One of my earliest memories is of going out the back door to the camellia bushes before going to church on Mother’s Day. My mother always cut red camellias for my sisters and me, and another for herself. I remember the year that she cut a white one for herself. When I asked why, she answered that white was for a mother who had passed away. I remember thinking at her funeral that now I had to wear a white camellia on Mother’s Day.
My mother was an enigma when I was little. She slept from the time my brother and sisters left for school to the time they got home in the afternoon. I didn’t recognize the signs of depression for a few decades, despite being immersed in it myself since my teens. Every so often, I could rouse her to talk to me about the plants she loved, but it often made her yearn for an acre of deep, dark, earth that would respond to her touch, rather than the red clay of our Atlanta back yard. I hated to make her sad.
When I was in college, my mother convinced my father to let her take art courses at the same women’s college I attended. She bloomed there in a way I had never seen before. My mother was intelligent, with an intellectual curiosity and love of learning she passed on to me and my siblings. She excelled in art, enjoying every medium, but falling in love with textiles and pottery. I remember seeing her with her friends in the campus center, laughing and smiling, as she shared some hard-won life lessons with them.
After my mother’s death, my sister found hundreds of pictures that had been kept in the attic for decades, all dating from before my parents’ marriage. Neither she nor I had ever seen them before. The mother we knew was quiet, almost dour. She did not complain, but she did not seem to enjoy her life. These pictures showed a vibrant, laughing young woman having dinner with friends, or shockingly, posing with a young serviceman whose hat she had placed on her own head. The serviceman was not our father, either.
In them I saw the smile from her college years. I recognized that young woman, confident and smiling with her friends, vibrant and playful. I often wonder what happened to that young woman in the intervening years. My guess is that she was forced to choose between marrying and taking care of a husband and children or staying unmarried and taking care of her parents. I think she would have chosen to live alone until her mid- or late-twenties, something that is no longer unusual. I write about women in the middle ages with limited choices about how to live their lives, yet am surprised at the lack of choices my mother had in the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps I am not the only one born in the wrong century.