My Mother Revealed
The dusty, ancient book fell open, its spine disintegrating. Pages scattered across the living room floor. Newspaper clippings, yellowed with age.
One of them featured a large photo of my mother.
It was from the society section of the then-Madison, Wisconsin newspaper. I couldn’t make out the date, but it was in the 1940s.
I hardly recognized her. My god, she was a beauty. I honestly had no idea.
Her eyes were cast to the right and down, in a demure way that was in no way true to my mother’s larger-than-life personality. Her dark brown hair was cut in the short bob I had known all her life. However, in this picture it had verve and bounce. She’d always worn a hairnet to combat the Florida humidity.
In Florida, her hair was a helmet, immovable. Not like her humor, and her mercurial moods. In the photo, it was full of life and movement. Like she was in her early thirties.
The society announcement of her engagement spent considerable time establishing her standing as the daughter of one of Madison’s Great Families. Its benefactor, Joe Jackson, my grandfather, was among the most influential.
Joe W. had spent his entire life committed to his community. The Jackson Oak was named for him (now, finally, it’s just fertilizer). His brothers, all doctors, started the Madison Clinic.
Society news indeed. Big deal for the family, and my mother.
My mother was proficient in six languages, but had turned down a scholarship to Oberlin College to marry Dad. She had her degree from the University of Wisconsin. I think at that time, since my father was early in his budding career as a broadcaster, she believed she was in for high times. I believe that in every way she thought it her due, the daughter of a society leader, a moneyed and influential family.
Happily ever after.
Before dropping that aging, secrets-filled book on the floor of my living room, I had only seen photos of my mother as an infant and as a sixteen-year-old beauty. Nothing that spoke to her early adulthood. Her dreams, hopes, and heartfelt wishes.
It was all in her face. The time-worn clipping and all the age of nearly a century couldn’t hide what my mother’s expression conveyed:
Now it’s my time.
Her time never truly happened. Mom moved with my father to Washington, DC, where he worked for the NBC affiliate WMAL. Those were war days. They were enthusiastic Roosevelt supporters, although both loathed war. They also hated kids, and instead hobnobbed with other up-and-coming hotshots. They owned a cabin on Chesapeake Bay, and sailed the Hub-bub, a small boat which often featured my father in the bow, waving the ever-present bourbon bottle.
The weekend before they married, my father traveled to visit a previous girlfriend. Spent the night. Mom knew. Married him anyway, because, as she said, they didn’t love each other but they had made each other laugh.
The other piece was that previously my father had enlisted my mother’s help in finding him dates. Go figure. This is how we make deals with the devil.
So my Cornell-educated philanderer father married a UW socialite. For a few bright years they had what so many wartime and then post-war couples had, those who were educated and bright and motivated: good jobs, and the beginning of the American Dream. Time to travel to the islands and fall in love with beaches, if not each other.
When my father dropped his career as a radio broadcaster and became the first to do television work for the then-Redskins, they moved to Florida. They were dedicated shellers, and had an extensive collection from Jamaica, Sanibel Island and other beaches. I learned to love shells from picking over those collections. My own is almost as extensive as theirs. They loved nature, bird song records, classical music, classical literature. Lettered people.
My parents, who had disavowed kids, punched two of them out as my father began a ranching business. Mom hadn’t signed up to be isolated in the Deep South among people she despised for their racism. In all fairness, she was a woman of her time, committed to civil rights and equality but not comfortable breaking bread with folks of lesser social standing. My father was far more earthy in that regard, for which I am forever grateful. My mother struggled with the enforced isolation from the society privileges she felt were her due, as Dad barely made ends meet.
Yet I still remember her incredible humor, her horse laugh. I saw the terrible mood swings, her pain, her loneliness. The way my father, who worked hard all day, would refuse to bathe for a week just to insult my mother’s sensitive nose. How they had hung a thick green curtain to wall off their twin beds, nestled as they were at opposite ends of the long front porch that faced the Deer Lake waterfront. I never knew that married people slept in the same bed until I was a teenager.
I had never truly understood my mother until I saw her photo.
She was stick-thin, and beautiful. She was athletic, rode hunter-jumpers with my father, and adored travel.
When she was still young, thin and beautiful, she still had the world ahead of her. A million options. I think she yearned for those days and different outcomes the rest of her life.
It finally made sense to me why she worried and harangued me about my weight, and the genes I had inherited from my father’s side of the family. Genes that guaranteed wide hips.
She had wanted another boy. Now I understand that she wasn’t rejecting me, per se, but she didn’t want a child of hers to have to pay the prices we pay for being born female.
She didn’t want me to end up the way she had.
While my mother did end up traveling with my father, and then with me throughout New Zealand and Australia, she never made it to Africa. That was her dream.
She died before she had any inkling that I would build my entire late-in-life career around safaris, adventure travel, and writing, something both my parents excelled at and had nurtured in their kids. That I would go to Africa again and again, track gorillas and chimps, and ride horses, as she once had done. I would gallop alongside giraffe and zebra, barely inches away. I would summit Kilimanjaro, learn to fly, master skydiving and rafting and kayaking and cycling. Travel the Amazon, ride the Altai mountains and run a fine Arabian horse at breakneck speed along the dunes at sunset. All after sixty.
Dad called me a loser. Mom didn’t. I had her spirit and she saw it.
She died before she knew how I turned out. A prize-winning author, a journalist. I would end up doing what she had dreamed. Becoming what she had wanted to be. Her generation of women privately admired Colonial Kenyan-born Brit Beryl Markham, a rebel, an athlete, a pilot, a horsewoman, a beauty, universally reviled and hated in her time even as she blazed a trail for other women.
Markham is my muse.
I am not the beauty my mother was. I did not grow up in high society with all the expectations to marry well. I did not grow up skinny, sent away to an expensive boarding school to be prepared for presentation to polite, moneyed people. I didn’t marry well, produce appropriate progeny and make the family proud.
I am not the woman my mother was.
But I am the woman my mother had always wanted to be.