to a protected cove on the Monterey coastline called Elkhorn Slough, a popular otter hang-out, and released 501 into the bay. As the pup swam off without her real mother, without her surrogate, and without her human mask-wearing protectors, I began to sniffle.
“Sweetie, are you crying?” my boyfriend asked.
“Me? No,” I lied as a wave of otter worry washed over me.
“The otter’s been trained to survive,” he said. “She’ll be okay. She was meant to live in the wild.” I knew all this but still, there I was, blubbering over a sea otter. How would 501 manage without her surrogate mother? Would she remember how to lick and roll? Would she find other otters? Would she survive?
Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them. To know what it was like to have one place where we belonged. Where we fit.
My mother is hard to know. Or rather, I know her and don’t know her at the same time. I can imagine her long, grayish-brown hair that she refuses to chop off, the vodka and ice in her hand. But if I try to conjure her face, I’m met instead by her laugh, a fake laugh, the kind of laugh that is trying to prove something, a forced happiness.
Several times a week, she posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. Achiote pork tacos with pickled red onions, strips of beef jerky just out of the smoker, slabs of steak that she serves with steamed vegetables. These are the meals of my childhood; sometimes ambitious and sometimes practical. But these meals, for me, call to mind my stepfather; the red of his face, the red of the blood pooled on the plate. He uses a dishtowel to wipe the sweat from his cheeks; his work boots are coated in sawdust. His words puncture me; tines of a fork stuck in a half-deflated balloon.
You are the one causing problems in my marriage, he says. You fucking bitch, he says. I’ll slam you, he says. And I’m afraid he will, I’m afraid he’ll press himself on top of me on my bed until the mattress opens up and swallows me whole. Now, my mother saves all of her cooking skills for her husband. Now, she serves him food at their farmhouse in the country and their condo in the city. Now, my mother no longer cooks for me.