My mother was granted the Wellesley Women’s Scholarship the year after it was awarded to Sylvia Plath. (I may not even have the facts right because my mother, after all, was a story teller, and the better story was not always about accuracy of facts. So, truthfully, I THINK my mother had this award after Sylvia because that’s how the story went when my mother told it. Stories, for me, are often better than googled facts, so I’m going to let this one stand unchecked.)
My mother reminded me of Sylvia Plath with their love of words and intelligence, their long features, dreamy eyes, delicate bones, and fair complexion, so it made sense to me that if the world had been to much for someone as talented as Sylvia, it would also prove too much for my mother, and, one day, I’d go into the kitchen and find my mother with her head in the oven.
What is it about women and kitchens? One of my favorite moments on Sex in the City is when Carrie Bradshaw opened her oven to show that was where she stored clothes. That, I thought, was the way for a woman writer to live. Work outside the kitchen was far more rewarding, both monetarily and socially, than quietly cutting cabbage for another healthy stir-fry for five or three or two.
I wanted my mother to write, not sit at the kitchen table and smoke and write out yet another grocery list. I would try to persuade her that I could get the groceries and cook dinner, that my father could, that we could eat out, but she was a young woman of the Sixties during the formative times, and she still thought the person who cooked the dinner was the wife. Even though part of her resented the task. She tried, but it wasn’t uncommon for the greens in the salad to be still crunchy with dirt, or for a pit or two to find its way into the peach cobbler. We were eating bitterness along with love, and I grew to hate dinnner time.
My mother finally started to write her book after she retired, and she was happier than I had ever seen her. She was having a full-blown affair with Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, and she was bringing to life the person who had titled her autobiography “The Adventures of a Nobody”. She still insisted on cooking dinner for my father, but now he cooked on Friday nights. She’d chipped away at her own stubborness, and she now had an hour or maybe two more a week for her writing. That’s a page, maybe two. In a month, that’s four pages or eight. In a year that’s forty-eight or ninety six pages.
The pancreatic cancer diagnosis came, of course, as a shock. Her family-practice doctor had told her that her abdominal pain was of little concern and that some Pepto-bismal should do the trick. It wasn’t until she turned yellow that she got the attention of the medical community. She wrote through the CyberKnife and radiation therapy and chemotherapy and she just kept writing. She also kept making dinners every for my father and herself. She slept a lot and worried a lot that she wouldn’t finish her book. When she was on morphine she still headed for the computer, even though she thought her eye pillow was a rabbit. My father did his best to steer her away from the keyboard, convincing her that she’d really like a cup of tea first.
She died before she got John Quincy Adams into the White House, but the people she had entrusted with her notes: her brother, her sister, a few close friends, the daughter of her second cousin, pulled the book together and brought it to a close. Yale University Press published it, and it was favorably reviewed on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and in The New Yorker, but my mother missed the party.
I hate Sylvia Plath because she died so young. She didn’t get to see her children grow up. She didn’t get to see there was a better love than Ted Hughes, or books more stirring even than Ariel. I hate that the world was too hard for her and that her body couldn’t bear her brain, or that her brain couldn’t bear itself. I hate that being a woman writer is different than being a male writer in that it often involves things that so many men don’t have to think about in the same mind-numbing way: hair, nails. skirt length, calf size, cooking, cleaning, lightness of tone. The list is long and not news.
I hate that my mother cooked us dinners. The only thing I remember with a real yearning is her Yorkshire pudding–that tender skin of flour and milk and blood. I do remember sharing meals as a family, but it was the gathering and not the food that I remember. My mother cooked because she felt it was her role as a housewife, even though she, like Plath, was a Smithie, even though she knew she was selling herself short. She just didn’t see a way out.
Part of the problem was that my mother liked to cook. She liked listening to WGBH as she chopped vegetables or made hamburger into patties. She liked feeding her children, her husband. She was at home in the kitchen. But she had other things to do that made her happier, and she needed to get out.