33: The Matriarch

33: The Matriarch

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

The Matriarch

A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.

~Diane Mariechild

Young men who attempt to date one of my three beautiful daughters must first make it past my mother alive. We call her The Matriarch.

At first glance, she doesn’t appear that intimidating. She’s short and pale, and her red hair is never the same shade two months running. Nevertheless, she interviews the trembling novitiate with her blue eyes narrowed and a pitiless smile barely curving her lips.

“So, Daniel… what makes you worthy of our Rachel? How do you plan to earn a living? What do you love best about her? Just what makes you think you deserve her?” If she’s in a generous mood that day, she might let the unfortunate beau off with a mere forty-five minute grilling.

My mother’s frightening feminine force has apparently passed on to her daughters and granddaughters, if we are to believe the men in the family. Recently, a young husband was heard quietly coaching a newcomer, whose wide eyes looked as though he’d accidentally stumbled upon a tribe of Amazon warriors preparing for the hunt: “Concentrate on the mother. The power flows from there.”

Let me hasten to explain that my mother has a noble purpose, greater than toying with the fragile egos of young suitors, amusing as that may be. She takes her role as tribal elder seriously. Over her seventy years, she has learned the value of prudence, primarily by making mistakes. She considers it her sacred duty to impart hard-won wisdom to those she loves, hoping to save them from wrong turns they might otherwise take in life. And so she stands guard at life’s crossroads, posing hard questions intended to make her loved ones pause and think before proceeding.

My mother wasn’t always a sphinx-lady swathed in bright, flamboyant clothing. Back in the early sixties, she was a small town teenager “in trouble.” Friends turned their backs on her, and her new mother-in-law did everything she could to assure that the terrified girl would never forget her shame.

Life as an eighteen-year-old mother is never easy. But my mom had to face it without help or mercy. I didn’t realize until I was grown that Mom had suffered from depression for most of my childhood, although it didn’t surprise me when she admitted it. Having now raised my own four kids as a single mother, with my mom always nearby to help and support, I appreciate even more the strength she exerted just to get through each day on her own with her four young children.

“The only thing that kept me from killing myself,” she confided to me once, “was knowing that you kids would be brought up by your grandmother if I wasn’t there.”

“Do you wish your life had taken a different turn back then?” I asked. “Do you ever wish you’d gone to Paris like you wanted to, instead of getting married and having kids so young?”

She answered without a moment’s hesitation. “Never. I could have made lots of different choices at any time. You kids are the best thing I ever did. Anything more that I do in my life is just frosting on the cake.”

I used to think Mom was easily distracted. No sooner would she get a degree or start a new job than she’d be looking at the requirements for the next one. In addition to her eclectic studies and many jobs, she owned and operated a plethora of businesses, made beautiful art, wrote a couple of books, got her real estate license, and filled her home with a gallery of interesting finds from estate sales and nature. Her hair got redder, her clothes got brighter, and she kept blooming in surprising new directions.

“The world is just such an interesting place!” she enthused. “With so much to learn and do and see, who could be content with just one life? I’m determined to cram as many as I can into this one.”

Mom’s stubborn refusal to bow down to circumstance was the example I needed. My own marriage was singularly unfortunate. My husband’s ability to squirm out of his responsibility to our children and simultaneously cause us to live in fear and poverty was truly impressive… to most people. My mother was not impressed.

Late one night, at a time when I had packed up my kids in a panic and run home to Mom, looking for a refuge, my husband showed up. He immediately began browbeating me, convincing me that all of our difficulties were my fault, and that I needed to get back home where I belonged. At the time, I was too emotionally confused and physically weakened to protect myself. My mother heard the harangue from her room and descended the stairs like a night-gowned Valkyrie, red hair shooting out from her head like righteous flames. She ordered him from her house, backed him out of the door, and slammed it in his face, warning him not to come back. We had considerably less trouble with him after that.

I understand her ferocity better now, having grown children of my own. I can hardly imagine the pain she must have felt, watching me suffer through unwise life decisions, unable to fix them the way she did when I was little. What she could do, however, was be present, and be a proper, rollicking grandma to her grandchildren, even though she had a full life and interesting work of her own to tend to. Like everything else, my mother did her grandmothering with flair.

For years, my kids spent Fridays with Grandma Cindy while I worked. I would come to collect them at the end of the day, invariably finding them pink-cheeked and flecked with fabric paint from the sweatshirts they’d been decorating with fabulous designs, or their clothes blotched with homemade play-dough. One day, I found them out on the back porch, plastering multi-colored handprints on white, plastic chairs. More often than not, however, they would all be cuddled up together on the big, comfy couch, stuffing their faces with cookies, blowing bubbles, and watching cartoons — Mom, too.

With Grandma nearby, my kids learned that they were safe and loved, and maybe the world wasn’t such a scary place, after all. In her own unpredictable way, she’s still teaching them. Just recently, I came home from work to find my three grown daughters and my mother dressed in flowing gowns, boots, and floppy hats, having a tea party. Mom clutched a wizard’s staff.

“Oh, good! You’re just in time for tea!”

The manner in which my mother has lived her life is a great example to the rest of us: “Never stop learning; never stop reinventing yourself; don’t be afraid to try something new; never give up; be loyal to the ones you love; for heaven’s sake, color outside of the lines; and always… always do all things with passion.”

~Rhonda Brunea

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