I am the product of the ultimate stay-at-home domestic Greek-American maven. My mom’s entire life seemed to be defined by the noses she wiped, the sumptuous meals she set before us, the beds that were fixed daily and the sea of folded, clean clothing she magically produced every few days. She threw elegant “cocktail parties” for my dad’s business clients as well as their family and friends while making sure my brothers and I kneeled to say our prayers and practiced daily for our all-important music lessons. To me, Mom was the embodiment of everything feminine, elegant, domestic and motherly and I somehow knew from a very early age that she would be a hard act to follow.
It was rare that I got to see a glimpse of my mother taking time for herself. I thought she was being patronizing when “oohing” and “ahhing” as my brothers and I used our child-sized hands (and feet) to massage her back. But when I think about it now, I am sure it was sheer heaven to feel her overworked muscles being addressed in any way.
By the time my father left corporate life in San Francisco to open his own storefront piano business back in his home own in Indiana, my brothers and I were older and mom’s full-time presence at home was no longer needed. I could tell she was already becoming frustrated over what role she could play that would find her feeling as important as she did when we were small. After awhile, she began to teach herself how to keep the store’s books. She would cubbyhole herself in the back office at the piano store for hours, poring over each page of debits and credits, taking pride in each beautifully written ledger entry and delighting in finding elusive numbers that had previously escaped her. It was at that point she seemed to realize that her abilities lay beyond the making of the perfect galaktoboureko and the maintenance of a gleaming linoleum floor.
But my parents were old school first generation Americans, playing at roles no doubt modeled by their own old country parents. Because my father constantly sought the position of importance in everyone’s eyes, to my mother’s disappointment her vital contributions to the running of the family business were never truly recognized. She longed for Dad to acknowledge that he could never have run his business without her, but he resisted – why, I can’t be sure, but perhaps it was his own insecurities. It was about that time I began to realize that life just wasn’t as fair to women as it was to men and I began to rebel.
My brothers played a role in the business as well, tuning pianos and helping to deliver and set up merchandise. For that, they were paid an enviable allowance, allowing them to save to buy their own cars later on. Because I was the only girl, however, no one could think of anything for me to do beyond dusting the instruments and cleaning the tiny bathroom. So my mother directed me to take the bus home after school, prepare the family meal (I learned to roast Greek-style chicken and make a mean horiatiki salata) and set the table for when they all came home. I bristled that I could not learn to do the tasks my brothers did while they were never expected to cook or clean or even iron their own clothes.
Decades passed, my brothers and I finished college, and my father sold the business. Ever the independent one, I had moved away – back to California. Soon my brothers followed and found jobs and shortly after that, my parents sold their Midwestern home and opted to live in beautiful Marin County. At first mom delighted in setting up a new home. Soon, however, I sensed she felt trapped into full-time domesticity once again, subject to my father’s whims and having to account for every penny she spent. As Dad began to establish a part-time income tuning and repairing pianos, Mom became his telemarketer, keeping meticulous records of his services and knowing when to call his customers for piano maintenance appointments. At her insistence, Dad agreed to pay her an incentive – a small amount for each appointment she made and a larger amount when he completed the service. Still, it wasn’t enough to make her feel validated.
Soon Mom heard that one of the nearby elementary schools was looking for teachers’ aides. The job paid minimum wage but would not take her away from home for too many hours per week that she couldn’t keep up with her domestic duties and her telemarketing calls. To her delight, she began helping two busy teachers corral their flocks, did playground duty and helped to grade papers. The meager checks she took home gave her an entirely new sense of freedom. She established her own checking account, finally able to spend money when she pleased and to save it for something special without checking with my father. This new sense of purpose helped my mother cope in later life, giving her a new voice and earning her the attention and love of her school charges, who went crazy over her calm, easy approach to tackling life’s daily little challenges.
Both my parents are now gone, but my siblings and I often wonder. What could my mom have become had she been given the encouragement, opportunity and freedom to follow her passions? Would she have become a teacher? A business executive or adminstrator? A family therapist? A writer of recipe books? We’ll never know. While we adored both our parents, we often talk about my father’s blustery Greek man façade along with my mother’s unadulterated graciousness and what we might have done to help change things for her.
In the end, however, we realized that our parents were products of their own times, coping with the usual give-and-take and core battles many couples do. Mom’s willingness to please Dad was off the charts, but his ability to listen to Mom’s needs and treat her as an equal were never really realized, plaguing him with guilt as he outlived her by another seven years.
Of course, my brothers and I can forgive Dad his old world sensibilities and way of thinking because we must. Mom and Dad were together for fifty years and while we occasionally witnessed sweet, affectionate moments between them, we often we wonder why two so very different individuals would have lasted so long as a couple.
I went on to have several careers I have enjoyed, the most gratifying of which is my job as a freelance writer. At some point I had to realize that although Mom will always be the voice in my head, I don’t assign the same importance to many things she did and that the lines directing me to assume the traditional role as wife and mother have been blurred in fifty different directions.
And when I see how my own daughter took charge of her future, now employing hundreds of people and appearing on magazine covers usually reserved for male faces, I realize the chain of women-taking-back-seat-to men in our family was finally broken.
Somewhere up there, the spirit of a diminutive woman who in earlier life stayed up all night to cook for a holiday feast, and in later life secreted off to proudly spend her tiny paychecks is looking down on us, happy that the female generations to follow discovered their passions and put them to work to lead fulfilling lives.
Thanks, Mom. Because of your example and your love, we were given the freedom to fly. And that has made all the difference.