Giving Thanks for my Feminist Mother

The beginning of November marked twelve years since my mother died from pancreatic cancer. In anticipation of the anniversary I expected to feel how I have felt in years past: mournful, devastated, regretful, empty, and sorrowful for her missing out on her children and grandchildren’s’ lives. Instead, to my surprise, I found myself putting flowers on her headstone that day feeling full of gratitude for everything she taught and instilled in me.

My mother was reared in the time when Mormon women were married very young and had numerous babies very quickly (has that time ever ended?). She had pioneer blood flowing through her veins on her mother’s side, and her paternal grandparents gave up everything for the church and moved from Denmark to Logan, Utah in the early 20th century. When she graduated from high school in 1963 she didn’t take the expected course. Instead she took at job in the Foreign Training Division of the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. She rented her own apartment without roommates, something that was virtually unheard of at the time. This was back when women weren’t allowed to open a checking account in their own name without a husband or father’s approval. Independent to a fault, she forged her own path of what was expected of a Mormon young lady, even becoming inactive for more than two decades over the priesthood ban. Many of her friends in DC were black and she couldn’t reconcile her values with church doctrine (I know the feeling). She and my non-Mormon father eloped when they were 26, again following her heart instead of tradition.

After I graduated with my Bachelors in Social Work I was employed by the church at LDS Family Services as an adoption caseworker. My dad thought it was so ironic that I was expected to wear a dress or skirt to work, 30 years after my mother was the first woman, who worked for the federal government in the early ‘70s, to wear a pantsuit to work. She was not a person you could tell what to do.

My mother was a career woman and there was only a short blip of time she did not work. She was highly competent and capable. Twelve years later I still run into some of her former coworkers who tell me how she was the sunshine in the office and how much they miss her spunk, competency, and humor. When she quit one secretarial job in the early ’80s to have my brother, her former supervisor had to hire six secretaries to replace her. She spent years trying to re-hire her. My maternal grandmother was also a career woman, who even worked for NASA at one point in DC. I come from a long line of highly capable women.

As I sat at her headstone this year, I felt gratitude for my mother always pushing me academically. It was never an option whether or not I would go to college. She was never afforded the opportunity and pushed her daughters to take advantage of things she never had. She would always tell me, “a man is not a financial plan.” It was never “get an education in case of….” She knew we needed to be able to support ourselves no matter what. It’s probably why my sister, my sister-in-law, and I are career women. Even though I’m in the middle of grad school hell, I’m glad she pushed me to be relentless in my pursuit of education.

My mother taught me to be strong and to face adversity with a sense of humor. She had breast cancer when I was 8 and her doctor said she healed faster and better than any of his other patients because of her sense of humor. For example, when she had her double mastectomy she asked the doctor if she could keep her breasts to have them stuffed and mounted on the wall. She was so funny and quick-witted and I have found that that’s what people remember most about her – her making them laugh.

This year instead of mourning what I could have had, I’m choosing to be grateful for what I was given. I hope wherever she is on the great eternal rainbow bridge, she is proud of the daughter she raised. Of the children she raised. I would like to honor the life she lived by living the best life I can. By being grateful for what I have. By helping others as much as I’m able to. By raising my children with unconditional love and always being their soft place to fall. By making others laugh. By being kind to strangers and children. By leaving the world a better place for having lived in it.

Like she did.

Risa

Risa is a full-time social worker in child abuse prevention, a part-time graduate student, and a mother of 4. In her spare time she is a voracious reader, snarker, and subversive cross-stitcher.

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5 Responses

  1. Judith Curtis says:

    This is an excellent essay. It is in about the same stage of life as mine so a lot
    of it was similar to experiences that mentioned in it. My mother was limited in her church activity because my father gave up religion even though they were married in the temple. But both of them were good parents and had us stay active in the church. A lot of what you say here is similar to my experience. It is so well done.

  2. Allemande Left says:

    Beautiful tribute to an amazing person!

  3. Austin says:

    I’ll echo the above comments and say what a beautifully written tribute to what sounds like an equally beautiful person. It’s really easy (if often inaccurate/unfair) to measure a parent’s success by their children, but in your mother’s case it would probably be valid. You and your sister (I’ve never met your brother, but I’ve heard good things) are remarkable people and examples of everything I think is good and important. And from what it sounds like, your mother had a hand or 12 in that. (Doing the work of 6, while raising amazing people, WOW!)

    I’m so sorry you lost your mother, but I’m glad you’re able to focus with gratitude on everything she was and taught you. (Not that you can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to mourn. Just meaning that, if given the choice, I’d rather the people I care about feel gratitude and joy than pain and loss. Hope I’m explaining that right.)

    Thanks for sharing your lovely words about a lovely soul.

  4. Ziff says:

    Your mom sounds awesome! Thanks for sharing this tribute, Risa!

  5. Jennifer says:

    This essay was so uplifting to me. Your journey with grief has taken a beautiful direction. I loved your mom, and I love the tribute you give her, both through your words and through the life you live.

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