Although Mother’s Day is a nice time for family fun and, hopefully, a day without laundry, for my family it also brings some feelings of sadness because my grandmother, Velma Mae Greene, died on Mother’s Day in 2002. Before Nanny’s death we had four generations going, with my two oldest daughters being 5 and 6 years old at the time. My youngest was born a year after Nan’s death and given the middle name Mae in her great-grandmother’s honour.
Nan and Grampa, 1980s
The mothering job description has certainly changed since the holiday was first instituted in 1914. In Nanny’s day the goal of parenting was raising sons to support a family and daughters to care for that family. There was no emphasis on what dreams those girls might have had; it was their duty to support their man in his endeavours. For my mother’s generation the goal was to raise independent daughters who didn’t need a man to support them, although eventual marriage and children was still expected. My generation is, I think, about teaching our daughters how to manage the incredible amount of choice they have and how to reconcile dreams and expectations with reality.
Nanny looked after me while my mother worked until I started kindergarten and seemed to me to never stop moving. She walked fast and talked faster. She cared for her house and my Grampa, babysat me and my three cousins on demand and cooked everything from scratch. She had worked as a seamstress at a garment factory and still had her old Singer sewing machine on a scrolled ironwork table with a foot pedal that she used to make me costumes for summer camp. A dedicated Presbyterian, she took me to Sunday school and then to services with her any weekend I slept over. She spent her life caring for her husband, children, grandkids and everyone else, whenever she was needed. She rarely left town and never drove. My grandfather tried to teach her once but she couldn’t keep the car in her own lane. “You’re taking your half of the road out of the middle,” my Grampa said and that was the end of her lessons.
Her church related community involvement was never-ending and she seemed to know everyone in town. It was a family joke that you couldn’t go anywhere without meeting someone who knew Nanny. Once, when I was a teenager, my parents and I were on an Air Canada jet 30,000 feet in the air on the way to Florida, when suddenly the woman sitting in front of us turned around and said to my mother, “Excuse me, but you look familiar…are you Val Greene’s daughter?” Another time I was at a friend’s wedding and an elderly relative of the groom asked me if I was Val Greene’s granddaughter. She had been a close friend of Nan in their teens and she regaled me with stories of my grandparents when they were young, courting, and sneaking out behind the barn to make out while her younger sister burned toast in the kitchen so their parents, already in bed, would smell it and think they were still being chaperoned.
The only times I can remember Nan doing anything for herself were a couple of trips she took to California to visit her brother after Grampa died, and swimming at the YMCA which she started in her late 60’s, which she continued until her final year. I am unaware of any other hobbies she had and she never talked to me about her youth, her dreams or any personal interests. I did find out in my teens that she could play piano very well but only saw her play once.
To the end she was cheerful, accommodating and uncomplaining, not wanting to be a bother to anyone. The last two weeks of her life she was in palliative care on a morphine drip, which caused some delirium. One visit found her threading the bed sheet through her fingers, the same length over and over, with an intense look of concentration. My cousins didn’t know what she was doing, but I did – she was measuring material. I remembered seeing her do that when I was little – no yardstick necessary. The last time I saw her she was unresponsive most of the day, but when her minister came in she opened her eyes, responded to his questions, and then sat up, clasping his hand with both of hers in a strong and purposeful grip while he prayed. Her faith was obviously strong and unwavering; she was preparing for her final journey. Finished, she lay back down and closed her eyes. She died the next day.
Nan dancing at my first wedding, 1995
By contrast, my mother is a child of the 60’s, when women were throwing off the domestic chains to follow their dreams of careers and looked with disdain on the idea of “serving their man.” A graduate of nursing college, I doubt she ever gave much credence to anything Nanny would have considered necessary life skills.
I never saw Mom spend all day in the kitchen except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Our house was clean and tidy but it was a necessary evil, not something she enjoyed doing. By the time I was in high school she had employed a weekly maid. We never attended church unless someone was getting married. Basic cooking, one child and a husband who, unlike her father, didn’t expect her to jump up and run for the teapot when he tapped his cup with his spoon set the parameters of her family life. My mom had me just after finishing college, and in circumstances that would have crushed a lot of weaker women, picked herself up and made a career and a home for us on her own, eventually meeting and marrying my dad and proceeding to have a very successful career as a psychiatric nurse with a husband who equitably shared chores and responsibilities. Their marriage was a private affair but must have been a successful one, as they were married for over 40 years and we had a quiet, routine life with no drama or serious problems.
Mom and dad; same wedding
Mom had her own paycheck and controlled her own money, and managed the household finances. She paid for her clothes, her car and her few indulgences. She volunteered a few times for school functions when I was young and attended any performances I was in, but her interest in PTA-type activities ended there. Despite having a mother who could make everything from nightgowns to wedding gowns, Mom didn’t like to sew. My new jeans were sent to the tailors for hemming. Cookies were store bought. My mother’s parenting focus was on preparing me to take care of myself, not finding a man who would take care of me. She wanted me to have life experiences and become my own person. Growing up we travelled to other countries, I went to camp every summer, and had my own horse. When we discussed my future, it was usually about what I would be attending university for. I don’t remember any talks about marriage.
I am a product of the 80’s generation, which meant the idea of marriage and motherhood right after high school had become laughable. Oh, it was still assumed we’d marry and have kids someday, but not before earning a degree and starting glowing careers where we would have a corner office, tons of cash, and then effortlessly fit a husband and kids into this dynamic. Of course, by the time my generation hit 35 we were all broke from covering the cost of daycare and the huge increase in the cost of living with our inflation-stagnated salaries, exhausted from working 80 hour weeks and fighting the Mommy Wars with our stay-at-home neighbor, who had all the same problems working mothers had but for different reasons.
Me, Mom and Nan, 1993
I am a mix of these two women. I have always worked full time, paid my own bills and looked after myself. In marriage I handle our finances and my husband does a fair-ish share of the chores. I am not interested in cleaning, decorating or sewing, but I am turning away from processed foods and getting back to a more natural way of cooking to provide as much as possible a healthy chemical-free diet for my children. I am raising my daughters to be independent, financially savvy in this new debt-screwed world, and more than capable of taking care of themselves. Eventual marriage is rarely discussed, and only then as a far off possibility, not a given. I quite frankly don’t care if they get married – what I want is for them to discover who and what they are, find their passion and make a life for themselves in a career they will find fulfilling. To live for the moment, not for a possible future that may not even happen.
My daughters are growing up in the shadow of three kick-ass women. My dad was enormously proud of my mother and greatly admired my Nan. He used to tell me that I, like all Greene women, was strong and independent and I guess he was right. Over the last nine years I ended an unhappy marriage, restarted my career, almost doubled my salary, made a home for my kids, remarried, started writing, earned a Basic Cook diploma and have supported said family through years of heavy debt and job loss. If the women of my family had a mantra, it would be “never give up.” Or maybe, “get the fuck outta my way.”
The next generation-ready or not.
No big presents for me today; I prefer to spend Mothers Day on an outing. We drove two and a half hours north to visit my husband at his worksite in Muskoka. We took pictures of the lake and the falls in Bala, visited my mom and got home late, happy and tired. Time spent together is the best Mother’s Day present and the only gift I want.