Assumptions

My mother was a housewife. She claimed it without pride or apology. She spent hours cleaning and cooking and received nothing in return, except for the annual Hallmark Mother’s Day card claiming we appreciated everything she did. 

Once, and only once, she demanded acknowledgement. Every week she vacuumed the venetian blinds, but once a year she washed each white aluminum, sharp-edged blind. Thirteen windows, ranging in height from five to seven feet. She did it during the week when my brothers and I were at school and our dad at work. When we came home, she would ask if we noticed anything different. None of us did. 

One evening Mother announced she will not take us to school tomorrow. My brothers can use her car to drive themselves to the high school and I can catch the bus or get up early enough to walk the mile and a half to the Junior High. No one asked why but she told us. “Tomorrow I’m washing the blinds. It will take all day.”  I ran to the bus in the morning but walked home with friends, stopping at the candy store, lingering good-byes on the corners, and arriving home as she finished the last blind.  

That night before supper she called us to the living room. “I want to show you something.” She pointed to one venetian blind that was dull and dirty. The others gleamed and sparkled. “See the difference?” We did. Then listened as she recounted her day-dragging the wood ladder from the garage into the house and then from window-to-window in the living and dining rooms. Navigating the narrow staircase to haul the ladder to the upstairs bedrooms. Emptying the water after each window. “You wouldn’t believe how dirty the water was.” My brothers said, “Wow.” My father nodded and smiled. And I stopped myself from asking why she didn’t save the water. She could have poured it into the glass pitcher and set it on the table for dinner.

My older brothers were already in college, and when it was my turn to go my mother would be alone in the house all day until Dad came home from work. I suggested she find a job. “It would give you something to do.”

She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “We’ll see.”  I knew she wouldn’t, and I was right.

My first semester I took Psychology 101. The professor warned us against analyzing our mothers but winked when he said it.  I wrote my first term paper on The Psychological Implications for the Equal Rights Amendment and presented my mother as a case study for why we need it. She grew up during the Great Depression. When she graduated from High School, her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, even if they wanted to. And they didn’t want to. “Who wants a smart wife?”  So, Mom worked and saved enough to move from London Mills, IL (population 300), to Galesburg, IL (population 29,000) to go to Knox Business College. She was alone. No help from parents and no man in her life yet. She lived at The Kathryn, a women’s boarding house. Women there became friends. Those women sent long letters every Christmas. She kept those letters in a box on the highest shelf in her closet. Once Mom got a phone call from one of them. I didn’t know who it was, but I knew it wasn’t my grandma, or one of the church ladies, or my father because my mother laughed. And kept laughing. She hung up and kept smiling. She smiled and hummed all day.

Mom was in Business College when World War II began. They encouraged the female students to write letters to the soldiers to boost morale. Mom wrote to high school classmates who enlisted. Among them was my father. When she learned he was no longer engaged, chocolate chip cookies were included with the letters. The war ended. They got married and Dad went to graduate school. Mom’s business degree got her high-level secretarial work to support them. She worked until my oldest brother was born then never worked for pay again.

Narrowing herself to the role of housewife took away the joy I heard in her stories about living with her friends at The Kathryn. The woman I saw seldom laughed and often cried. She did not enter our dinner conversations about politics and current events. She didn’t share her opinion, even when asked. Her eyes landed on my father, and he presented their view. When asked who she would vote for, she’d say it was none of my business but add, “I won’t cancel out your father’s vote.”  My mother had become hopelessly submissive with low self-esteem. 

The professor gave me a “C+” He wrote at the top: “Well written but needs more case studies to support your conclusion.”

When I went home for Thanksgiving, I talked with Mom again about getting out of the house. “You have skills beyond cleaning the house.”

She told me about her volunteer work with the church, and at the hospital. I countered with, “But don’t you think it would feel good to earn your own money?”

Mom was quiet for so long I thought it was pointless to continue. She’d never understand. “Your Dad makes a good salary. We don’t need the money.” She looked up at nothing and then at me. “I’d worry that I was taking a job from a woman who needed it.” 

She showed me one of her volunteer projects-baby layettes for Church World Service. For each layette kit she hemmed a receiving blanket and sewed a baby jacket. She added an embroidered edge and ribbon to the jackets. “It’s not required, but it looks nicer.”  My mother was not an accomplished seamstress. The only time she cursed was when she sewed. I knew these were made with blood and tears. 

“They are for babies in the Congo.”

I complimented her work and did not question if babies in the Congo needed flannel baby jackets and blankets. 

I’m glad I kept my mouth shut. 

Fifty years later, through a few clicks on my computer, I looked up weather patterns in the Congo. It gets as low as 60 degrees.

Cool enough to appreciate the warmth of a daisy print blanket and matching baby jacket, tied with a yellow silk ribbon

By Sharon Nesbit-Davis

A serious dabbler in the Arts...mime/theater performer for 40 years, writer for 15, Visual Artist for 5. Encourager of artistic expression by children of all ages...forever.

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