Between a Cultural Past and a Personal Present
Personal Essay: Helen Candland Stark Essay Contest Winner
Salt Lake City, Utah
A woman with smooth black hair often stares at me in the mirror. When her full red lips curl into a smile, tiny lines sprout from the corners of her eyes in spidery roots. Sometimes, she cups one long-fingered hand over her mouth while her shoulders tremble with laughter. She has been with me for years. She is my mother’s Matriarch of Marriage and All Things Feminine.
She is the woman my mother always wanted me to be, the woman I vowed never to become. She adhered to silly rules, all designed with the singular intent of catching and keeping a man: A woman should always wear lipstick and smell like flowers. A woman must never curse or sweat. A woman should be patient. But the one I had the hardest time with was A woman should give up everything for her family and never seek fulfillment outside the walls of her home.
The Matriarch is my mother’s fairy tale of femininity, not mine. But the more I look in the mirror, the more I see her staring back. Her image has been so impressed upon me that I cannot escape her, no matter how hard I try. Even in my single days, when I had no room in my life for anyone but me, she flitted about in my dreams and left footprints in my thoughts.
Of course, my mother often reminds me of the Matriarch’s teachings. “Keep yourself pretty, or your husband will look elsewhere,” she warned me when I announced my engagement. I wondered why she offered such counsel. Experience? It was an unspoken reality that my mother’s past marriages had ended in divorce. We never asked her about it and hardly even whispered the D-word in our house, yet we knew that Mom clung tenaciously to the hope that our marriages would magically make up for hers. Somewhere along the way, the Matriarch became our reality: If we were always pretty, if we were always satisfied with our lot, our husbands would never leave.
I am a disappointment to my mother. Most of the time I do not smell like flowers and by no means will I wear lipstick on a daily basis. What is worse, I am committed to maintaining an identity separated from that of my family. My feminine ideal has never seemed so feminine to my mother, but after all, I am from another generation and can live as I please. Can’t I? So why do I feel guilty for turning my back on my mother’s lessons of womanhood? Why do I feel trapped between her past and my present?
In a story titled “No Name Woman” (Woman Warrior, New York: Vintage International, 1989), Maxine Hong Kingston addresses this generational schism in a cultural context. While telling the story of a family outcast, the No Name Woman, and her illegitimate child, Hong Kingston explores her own personal struggle to find an identity somewhere between her Chinese heritage and her American home: “Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fit in solid America.” (WW, p. 5) When do the stories—both the true and the fictional—of a culture and personal reality meet?
I think about how my mother labored to teach us how to cook, clean, and sew so we would grow up to be the feminine ideal. I rejected those lessons. Like Hong Kingston, I always thought that “unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help.” (WW, p. 8) But now that I find myself the mother of two children, grafted into the tree of my mother’s life, it is more difficult to see where she ends and I begin.
I live in a strange and metaphorical land. I am an American, and I am a Mormon. I find myself wedged in the crevice between two opposing feminine identities. The American culture would have me desire a successful career and, if I choose, one or two children. I should want it all, have it all, and, of course, be able to do it all.
What America thinks I should want exhausts me. For a long time, I believed it and planned on clambering my way up the career ladder regardless of whether we had children or not. Before the kids, people in my profession said I could really go places. But then I tried to work full time after I had a baby, and everything fell apart. After teaching for eight or more hours, I could only lie on the floor and moan as my baby crawled around me, intermittently prodding me with a chubby finger. So, I decided to give it up for a while. When I told a friend that I planned to stay home with my children full time, he squinched his eyebrows together and coughed softly. “That’s too bad,” he said. And part of me—the part that had always wanted a big career—agreed. It was disappointing to discover I had somehow become a traditional woman after all.
To my religion, I am an ingredient in a formula that I cannot change. I must keep the cycle of tradition moving or the micro-culture—my family—will collapse. But at what cost? I have heard sermons that depict working mothers as greedy heathens who should forsake their careers for the all-encompassing fulfillment of motherhood (as if the only reason a woman would want to work would be to make money). When I hear this, I panic. When I became a mother, I did not lose my interest in school or my desire to use my education. At times, I feel cheated, lied to—interrupted. I am told that an educated mother makes an educated home, but this platitude doesn’t comfort me. I cannot teach my three-year-old how to conjugate a Russian verb. My baby shows no interest in twentieth-century American poetry. Yet I cannot go back, at least not at full throttle. The guilt of spending more time with other people’s children than with my own is worse than with my own is worse than thoughts of what I could be outside the Mormon circle.
My husband has tried to understand. After I described my fear of decomposing into a non-person by staying home with the children, he replied, “Your intellect is only dormant during this time. You will bloom again once the children are older.”
“I am not a flower,” I whispered, my teeth clenched to keep from crying. An image came to mind of a spider I had read about that could lie perfectly still, as if dead, in a crumpled heap between two window panes. When the window was opened, the spider stretched its skinny legs and awoke, springing into the life it had stared at for so long.
Sometimes I feel like that spider. I sit trapped between two cultures, my face pressed against the glass, waiting for the moment when I can leap into a world of my own making. I do not know how to separate myself from the cultures that made me, especially the Mormon one. “A family must be whole” (WW, p. 13), Hong Kingston’s people believed, and so do mine.
When Hong Kingston’s No Name Woman became noticeably pregnant, she etched a conspicuous crack in the village circle and paid for it with her life and that of her child’s. It did not matter if someone else’s purity had also been tarnished; the cycle was broken all the same. She was a lifegiver, and yet her culture did not allow for a life of her own. In many ways, neither did my mother’s. Neither does mine.
Hong Kingston’s mother tells her daughter this story for a purpose: What happened to her could happen to you—it’s all part of being a woman. Do not shame the family or you will be forgotten, too. She writes, “They [the first generation] must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always trying to name the unspeakable.” (WW, p. 5) And so my mother’s No Name Woman, our Icon, is to teach me: Live up to your responsibility as a woman or unspeakable things will happen to you.
I want to ask my mother what exactly would happen to me were I to choose a different life, but she forbids it. It is easier for everyone to pretend that my mother created and raised five children by herself and liked every moment of it. I am a Mormon-American and Hong Kingston is a Chinese-American, and yet both of our cultures forbid us to look outside of our circles for something more. All that we need, we are advised, is within the walls of ancient traditions.
Hong Kingston observes, “The work of preservation demands that the feeling playing about in one’s guts not be turned into action.” (WW, p. 8) As a young woman, my mother tried to break out of the boundaries. When she told my grandfather that she wanted to go to college, he said, “It’s a waste of money to send a girl to school.” But she went anyway. When the money ran out, she met my father and scurried back to her expected role of wife and mother, choosing to maintain the “past against the flood.” (WW, p. 8) Her aspirations, however strong, flickered brilliantly for a short while and then suffocated quietly without a sound.
I imagine my mother as a teenager, her hair cut in a smart style, lips and nails painted movie star red. Maybe it was Mom’s thick black curls that attracted my father or her small hips that swayed demurely as she sashayed through the house. Whatever it was, it obviously didn’t last. Maybe she stopped wearing lipstick. Maybe she started to smell like babies instead of gardenias. And then, perhaps my father looked elsewhere.
How often after my grandfather stepped on my mother’s gumption did she stop to look beyond the circle and wonder, What if? I want to hear more of her story. Though she assures me that giving up everything, including herself, was worth it, she must have wanted more at times. Every now and then, she throws snippets of truth my way, which I collect and stitch together like a patchwork quilt. Once, in between recipes and advice, she wedged a confession: “I always knew there was something else out there; I just didn’t know what it was,” she said with a slight catch in her throat. “And you,” she continued, bitterness lacing the edge of her words, “are lucky to have something to go back to when the children grow up and leave.” Before I could say anything, she closed the gate to her past and began to recite the ingredients for split pea soup.
And so the question is, Who is better off: the woman who knows what she’s missing and leaves it reluctantly behind, or the woman who doesn’t and never had the chance to find out?
Hong Kingston observes: “Women in the old China did not choose.” (WW, p. 6) Neither did my mother. I do not believe that she brought everything—most of all the divorce—upon herself just as Hong Kingston’s No Name Aunt could not have been solely responsible for an illegitimate child. They did not break the “roundness” (WW, p. 13) by themselves, and yet their communities treated them as if they had.
After my mother and father divorced, my father remarried and acquired a new family, thus maintain his social status in the Church. But my mother didn’t. She remained single. As a woman without a husband, she was treated as incomplete, a half-woman—maybe even a sinful one. Those frightened by No Name Woman’s illegitimate pregnancy in Hong Kingston’s story “depended on one another to maintain the real.” (WW, p. 12) So, too, did those in my mother’s ward. When she became physical proof of the breakdown of their culture, they ostracized her. Like scared villagers, they “punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them” (WW, p. 13) Perhaps this is the reason Mom fears for me. She does not want me to be so different that I will lose my place in the Church circle. Perhaps she worries that I, too, will become a No Name Sister, destined for a lower kingdom on Earth and in Heaven.
I like to believe I can choose who to be and how my life will end up, but it’s not that easy. If I break tradition and have a career outside of the home, my religious will condemn my decision and label me a bad mother. If I concern myself entirely with house and home, my American sisters will label me ignorant and unambitious. A cross-current of time and cultures holds me in its grasp. I ache to be free; I fear to let go.
And so it is with Hong Kingston. She fights the urge to be an American beauty, choosing instead “Sisterliness, dignified and honorable.” (WW, p. 12) With eyes lowered, she escapes back into the safety of tradition. No matter how much she wants to become American, it is safer inside the circle. Hong Kingston summons the image of women working in the field, their backs bent with the weight of their load “like great sea snails.” (WW, p. 10) It is a responsibility to be a woman, and my mother knows it. I wonder if that is why, when she wanted to stand and stretch—“lay down [her] burden” (WW, p.10) and run far away from that field—she stayed.
I am entrenched in my mother’s culture even though I have fought against it my entire life. I do not wish to stay within the boundaries set for her long ago. For all my ranting and raving against her notion of womanhood, my mother expected me to eventually snap out of it and return to the fold, just as she did. Now I find myself floating further away from my own ideals as I drift back to hers.
Sometimes I dream of swimming to the middle of the ocean where the tide cannot pull me back to shore. At the edge of the waves, the Matriarch waits, a fluffy pink towel in hand. “Don’t go out too far!” she yells as her feet sink into the wet sand. But the only voice I listen to is my own. My legs are strong. I tread water long enough to let the salt flavor my lips as I speak the words I long to say: I am not a flower. I am not a spider. I am a woman. And if you look closely, I and still breathing.