Years ago a friend of my sister asked her about our family. "Who runs your family?" she inquired.
No hesitation. "Mother," my sister said.
Fathers went out to earn the money in those days; most women stayed home. My mother did stay home to make meals, arrange schedules, and shop for her kids' clothes. But she also built in time for luncheons and afternoon card parties. My father, relieved of household chores, voiced no objection.
I didn't quite piece together my mother's role until I was well grown. When I look back, I credit her, somewhat begrudgingly, with discharging the tasks of good Jewish mothers while skipping out to do what she wasn't assigned but sought to do.
My sister must have had no ambivalence about the example set by our mother, since she also married and eventually attended to her duties raising three kids while finding time for afternoons with lady friends. Her life outside home became so full that when Mother traveled from Texas to Colorado to visit, she stepped in as fourth hand in my sister's daytime card-playing crowd.
Those ladies could have written the book about multi-tasking before anyone heard that word.
My mother was a telephone operator before she married, and my sister, college educated, worked as a lab technician. Those were good jobs in their days, but once both women were married, the jobs seem to have been ushered out with no regrets. I often wondered if they didn't miss the satisfactions of earning their own money and accomplishing something away from the card table.
It's a stretch to visualize a woman playing afternoon bridge with lady friends these days; I doubt that most of them even know how to play the game. If so, it's probably been learned once they moved to a retirement home. It's part of a woman's life to not be home today, openly out, working or volunteering. I have two nieces with successful careers as both mothers and in their chosen professions, obstinately non-card-playing. If Mother were alive, she would have to admire the roles her granddaughters play, from a distance at least.
If I didn't altogether cheer how my mother balanced her life, I credit her with strength and a lot of smarts, including a keen smell for who was and who wasn't a worthwhile friend. My first sexual contact, as a late teenager, was with a fellow a year or two older than I, whom I found intriguing but my mother found untrustworthy. She was right in trying to steer me clear of that friendship, something I realized only later.
And so, from a mother and older sister, I grew up with split impressions of women's roles. I do not have a wife and am not involved with women romantically, but neither have I partnered with some gay men who have swept women out of their lives. Two close, platonic romances with girls were an invaluable part of my growing up. My life wouldn't have been the same without them, nor with other close women friends today. I've come to recognize different kinds of love, and that which is tender and supportive though non-sexual can bring huge value to a man's life.
Born at a later time, maybe my mother would have used her days in better pursuits than card playing, leaving me with less ambivalence about the way she used those days. Anyway, I won no prizes as a kid, and if she forgave that, I need to forgive her as well. She and I settled our differences in time before she died, and she remains the mother I miss. So she rests in peace, at least for the most part.
. . .
Stanley Ely includes his mother, his sister, a girl friend and aunts in his new book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.