Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Am I My Mother’s Daughter, and How Much Does It Finally Matter?

I think of all we are experiencing now, then of my parents. Specifically, I have thought more of my mother. The charming Edna Kelly (later marrying Lawrence Guenther), likely 19 or so, is on the left. I am on the right. Do we even look related? I once more wondered about her life after my niece, Lila, posted her photo on social media. I thought of my own. I am now at the age she was when I was just 30. She was born in 1909 in Blackwater, Missouri, and died in Michigan, 2001–where I was raised. (Her heart and the rest gave out; a few months later I had a heart attack while hiking.)

At times when studying my mother’s more youthful photos, I often wished I looked like my oldest sister, as she looked much like our mother. I felt I had come into our family not quite akin to Mom, nor quite Dad. It may have been untrue, but it felt like that a long while. I don’t often look at old photos, though they are gone; the family is fixed vividly in my memory. Lila, the family historian since my mother and aforementioned sister passed, also has features more reflective of theirs.

The other day I once more considered how much of who we become is inherited–or not. And how much we can understand of our relatives and heritage, beyond bare facts.

Perhaps this is especially of interest since my daughter had twins last year. My mother had twin baby sisters who died in the flu pandemic; she would have been so pleased to welcome twins again into our family. They are not identical. One seems to take after her father; the other, her mother. And their personalities are already coming to the fore with strong intimations of their future selves. We will see who they become, week by month by year. It is exciting to be a part of it as their grandmother.

It’s a big question, of course, that folks have well debated: nature v. nurture, genetics v. external experience. I gather social scientists and other experts agree it is both. Each of us enters the world with complex brain chemistry and other physiological mapping regarding health tendencies, personality markers and potential, strengths and deficits, talents or lack thereof. And this reaches back into genetic banks of ancestry–most of whom we never knew or heard of. Yet they remain present within us in many subtle or exaggerated manifestations. A mind expanding thought–with so much conjecture.

There are definitely physical traits that came through my mother, though I more resemble my father’s side with large blue eyes (her’s: smaller, grey -toned– and often mischievous), a much less “patrician” nose and fuller lips. My mother, of hearty farm stock, had a perfect straight and near-pointy nose, thin (often smiling) lips and ivory skin. She was of Irish/English/Scottish decent. Thus, so am I. And German, via both of my father’s parents.

I inherited my mother’s shape of hands, even her fingers; her hair, as mine until a few years ago, was a plentiful auburn brown and it’s become more more wavy; and perhaps–if I might say this– her nice figure, though I am slimmer (like Dad) than she was most of her life (I like food less than she did). I think we share eyebrows and for certain our foot shape and size–she lent me beautiful high heels for years when I dressed up. That made those shoes doubly worth the money she spent, she once said. She enjoyed fine clothes (those she didn’t make herself, excellent creations) and good accessories for bargain prices– but wasn’t shy about paying whatever was necessary, if it came to that, either.

Edna Kelly was athletic, playing basketball in school and roaming the country roads, working on her parents’ farm. (She was kicked by a horse and ever after had chronic lower back pain–she saw no doctor back then.) Appreciative of the great world of nature (loved botany, geology, ornithology and etymology–and studied these some in college) she shared her knowledge, went camping many times with Dad and me. I also love sporty activities and have enjoyed figure skating, hiking, any water sports, volleyball and other ball games (baseball with our 5 kids- basketball, too). Just running about or bicycling kept me going for hours. Nowadays, give me a gym for pleasure and exercise, sure (I was a body builder for a couple years), but the outdoors calls to me far more. Mom used to say she was a bit of a “tomboy” and I loved that–she had excellent physical endurance and stamina, was known for her reservoirs of energy almost until the end.

I found her naturally beautiful–she rarely wore more than a dash of pale coral lipstick and only when going out. I was born (last of 5) when she was 40, so only had pictures of her younger self. No matter: with shorter graying hair and glasses she still radiated loveliness, a sparkling essence. And when she dressed in jewel-toned, long gowns for concerts my father conducted or played in (or other events), she seemed breathtakingly so, that wavy white hair a-shimmer as she aged. Her skin? Smooth and unblemished. Dad often hugged her, saying “she was quite the catch”– even though he was, as well.

Add to these external traits the fact that she was talented domestically and turned out handmade creations (with the discerning eye of an artist). And was also a fine elementary teacher. Little of which I can claim, though I adore art, have painted and sketched off and on. (And I suppose I did provide education when counselling my mental health/addiction treatment groups.) She had it all, I thought. And felt the lack.

In certain ways we are clearly mother and daughter, though our faces appear less alike. In others, our shared genes may appear unlikely. What of our personality traits and greater interests? Were those characteristics passed down or learned?

I felt from early on that my mother was near the pinnacle of success as a person and woman, and by the time I was 12 years old I saw I would never reach standards set by either parent. Yet I had their examples to aspire to, and I tried hard off and on all my life– until I hit my early forties. I knew who I was very well and that was that, with much room for improvements–and at heart I was not so different than I was at 12, I thought. Just older and surely some harder; hopefully kind, perhaps more insightful…

So if I had little skill regarding domestic chores, also far less interest than many. Food’s primary purpose, for me, was to provide fuel so never understood why it elicited such labor and excitement. Housekeeping was a simple necessity so dust didn’t fur surfaces of furniture and rooms with their various possessions were orderly enough, in a pleasing way. But it took too much time some days. (We had 7 people in the house, at least as many musical instruments, frequent visitors for everyone.) I didn’t sew well or happily, nor create my own dress patterns although there was much instruction from Mom as she stood at my shoulder. Still, despite my humiliation, I don’t think she worried about it much. Our parents insisted we all secure a fine education, go into the world armed with degrees, honed talents– plus kind hearts. No difference if male or female: achieve, that was the byword. She would shoo me from the kitchen with a command to study or practice my cello or sing or write (or maybe anything to get me out of her way). But I still felt the sting of having nothing decent to show for my (minimal) efforts, otherwise. I wanted to garner her approval in all things, have every good life skill. At least I managed to help entertain their guests–greeting and chatting with people, carrying out food, cleaning up at the end and chatting with Mom. I liked people, talking, listening–and gathering more info for writing.

In time, there were serious ways I would let my mother down. If I did have abilities that brought happy successes, there were also matters that took me farther from acceptance. I grew into a rebel without truly intending to be one. I had big ideas of my own; I also had a lot pain; and dreams that began to diverge from a family legacy of either useful teaching or work in mighty realms of music. (Though why I left music is a much harder story.)

In time, things came apart bit by bit. I maintained high grades and performed on stages and showed a face that was for awhile better than I felt: I stayed out too late; used illicit substances; wrote death-defying poetry of longing as I contemplated the specter of suicide; wrote folk songs that were often more bitter than hopeful; dated boys that lived on the thin edge while pining for the one I could likely not win because, as Mom told me: “You must be more the girl he wants.” Implying I needed to be…better. Different. Not like me. It cut deep. I was who I was but desired to be more– yet, not an idealized, proper, rule-abiding- at-all-costs girl. (Though, I have to say, that boy did not truly want that and we were in love–but his parents did. In the end, he went to a faraway college as I fell further from grace.)

Maybe that is the kind of thing what she believed when she and my father were growing up together, then attending college, then finally marrying. That is: be who a man needs you to be. Still, I find it hard to accept. My mother was deeply engaged with life, independent-minded and opinionated, given to bossiness, multi-talented and smart (I often felt she was under-utilizing her intelligence) as all get out. But for me, what she suggested wasn’t even possible. I was afire with passions of many sorts–not just sensual but creative, spiritual, intellectual. I was hungry for more, more. As a teen I was reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (lofty but a Catholic!–we were Methodists) Herman Hesse and Anais Nin (scandalous), Kahlil Gibran, poets Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, e.e. cummings. I was listening to cool jazz, folk music and swing on the sly (we almost always heard only classical in our house). I longed to be a modern dancer despite sweating out ballet exercises in my room, and a jazz singer despite my proscribed art songs polished. My cello? Could I play it electrified? But I did not dare do that.

It was the 1960s, as well. The lure of loosening middle class mores shaped by heavy constrictions; protesting of social injustices and archaic ideas regarding women versus men–it was powerful stuff to this 15-19 year old, dreamy-eyed, wounded by years of non-familial, silenced child abuse. I wanted so much to rise right up even as I was falling down. Feminism was a bright flag waving high above a movement made of empowering women as never before. I thought: we can be real potent trail blazers. I, too, can make myself heard and make a good difference.

So it was: student-empowered politics mixed with substance abuse–and rebellions fomented by hope for a more inclusive, improved society. An odd combination at first glance but there it was. My deeper desire was to do more, become more, contribute in a creative and compassionate way. And that took action, not just talk. The fact was, I reminded my parents, I was raised to be a critical thinker–despite a sanctioned conformity that ultimately ruled at dinner tables, schools, churches. My voice had gone weary of being quieter, so civilized–which seemed then like being made blind, deaf and mute.

They did not accept my arguments. They had lived through wars and pandemics (flu, polio and more) and the Depression. Why couldn’t I– along with my friends–be satisfied with what was so much better than what had come before us? I needed to settle down, stop agitating or challenging life. Act more civilized

But I grew up faster than planned. In short order, survived more severe trials than I had expected. Finally had children, dropped out of college many times to raise them and so my spouse could get his Masters degree, then we later divorced, and, ultimately, I married three times–unheard of for a long while.

Was this any of what my mother hoped for? Did it reflect her sorts of choices? Did it reflect on my heritage? No, no, and often likely not. Except I was a creative person, had a capacity to care deeply and an abiding faith in God. These saved me from utter failure, and I believe kept her hope burning for me.

Still, I got stronger, learned to live better. I could look her in the eye more often. I built from nearly scratch a career in human services–it was God who guided me there, at start–and spent the rest of my life counseling folks who lived fast and hard and paid for it and needed a renovation; or wandered precariously near the edge of the world and needed acceptance and hope. They gained new coping skills as had I. And I cared deeply for every person who walked through my office doors. I had learned to do what mattered most, felt glad to join the ranks of countless others who do this work every day in the wide world: serve others.

What, if any of this, is like my mother’s life, her beliefs and actions? What did she teach me about being a person, a woman? She offered a lot, and I have, finally, carried a good portion of it with me.

Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman with backbone, one who did not give up when she believed in something or someone. She made her opinions known, at times in ways that seemed minor but were major with a raised eyebrow, a turn of the head, a gasp or quick laugh, a gentle touch on one’s arm, a forefinger tapping her lips. She was expressive with hands and voice, was a natural storyteller. She could share anything that happened in an ordinary day, elevating the moments in the very emotive telling. Entertainment was living life, sharing it a part of that. She appreciated all kinds of people even if she didn’t always understand or even approve; she found people enriching and puzzling and generally good. She had, as they say, heart.

In her mind, there was no problem that didn’t have a solution; it was often the simplest. There was no such thing as boredom, only a lack of intention and action. If you witnessed a dispute, don’t let anyone damage another–yet don’t keep anger too quiet if it needs to be the alarm. And one should mend what was broken, even if it hurts some in the process. Forgiveness, then, is paramount: compassion is the thread, the glue that binds together the pieces.

My mother wanted to be a writer, she said once, looking out the kitchen window with dish towel in her hands. She kept journals of her travels to foreign countries and whenever crisscrossing our country; she was a frequent letter writer. She watched me type away on the old Remington for years, knew I wrote by longhand deep into the night. She read what was offered to her; she approved, cared to note glitches, upheld my burning passion that still courses through my blood and fills my soul. And after she died and I despaired and longed to have her close, her spirit came to me with this: You must write. And my whole self trembled, then was profoundly calm.

She read a third draft of a long-developed novel a couple of years before she died. It doesn’t anymore matter that it has been pushed aside. It matters that she said it was “a page turner, I loved it.” So if I am like my mother in any way–and most of all this way, always telling stories–I am humbled, honored. But what I think is that I simply became somehow more the person, the woman, she knew I was so long working to reclaim and set free. Not that similar to her, perhaps. Nor quite like my sisters, beloved aunts, grandmothers. But we have shared a spark, a link, a look that says we live from the center of things, from the reaches of our souls, messy or not.

And we are one for the other, and all of one, in the end. And my toddler girls, the twin grandchildren, will carry on a legacy of vibrancy, inventiveness and perseverance underscored with hope if they can. And, too, our imperfections, our quirkiness, our weak points–and add to their repertoire their own uniqueness.

The biggest question for me remains: who actually was the person of Edna as a youngster, a college student, then wife with babies, a woman with a career, then a woman growing older? Who else might she have been, what more could she have explored? Was she as happy, ultimately, as she seemed, even amid weepiness that came and went with remnants of losses creeping in…? Her breath catching in her throat as she spoke of tender or difficult things? I saw and understood. As she gave of herself here and there all along the way, I watched and learned. But– I knew her so little.

After leaving home we were close only when we talked on the phone or wrote, or enjoyed quick visits at different meeting points in the country. Only a small part of what we shared was fully presented and treasured more than any gold; the rest was a delicate, tentative search for more. We know our mothers too little, even if we think we know more. We may be unwilling to blur boundaries in fear of…what? What shall be lost in knowing more fully the one who gave us birth? Can we not suspect it is less than enough that we share before the chances are over?

I wager Mom was feisty, diplomatic, dramatic, or deeply intuitive long before any of us took hold of her. There was more, I could feel it when we talked or didn’t talk, when she shared her vivid dream-infused nightly adventures and then listened to my own; showed me how to make good poached eggs and Waldorf salad; stood watching out the kitchen window as I ascended to the top of the maple tree to sing, to write, to cry, to plan. There was a pressure of diverse energy in her, even at rest; there was much left unsaid as she spoke voluminously. So most of her story remains a mystery.

As for me, I may once have thought I risked more, dared more, took my knocks and got back up but, honestly, I knew her life was harder than what she told. It was in the depths of her gaze, in the response to others: she knew about great love, about piercing sorrows; she knew about pain and healing and faith. About just going on. I suspect she even knew I would manage alright, too.

Her own complicated tales were carried home with her when passing into what and where she believed was a more liberating, illuminating experience than all she’d experienced on earth. And that is another thing we had in common. But when I consider all the aspects of our lives, I do realize that we each were on our own life journeys. I still am making my particular way through this grand and strange experience.

Mom and me after she was given my novel draft a couple of years before she died.

4 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Am I My Mother’s Daughter, and How Much Does It Finally Matter?

  1. Cynthia, I am so in awe of your work. I always seem to relate more to the non-fiction work, perhaps because of my connection with you and the family. But it is so touching, so heartfelt, and opens up your personal side for sharing with others which I think is a rare talent. Thank you for writing this. It has prompted me to think of my own connection with my mother — not really a close one, but in understanding how she was raised I can relate more. It makes me a bit teary thinking about both our mothers.

    1. Judy, your words are greatly appreciated, even more since I know how discriminating you are re: all the arts. I’m very glad you find my nonfiction worth reading and considering, and that it is meaningful to you. I have had a habit of transparency always, I feel, but much more so following the hard times since the hard losses of my childhood and youth. It makes me crave authenticity and truth in myself and others…But I am pleased it led you to think more of our mothers, and to recall them with compassion and love. Thank you for the ongoing reading of my work–my sometimes risky, passionate offerings.

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