Friday, January 28, 2011

A is for Audrey

Audrey is my mother. It seems awfully appropriate (look at all those "A's" I'm using!) to begin my year-long alphabet meme with my mother, since without her, I wouldn't be here. She was born Audrey Anne Forsyth Hadow (when she was growing up, her family called her "Audrey Anne," which in my grandfather's English accent -- at least, the way my father has always imitated it -- sounded more like "Dranne").

I'd like to start with the fact that Audrey is one of my all-time favorite names. Does that stem from the fact that it's my mother's name, or would I have loved the name regardless? I don't know. What I do know is that, despite loving the name, I have never used it in any fiction I have written, and I know that's because I don't feel I could ever write a character that would do her justice (not that a character named Audrey would have to be in any way similar to my mother, but it would be hard to separate the two). It's a rare name, but not so rare that no one's ever heard of it, and (unlike, oh, I don't know, "Emily," say) it hasn't suddenly, after near obscurity, become the "en vogue" name for every middle class family in America, so that all sorts of people who don't look at all like "Audreys" are wandering around with it.

On my walks these days, I've been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed, and I have just finished the chapter in which she is examining her mother's choices and her parents' marriage. It got me thinking a lot about my own mother and the choices she made, and how my mother really did make choices. She wasn't one of those women who fell in love in high school and got married without even really knowing what she was doing. She didn't find herself pregnant outside of wedlock, with a man who decided to "make an honest woman" of her. My mother was actually quite old, by the standards of the day (1959) when she got married. She was 27.

Until then, she had lived what my siblings and I always thought was an extremely glamorous and exciting life. Since her father was in the British foreign service, she had been born in Vienna and had lived in Prague and London before her parents had come to "The New World" when she was eight. She then lived in Argentina; Washington, D.C.; Beverly Hills; and San Francisco. There are all kinds of interesting facts about my mother that I don't know and that crop up every now and then. Recently, I found out that the house they'd lived in in London had been completely destroyed in a bombing raid in WWII, when she said, "It's a good thing we left when we did." I also recently found out how much everyone in her family loathed having to attend "jet set" dinner parties when they were living in L.A. and San Francisco, and how her mother would often beg out of them, her father taking my mother along as his "date." She described them as being excruciatingly boring with the same bland, uninteresting food, arranged to impress, all the while everyone engaging in superficial and uninteresting conversation. Her father's position required that he do such things, and my mother was musing on how difficult it all must have been for a man as intelligent as he was, but that he did them well regardless.

After college, she had lived in Munich, San Francisco, and New York (Greenwich Village, no less, during the height of the Beats, can you imagine?), doing things like working in used bookstores and on the Staten Island book mobile. Then, she moved to Charlottesville, VA (where her mother's side of the family was from) and settled down into the basement apartment of a house her parents owned there (this is where my grandmother would live for the first ten years of my life, and where we would visit her and stay, but I had no clue until I was much older that it had been my mother's home when she and my father were dating). She was writing children's novels (submitted to publishers but never accepted) and working at the library at the University of Virginia.

I'm pretty sure, based on experience, that Charlottesville is the matchmaking capital of the world. No sooner had my mother -- a beautiful, tall, sophisticated, and unmarried redhead -- moved into town than everyone got busy fixing her up with all the available young men. My father, her third cousin, whom she had met a few times when they were kids, and who had not impressed her much back then, had recently lost his first wife to cancer. He was a grad student down in North Carolina, but he was urged by his mother (oddly enough, because his mother and my mother's mother, second cousins, had never liked each other) when he was home to take my mother out. He did, and he loves to tell people it was one of the very few cases of a mother playing matchmaker for her son that actually worked.

One of the most interesting things my mother ever told me about that time was that there were three men who were "courting" her at first. My mother had never been one who had lacked for dates, but she had been one who had had her heart broken a few times by falling hard for men who turned out to be cads. She initially found herself very drawn to one of the other men, but she says she finally asked herself the question, "Are you going to do what you always do and keep going out with this man who is bound to break your heart? Or are you going to go for this nice man over here, the one you have so much in common with?" So, she chose my father more for practical reasons than for mad, passionate love (Gilbert would tell you that she chose a friend over an infatuation, a very smart move when considering marriage).

I once asked my mother, on the brink of my graduation from college, when I was eager to see the world, and when "settling down" was the last thing on my mind, how she could possibly have given up that glamorous life she'd led and married and moved to Winston-Salem, NC to live in the same house for 24 years, raising four children. She told me they had been the very best years of her life. That actually makes sense to me. One thing my mother is, is a mother. She always knew she wanted to get married and have children. In fact, she really had wanted to have six children (no, I cannot imagine wanting such a thing), but that wasn't to be. She just has all those instincts I don't have: she is completely drawn to all babies; she knows how to soothe and comfort; she doesn't mind putting time and energy into things like keeping kids on schedules and making sure they're eating right; etc.

I don't know if she still feels that those years of raising her family were the best (I ought to ask her again sometime. She told me that 25 years ago, and she had only just begun the experience of no longer having any children living under her roof, although some of us would spend the next few years moving back in, periodically, until we all finally went our own ways), but my guess is that she does not look back on them with any sort of regrets or anger (Gilbert's mother admits she gets angry about some of those early years of marriage and child rearing) at how we might have deprived her of a life of her own. She will, though, if asked, tell you that the absolute hardest years were those when she was home alone all day with very young children (so, on some levels, she does echo Gilbert's mother. She just isn't angry -- more like relieved that she managed to make it through them, that they didn't last too long).

I suppose she doesn't feel we deprived her of anything, though, because on many levels, we didn't. First of all, she had lived a life before she had us, so there was no "What if I hadn't gotten married when I was nineteen and had, instead, gone and lived in New York for a little bit?" or "What if, instead of getting married, I'd spent some time writing those children's novels I always wanted to write?" And we didn't deprive her of the things she wanted to do once she was married.

My mother was one of those mothers who did things around her children, fitting everything in where she could, but not letting her children keep her from doing what she wanted to do. I don't ever feel that we were neglected, although I suppose there are some who might say that we were, since -- especially during the summer months -- we were very much left up to our own devices a good deal of the time. Our lives, although we did have things like mandatory swimming and tennis lessons, for the most part, were not spent going from one scheduled activity to another.

As soon as my brother was in first grade (long before most mothers were doing such things. When I was in elementary school, out of a class of 26, only three of us had mothers who worked outside the home), my mother went back to work part-time, as a guide at a museum. This job eventually became full-time and then led to her getting her Master's degree and moving up in the museum world, so that by the time I graduated from college, my father was taking early retirement, so she and he could move to New Bern, N.C. where she would become the Chief Curator of historic Tryon Palace, the first governor's mansion of the state.

I have often said to my mother, "I don't know how you did it." Her life back then exhausts me. Taking care of four children and a husband and home (because, yes, although eventually my father started doing things like cooking and doing the dishes, she was doing the bulk of it) would be tiring enough. But working and getting a Master's degree on top of that? I especially harp on taking care of four children, because it wasn't as though she had them spaced out in such a way that one was, say, twelve and able to help quite a lot, by the time the youngest was born. No, at age 34, she had four children, all under the age of seven. I was once having this conversation with my mother, and she said to me,

"You forget that I loved all of you so much. It isn't such hard work to take care of those you love." I guess I had forgotten that. Because I have chosen not to have children, I think my view of them is mostly one of how much work they are. I don't tend to think in terms of how much I'd love them and that the work would be less of a burden because of that. My mother, however, will tell you that her children are her greatest joy.

Elizabeth Gilbert, by the end of interviewing her mother and thinking about her, knows she doesn't quite understand her. I like to think I understand my mother, someone who easily moved from "mother" to "friend" at the appropriate age (although, once a mother, always a mother. She still can't completely let go of her mothering instincts, but, for the most part, she's done very well), which means I talk to her about any and everything and am completely comfortable doing so, but I know I don't always understand her. I also know she doesn't always understand me. My parents, referred to me, from a young age, as a "little mother," and I think it's always been quite confusing to them that I made the decision not to have children.

Still, I think there are those in this world who just really are meant to have children and then there are those who are meant to be mothers to people in other ways. My mother is the former. I am the latter. And, I thank my lucky stars that I have been fortunate enough to have such a mother. That doesn't mean my family is dysfunction-free (far from it), but it does mean that I never had to deal with the dysfunction of living with a mother who never really wanted to have children and who resented me. That's a blessing and one that has deepened my love for my mother over the years.


Carrie#K said...

Your mother sounds like an amazing woman who embraced motherhood out of an informed choice but still didn't let it define her. Not having any children of my own, I can't imagine how hard 4 kids (4!), a house and the work involved in a Master's degree.

My mother is an Audrey too but she goes by her middle name.

I just need to know - do you long to attend jet-set dinners? ;)

charlotteotter said...

What lovely post. Your mother sounds sane and wonderful.

Emily Barton said...

Carrie, I know. It's sounds so hard, doesn't it? And, oh yes, I would love to eat bland food and engage in superficial conversation with the jet set :-)!

Charlotte, I think you are a mother very much like my own.

litlove said...

What a completely fabulous tribute to your mother. You bring her alive in this post as a vibrant and clear-sighted woman who made her choices and loved them. Bravo to her, and to you.

Stefanie said...

Your mother sounds amazing! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about her. Thanks for sharing them!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, funny, on my first reread of this, I found myself thinking, "Boy, I really didn't bring her to life at all." Glad to hear how wrong I was (terrible problem, that, the writer always being her own worst critic).

Stef, you're welcome. She really is quite amazing, and I feel very fortunate. I also realized that until I wrote this post, she's someone I haven't written much about on this blog. Glad I finally gave her a little limelight.

Mystica said...

Thank you for a beautiful, thought provoking post. Your mother sounds an amazing woman.