Welcome to Gulit-a-polooza 2013.
Every summer, for a few emotion laden days, I spend a great deal of time around a scarred kitchen table with my mother and my grandmother. Three women, three mothers, three Italian American Catholics (one lapsed). It is the Holy Trinity of guilt. The Trifecta of self-reproach. Thankfully, the beheading, stake-burning, scalping pre-requisites for martyrdom have become less frequent in modern times. But the practice of martyrdom among mothers is alive and well.
To some degree, self-sacrifice is part and parcel of motherhood. A woman’s body, that Benedict Arnold traitorous shell, will stockpile nutrients to sustain an embryo no bigger than a pencil dot. Her body will suck the calcium from her teeth and bones, will starve itself to ensure a seedling of life gets what it needs. Women lose teeth when pregnant. We sacrifice the ability to laugh or sneeze without peeing. To sleep on our stomachs. But biology aside, if you don’t push that little red hold button on your own needs every now and again, then you are not doing your job right. A little self-sacrifice is a prerequisite when you go forth and propagate. But there is a difference between sacrifice and martyrdom.
We all know martyr moms. And if we are honest, most of us have probably had moments of being one.
“A woman’s work is never done!”
“I can’t remember the last time I had a hot meal at the table”
“I don’t know why I even bother!” (A personal favorite)
Staying up late to bake gluten-free, vegan, no-nut treats for the school bake sale even though the bakery sells the same. Walking around in clothes from a decade ago while your kids wear the latest Justice catalog contents. Changing your own long-standing plans to drive Junior to an impromptu play date. Martyr Mom Moments. We’ve all done it. But there are some that bring the art of Mom Martyrdom to a whole new level.
Like my grandmother.
Nearly 90, long-suffering, self-sacrificing. Nana’s life, to listen to her, is one long Trail of Tears. A burden to be shouldered, a sentence to be served, a trial to be endured. I would be only half surprised if she walked out of her bedroom one day riddled with arrows like Saint Sebastian or bearing a platter of breast a la Saint Agatha. She is, at times, unbearable. A walking, talking font of woe and despair. I realize it is a horrible thing to say about one’s grandmother, one’s only living relative from a dying, heroic generation. But she is only like this around her daughter, my mother, and her granddaughters. If you catch her, holding court among friends, she is a different person. There is a spring in her arthritic step, a sparkle in her glaucoma-ed eye, a glint of wicked humor in her speech. She acts every bit the sprightly almost 90-year-old. But get her around our estrogen heavy family and the moaning, woeful laments come thick and fast. Every step is punctuated by an exaggerated intake of breath. Every sentence begins with “Nobody understands me” and ends with “Nobody loves me”. occasionally she likes to switch it up with a “Why doesn’t the Lord just take me?” or another favorite, “I can die now I’ve seen the boys”.
Gee, Nana, thanks for that.
I am stumped as why my grandmother remains convinced her life was so fraught with pain and suffering. Like so many girls of her age, she was a war bride. But unlike many, she welcomed my surviving grandfather home at the end of the war. She and my grandfather didn’t have the calmest of relationships, perhaps they didn’t have the fairy-tale-est of love stories, but it was hardly the stuff of Angela’s Ashes. My Papa worked every day until he retired, he handed over his paycheck, was home for dinner every night. He didn’t cheat, didn’t drink, didn’t gamble. He never raised a hand to her. They went on vacations, there is photographic evidence of the way he waltzed her. He drove her, Miss Daisy style, for 60+ years. Sure, he complained about her cooking, but next time you see my husband, ask him about the brown rice and veggie burger period. But I don’t walk around bemoaning my existence. Until I’m around her. Martyrdom is catchy. Like chicken pox.
Whenever my grandmother is around my mother, they sling arrows of guilt and suffering back and forth. Plonk me in the picture and it’s like the modern-day Martyr Olympics. The other night we had a fight over who was going to sleep on the couch. No, I’ll sleep on the couch, I’m smaller. Yes, but you’re older. Round and round it went. I won. At 42, I am the youngest. I’ll take being the youngest over a few uncomfortable nights of sleep. But the guilt is thick enough to blanket you.
If mothers are revered, Italian mothers are un-canonized saints. In their own minds. But modern-day life has intruded. It is logistically, financially, geographically, and emotionally impossible to idolize my grandmother in the way she thinks she should be idolized. Every summer I try to explain this, to simply enjoy her company, to get her to extract some joy from what is left of her time on this mortal coil. And ever summer I fail miserably.
As a writer, I would love to record her stories, of growing up during the war, of being a working mother during a decade when the ideal of womanhood was a buxom blonde grating cheese over casseroles and pouring martinis for her husband. I would love to get past the complaints of angina and agida and learn more about my great-grandparents, who emigrated to the US at the turn of the last century. Or stories of her growing up, one of 9 girls–her very own family of dancing princesses. But every year it becomes more impossible get past the shell of self-sacrificing she has erected around herself.
I am not a saint. I don’t want to be a martyr. Life is tough enough, I don’t want to suffer needlessly. I like my breasts, thank you very much, even if they are losing their fight with gravity. It was hard enough to learn to grasp those moments of joy when I see them, to stuff them in my pockets to enjoy again later. But I’ve fought hard to get there. I don’t need a Mass card or a holiday to make me feel like I am a good and decent mother, daughter, and yes, even granddaughter. I don’t need a halo of self-sacrifice to know who I am, how I am appreciated.
Thank the saints above.