When I think about the way my home should feel I think about Mary. If I picture her back then, during the early years of my childhood, she is wearing a blue floral dress with an oversize cardigan sweater, the sleeves bunched up past her elbows. Her hair is pinned back in a tortoise shell clip. She is loud (she is laughing) with an apron on, and smoking a cigarette in the kitchen. If I picture her during my adolescence, she is wearing pants, maybe, but everything else is the same: the sweater, the elbows, the laughter, the apron, the cigarette. If you remove the cigarette and put her by the dining room table, she is crouching and holding her fingers out, counting one-two-three and giving us our choices for lunch. There are maybe five of us, we are all very different from one another. I am the only girl in a house full of boys. She is making us laugh because she says “Doodles” like “Doo-dis,” and it is funny.
In the early eighties, my parents moved from New York City to a small Pennsylvania town to transition from being actors to being theater professors at a university there. They wanted to start a family. The department they were brought into was new, a sort of grassroots operation that resembled more of a struggling theater company with added academic curriculum. Their hours were long. After a short time, they had their family. My brother was born and, a few years later, so was I.
With the arrival of their first infant, my parents tried to manage their career responsibilities and needs of a baby. They took turns being the “one at work” and the “one at home,” as many families do, but after a time it was clear their workplace needed them there pulling their weight in order for it to sustain. At first they brought Ben to work with them, cared for in part by any number of willing college students during classes and the breaks afterward. In the evenings, during rehearsals, some of them in full costume held him backstage during the downtime in between their scenes (later, when I was in grade school, I would be in this same position, doing my homework most evenings in the dressing rooms or the costume shop).
His wife, it turned out, had a special way with kids.
Eventually, a new faculty member was hired – Patrick – a long-legged hippy type just in from Vermont, tacked onto the department as the Technical Director. His wife, it turned out, had a special way with kids. She had stayed at home with their two girls, who had just become school-aged. She had availability and a talent for caring for children, Patrick said. My brother could be kept at their house while my parents worked. Around that time, a young, black, single mother from Philadelphia, arrived to the department as a student with a two-year-old son. Together, my brother and her boy – who my brother dubbed Pooh — became the first of a long string of other people’s children who grew up in the home of Mary and Patrick.
By the time I was born, there were half a dozen. When one or two aged to the point of no longer needing daytime care, usually another infant joined the family. The parents were often university staff or faculty, or sometimes a family that just heard there was some magic happening in a house on Water street.
A CULTURE OF TOLERANCE AND RESPECT
The rules at Mary’s House were rooted in her love for us, the tiniest humans, and influenced by her deep respect for the tolerance and care for others. We were called the “Special Friends” because she used every opportunity to tell us that we were, in fact, special. Very special. Absolutely special. Each of us were unique, we were told, and intelligent, creative, imaginative, brave, funny. We were different from one another, she pointed out. We had personalities she regularly highlighted. She brought herself down to our level constantly, and looking us in the eye, she used her hands and her face to illustrate stories, or directives, in a way we could understand them. When arguments rose, I can remember her patient explanations regarding points of view and feelings: “Remember, guys, Molly is someone who feels [this way] during these kinds of situations. What are some times you also feel [this way], and how would you like it if your friends and family didn’t act like they understood?”
There were No Guns at Mary’s House, no violence, no rough-housing, and no hurting. Feelings were paramount. Using our words was expected. Tantrums were patiently ignored while she waited for us to find our tongues and slow them. Helping was a religion. Opinions were heard and considered. Reconciliation was the responsibility of both parties. Boys could do “Girl Things” and girls could do “Boy Things”. Skin color was important and special. Nobody was left out. Ever.
We were simply modeled respect, tolerance, and kindness.
During outings, when we would walk together through the neighborhood or the grocery store, the people in our small little town would stare at this clan of children, some black, some white, some Israli; all with distinctly different features and mannerisms, clearly from different places. They saw a tall, elegant woman cracking us up with her funny voices, our Pied Piper, talking to herself and her conga line of children while we made her errands.
While several of the families that left their children with Mary were perhaps your run-of-the-mill progressives, there were many families that loved Mary’s child-rearing approach who came from rural, conservative platforms. They did not feel like their children were raised soft because, truthfully, we weren’t. We were disciplined appropriately if bad choices were made. We weren’t overly coddled or hovered over. We were simply modeled respect, tolerance, and kindness.
We were also entrusted the independence to make ourselves content. As the Special Friends played together or set about the activities she’d set up, Mary would return to the kitchen, light a cigarette, pour a cup of coffee, and keep doing whatever it was that she did in there.
She would guide us through choices of what food we could have for lunch, and serve us with jokes and laughing, but that was mostly it. She might check in periodically and even get down and play with us from time to time, but generally we were left to our own imaginations throughout each day. We could retreat down the hill of their backyard to a two-story clubhouse far below, where she would watch us from the kitchen window. When we made moral errors, she would explain why what we’d done was wrong while puppeteering her big, expressive eyebrows that knit together with concern, but never judgement or condemnation. The only time I ever saw her angry was when I wanted to show off for some of the others and smashed an injured bird with a croquet mallet. Even then, I felt safe and understood everything.
As I remained the only girl throughout my entire childhood and early adolescence at Mary’s, I was never treated differently nor protected. She encouraged me to speak for myself and speak with a loud voice. I was taught to be stubborn, to use language to get my needs met, and to feel free to communicate my feelings to my friends.
A FEMINIST’S ROLE MODEL
Mary herself is this sort of resplendent figure in my mind that never changes or distorts, even as I write this, a woman in my thirties. If there is a romantic sense about her in my writing, it may well be the case, because my early memories of her were that of a child’s. Everything is rose-colored, but it serves its purpose. Mary modeled for me what sort of woman I’d strive to be later in life.
I studied her. I’d peer around the kitchen door frame and see what she was up to, or sneak upstairs to catch her making the beds and talking to herself. Sometimes she would be wrapped in the long cord of her telephone and happily shouting with the person on the other end. Her sweaters and her aprons were her uniform, her hair was always loose and carefree. Mary wore the apron because she loved to bake and cook. Her place was in the kitchen because she chose it to be (and because, no doubt, it was her station separate from the children). The energy with which she performed even the most basic tasks seemed forbidden to other adults in my life. There was no resentment, nor frustration for having to bear the weight of so many other people’s children, nor at the reality that she did it mostly by herself (Patrick home from work on special occasions, but his hours were similar to my own parents’) — and for it she commanded the entire household in our eyes, and it seemed to belong to her.
It would be years before I’d encounter the term “homemaker,” and when I did she became the picture of it, and remains so today. She was the person who made our universe work, and she did it while doing everything imaginable to make every human around her feel welcomed.
And yet, while she was painted as the picture of a Wyeth-esque, all-American matron, she held the characteristics of a work-worn woman who never knelt down to expectations. I watched as she spat corrections at crossing-guards who whistled at us, commenting on the number of fathers required to create such a varied spectrum of children. Her loud voice and long-winded stories were never interrupted. Her fingernails were short, her hands strong and cracked, which she used to knead five batches of meatloaf at a time, which were shared with the neighborhood.
Many of them dealt with parental rejection of their lifestyles, either because they had chosen to be a theater major instead of something more “practical,” or because they were queer.
From time to time, adults would enter the house without knocking and she would greet them with a huge laugh and a “HEH-looooow,” tilting her head to the side as she reached out both arms to embrace. Sometimes they visited just to talk to her, but other times they had bundles of laundry, which they would throw in the washer. They would sit down for lunch while they waited for the cycle to finish. Almost always they would find us kids and crouch down to engage us, briefly joining in whatever we were doing, before folding their laundry and leaving. They were, many of them, the college students my parents and her husband were teaching and working with. When I was older, I learned that many of them didn’t have supportive parents of their own to help them navigate emotional or academic struggles, and Mary warmly filled that role without question. Many of them dealt with parental rejection of their lifestyles, either because they had chosen to be a theater major instead of something more “practical,” or because they were queer. In fact, it was through Mary’s house and the theater department in general that I was exposed, without fanfare, to a revolving door of LGBTQ individuals who, to us, were known and loved without the slightest idea that they were unusual. I would be a teenager before I ever heard a homophobic or racial slur, or before I experienced any gender bias of my own.
Like, I imagine, most households with tolerant environments, it was never declared. She never called herself a feminist, never commented that her house was anything different from what other households were like; she never illustrated that boys and girls were often raised differently, that black kids in our part of Western Pennsylvania didn’t normally grow up sharing beds with white kids. Instead, she chose to remind us how our differences can make us closer, if we explored them, and highlighted how lucky we all were that we got to be together.
Through my watching child-eyes, I grew to be dazzled by her confidence and ability to charm everyone she met. When there were larger group dinners at their house, the kids played in the front room while the grown-ups sat in the dining or living room. During these instances, though most of the guests had more of a social or professional connection with Patrick, Mary talked the most. She commanded a room. She’d stand, apron off now, leaning in the door frame while everyone else took to chairs. While she spoke, one hand would flit around in front of her head while the other gripped her hip, until some big crescendo in her story, when both would explode out in front of her and everyone would be laughing. I watched her even when I didn’t know it, internalized her gestures, her expressions. Over time, her physical habits — fluffing her hair when excited, touching the side of her face while listening, pushing sleeves back up beyond those moving elbows – became my own.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
To my own mother’s painful chagrin, I believe I grew to be more like Mary than any other adult in my life. As a teenager, when I started to get to know the person I was becoming, I realized this fact with some guilt and began musing over what it must feel like to allow another woman to raise your children. I felt sorry for my parents, who didn’t know their own daughter as much as a woman whom they paid to raise her in their stead. When I was a teenager and able to take care of myself after school, I still spent many afternoons at Mary’s so that I could talk about my friends, or boys, or other things I felt anxious about. I confided in her instead of my own mother. Whether real or imagined, I began to sense a note of anguish in my mom’s voice whenever I mentioned her.
And then, to my surprise, over the years I came to understand a different version of progressive home-making: my own mother’s.
The decision whether to work or stay at home is one that most households today face when children arrive. Thankfully, the question of who would be the one to stay at home is becoming more common, but for so many people, the decision doesn’t come with much choice. Circumstance, whatever that may be, often times puts people in the seat of having to find someone else to help raise their children, and in the case of both my parents, their jobs’ requirements were more demanding than others. They chose, like all other parents of the Special Friends, to walk past the day-care centers and instead put their children in the home of the same woman, day after day, for several years. As a parent myself, I can’t imagine the strength that is required for that kind of decision. They had to know the benefits of such a solid relationship would be immeasurable for the kids, no question. They also must have known there would be a bond, and that the influence of a single woman in her home for such a period of time would be long-lasting. I admire that decision very much, and am not entirely sure if I’d be strong enough to make the same one myself.
Over the years, I’ve heard Mary call everyone involved — our parents, the kids, herself, Patrick, the daughters — our “Village” time and again, careful to make it clear that the whole situation existed because everyone did their equal part. When I grew old enough to talk with her about it all, she began confiding in me some of the more beautifully difficult moments in these complicated relationships: moments when parents would break down to her about their distance from their children; moments where her own marriage and children felt neglected because of her time spent raising us; moments where she showed up to our more difficult times, all of us now grown adults — our court hearings, our hospital beds — feeling the pain of a natural mother that she has to suppress because, well, she isn’t.
Just as my own mother made the brave choice to leave her children in the care and influence of another mother, Mary made the choice to play “Mother” to people she’d eventually never see again.
Once, when I was in high school, I woke up in my own house to Mary standing above my bed. “Your parents are going with your brother to a hospital,” she told me. “He’s been arrested, the police took him. They’re following in the car. He’s going to rehab.” When she told me, she started to cry but smiled brightly. “I’ll be downstairs making coffee, take your time,” she said, then added, “he’s our Bubba Blue and we love him and he’ll be okay.” Since that time, as my brother’s grown-up life has twisted beyond everyone’s control, Mary was called less and less, until eventually no longer at all. I’ve known the growing mystery of what will happen to him is something that keeps her awake, as does the unknown lives of many other children she raised. Just as my own mother made the brave choice to leave her children in the care and influence of another mother, Mary made the choice to play “Mother” to people she’d eventually never see again.
As a single mother now, I’m often finding myself wondering how to create the same culture of tolerance and love in my own house, how to welcome people into it, how to make my own son feel as safe and as understood as I was. I have to remind myself how to do it, and, further, to remind myself that she managed it, also alone. I lose patience with my son, and with others. I forget to crouch down and listen. I find people to blame it on. Sometimes, in weak moments of ultimate abandonment, I blame it on my own mother.
I remember an evening in a recent year when I’d traveled to my hometown in a frustrated rage because I felt I was at a crossroad. I sobbed on Mary’s couch about how short I felt I was falling, as a mother and a daughter. I wailed that I struggled to welcome people into my home, that I felt selfish nearly all of the time. In those days, I was spending less and less time with my son, and more time pursuing my professional ventures (something I still do while oscillating between guilt and pride for the fact, to varying degrees). I was leaving him with my mother every day while I worked. To Mary, I cried, “She doesn’t even know how to raise kids! You raised me, she didn’t! She doesn’t even know what she’s doing!” After commending me for choosing to follow my own career pursuits, she lit a cigarette and took a bathroom break, then re-entered. “You know, my daughters hardly even speak to me. If you ask them, I’m the worst mother in the entire world.” I sat, speechless in the shame that I felt creeping up inside of me, and confused about what she could be implying. She told me that while she loved us tremendously, what I didn’t understand was that she had struggled to make it through the day most of the time.
“I was so devoted to the home daycare that I sometimes didn’t have the energy to be there for my girls, and one day, they’ll realize that’s okay, because of what I was doing as my job. By choosing to work, your mother also helped dozens of kids figure out who they were, and she did her best when she got home to you guys. It takes a sacrifice to make this world safe for people. She did her best to be there for you. I did my best to be there for them. It doesn’t always work out perfectly. I’m not as perfect as you remember me. You’re not perfect either. And that’s okay.”
I think about that evening almost daily.
As we grow older, our perceptions of the world we emerged from shift to reveal awkward truths about what it means to create a home for other people. I never realized that the gift of this strong female role model was given to me by my mother, another strong female who was working in the background to provide for me something that is priceless. I never knew I was being unfair. Today, I count this blunder as a blessing that I am constantly working through. The financial provisions my own mother has made, the painful attempts to connect with her children who felt estranged from her, and all the ways she worked to try to bring us back in — often to no avail — all paint a picture of a progressive woman that, in the end, maybe doesn’t feel like she succeeded at motherhood. I wish she did. I peel back layers of experiences I took for granted with her. They were covered up by the bouncing personality of another person, a laughing, seemingly-effortless woman in a floral dress and a messy bun. To Mary I owe the tolerance and patience required to understand a few truths: nobody deserves judgement less than people who make sacrifices in order to provide for others, and that even where there is charisma, nothing is effortless. It takes a village. To my own mother, I owe the steady, unwavering space to live my life separately from her. The ultimate thankless job.
One truth is that I was fortunate to be the only girl growing up in a household of boys, who all together witnessed the love and strength of a woman with a strong sense of self and an unwavering set of morals. The bigger truth is that I was lucky to be raised in two homes, not just one, each occupied by people who understood the value of helping others make better lives for themselves, each emphasizing the important strengths of what hard-working women can bring to a household that grows children.