When I started junior high, I was old enough to stay by myself after school, before Mom got home from work. I was an original “latch-key kid,” before anyone coined the phrase, and I was excited about my newfound freedom. To a point. I’d watched or heard about enough Bette Davis movies to be somewhat leery of the empty house on occasion. Sometimes, I’d search the house with weapons as deadly as a thumbtack, to make sure all was safe before watching TV or listening to my records. Regardless of any differences I had with my mom during my teenage years - and there were many - it was always good to hear her come through that front door.
When I was in high school, Driver’s Ed was a part of our curriculum. It was frightening at times, but exhilarating. The class was in a temporary building, which seemed more appropriate when we were doing simulated driving; we could hear the traffic on the nearby freeway. Each desk had a brake pedal and an accelerator pedal on the floor under it. On top of the desk, we each had a console with a steering wheel and blinkers to use. We “drove” as we watched a film; it looked as if we were driving on streets. We had to watch closely, attempting to do all the right things. The teacher could tell which kids were slowing down, using their turn signals, etc. I ran into the back of more than one 18-wheeler on that big screen.
Finally, the day to do real driving came. We were put into groups of three or four students, with one driving instructor. Some kids got the adventurous teachers; they drove through McDonald’s during their real-time stints. Me? I had some lady with blue hair who probably learned on a Model T. She was all business. In hindsight, she was perhaps one of the bravest women I’ve ever met. It was painstakingly boring for me when other students were driving, until the driver neared intersections; I held my breath every time. And when the rule-breakers took a turn, I could sense their impulses to take off at break-neck speeds, so I prayed even harder; it was a gamble to be in that car. But the drudgery and risk were worth it. With permits in our hands, we had freedom that reached new heights, and were ready to practice with our terror-stricken parents. Some of my friends had jobs and paid for their own cars; others were given one by their parents. But I remained wheelless, and friends often gave me rides to and from school.
When I was 16, I got my first summer job in the Dispatch Department at Star Furniture in Houston, where Mom worked as an ad copywriter. It was a strange starter job for a young girl, but I had a friendly and patient female boss who taught me how to route maps for deliveries, and dispatch the drivers. A few months later, I was transferred to Inventory Control, a small, cramped room where I and three other employees pulled cards for each item sold, filed unused cards, and communicated with the salespeople. It could be monotonous, but I loved having my own money. What I didn’t spend on clothes, I deposited into a “real” savings account, meaning one at a bank rather than in a drawer somewhere. Everything worked out well, since I rode to work with Mom.
But after budget cuts, I lost that job, and began working as a stocker at Marshall’s, using Mom’s car to get there. After high school, I continued to work part-time in retail, while I went to college. For years, and halfway through college, I dropped Mom off at work, went to classes, then picked her up from work, then went to work. While I was a sales associate in the Men’s Department at Palais Royal, my favorite retail job of all time, Dad surprised me with my own car. Because I would soon be transferring from a local junior college to a four-year university that was further from home, he knew I’d no longer be able to take Mom to work and pick her up. I was thrilled, with more independence than I’d ever known. My second-hand, maroon Dodge Omni might as well have been a Mercedes. I had my own set of wheels. But it had no cassette tape player. And we all know that 99 percent of the driving experience is playing your own tunes. So, for my next birthday, a friend gave me a pink portable radio/tape player. I made sure it always had current batteries, and cranked it up when I drove.
But my Omni had a dirty little secret – an oil leak. Once I discovered it, I tried to keep the oil at the optimum level, until we could get the car fixed; I never left home without extra cans of oil in the back seat. In spite of my efforts, the Omni died a few months later, needing a new engine to the tune of $3600. As she often did, Mom came to the rescue of her independent daughter. She sacrificed above and beyond so I could continue my college education, by paying for the engine. We never told Dad about the new engine.
Shortly before graduating from college, I quit my job at Palais Royal. I thought I’d take some time off before starting my new life as a journalist. As if that diploma would mean someone would call me the day after graduation, to offer me my dream job.
Mom was livid. “You what?” she asked, after I announced my unemployment.
“I quit my job to have some free time before starting my career,” I explained. “I need a break for a while.”
“Without even discussing it with me?”
“What difference does it make? I’ll be working again after graduation,” I assured her.
“Who do you think will pay for the things you want, and gas for your car, and new clothes, until you get a job?”
I stared back at her, speechless. I hadn’t considered that I’d put her back in the position of footing the bill for me – her independent 23-year-old. That was relatively old to be totally living off your parents. I had friends who’d been married since they were 19, and some teens I knew had gone into the armed services right after graduating high school. My lack of consideration was surpassed only by my arrogance that I deserved a break from life while she paid my cost of living.
It took over two years to get a job in my field of study. I sent out countless resumes, to no avail. So, during that time, I worked jobs that had nothing to do with my degree, including one at a print shop and one as a director of a Mother’s Day Out program. The latter was much harder than the former. But I’d learned my lesson, and worked the jobs I found rather than waiting for that dream job to come around. Contrary to the “do what you love” philosophy, Mom taught me that often, you must do what you don’t want to do. And sometimes, I might add, you may excel at it, as in the case of Mom’s cooking; she hated the task, but was a wonderful cook. I’m sure she would’ve loved having a chef.
Mom taught me countless things about responsibility. And hard work. And independence. From an early age, I knew I had the freedom to choose what I wanted to do with my life. Growing up, I had the only mom I knew who could repair a kitchen faucet. One day, I walked into the kitchen to see nothing but the lower half of her body sticking out from under the cabinet under the sink.
“What are you doing?” I asked, laughing.
“Fixing the faucet,” her muffled reply came.
“Mom, you’re not a plumber. Why don’t you call a plumber?” I’d never imagined a woman repairing plumbing.
“Why pay a plumber if I can fix it myself?” she replied.
Thus, I was taught the sometimes-you-have-to-do-what-you’d-rather-pay-someone-else-to-do philosophy. How-to books frequented our home, and I saw her home improvement skills at work all my life.
I thought perhaps her pioneer spirit was hereditary. Both Mom and her mother were divorced women and single mothers who learned to do what was once considered "man's work," rather than hire help, unless it was absolutely necessary. Grandmother, at 80, still mowed Mom’s lawn with an electric mower. Mom was concerned the neighbors were thinking, I can't believe that lady has her elderly mom out there doing the yard work. Thankfully, Adult Protective Services never came knocking.
When Mom was 89, I walked into her house and saw her trying to fix her toilet. At that age, I’d have trouble merely getting off the ground beside the toilet. Several months after that, she was contemplating painting the ceiling in her living room.
"Um, Mom, you might want to hire someone to do that," I suggested, careful to not say it in a way that even slightly suggested she was no longer capable. I’d seen firsthand what Wonder Woman could do.
"Well, the only thing I'm worried about is the ladder." This came from a woman who was using a walker in public, to prevent falling. What else was there to worry about, other than getting paint-colored highlights in her hair?
"Yeah, that would be what I'd worry about, too, Mom” I responded. “Looking up while on the ladder, getting dizzy. If you break your hip by falling, it will be a lot more expensive than hiring a painter."
She agreed; I was surprised and relieved.
But the DNA for handywomen stopped with me. Instead, I have the call-someone-to-fix-it gene. And that someone is usually Flash. He’s a self-taught auto mechanic and jack-of-all-trades, who far surpassed his dad, Jack-of-Duck-Tape.
However, my foremothers’ passion to learn more, to never limit themselves based on gender, and to exercise their freedoms – those traits continue to live on in me.
Recently, my friend Lylas and I went to see On the Basis of Sex. I’d been hesitant to see it, thinking perhaps it was made as a political platform, with its own agenda, as so many films are. I try to not mix politics and entertainment, finding that combination somewhat of an oxymoron. And so, I entered the theater with a non-partisan mind.
Not since Rocky Balboa first graced the big screen, has it been so hard for me to stay seated in a movie. Before it began, Lylas told me the two acceptable careers for women back in the day were nursing and teaching. Her own mother, having had difficulties being taken seriously in the business world, advised her daughters to pursue one of these two fields. Lylas became a teacher, which she loved; her sister, Carly, studied nursing, but instead found the career she loved while working for the phone company for many years.
I remembered Mom’s telling me that when she was writing for the oil page of the San Antonio Express, she had to keep her recent wedding a secret from the office. A woman could be fired for getting married. If she got married, then, it was assumed, she would have children, and that was a liability to an employer. I thought of her various jobs and accomplishments as a journalist, including writing for the Texas Highway Department, and as a technical editor for NASA subcontractors for many years after her Star Furniture copywriting job. She received accolades throughout her career, including the Manned Space Flight Awareness Award and the Silver Snoopy, high honors in the NASA world.
As I watched the movie, I heard many things repeated that Mom had told me about the days when women were considered “less than.” She’d told me that often, women were considered property. Thinking of her courage and perseverance, my heart filled with pride, to the point I thought it would explode. As the movie ended, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all those who labored, so I could have the freedom and opportunities I have today. And I thanked God for giving me a mother who lived free in the world, and free in Christ.
I’d thought my freedom started with that first day of staying home alone during junior high. But, as it turns out, it had started a long, long time before that.