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I recently came across this photo as I was cleaning out the closet in my guest room, a project that got far enough to turn said guest room into complete chaos and no further. This glamour shot, taken when my mother was a teenager in the 1950s and displayed on a bookcase in my grandparents’ home, was little more than a curiosity when I was growing up–evidence of a life that I was only minimally interested in because it had nothing to do with me. With the egocentricity typical of a child (or maybe I was just a self-centered little monster), I didn’t think much about my mother being anyone other than my mother—the woman who made me dinner, yelled at me to unload the dishwasher, and kissed me goodnight before bed.

That changed somewhat as I got older, and somewhere in my teens and early 20s, our conversations shifted to include more of her history and the life she had before she became a wife and mother. But I was still fairly self-involved in my 20s, and the maturing process I went through to truly become an adult was her illness and death. Now that another fourteen years have passed and I am (gasp) a middle-aged person with students as old as my mother was in that photograph, I find myself reflecting on the complexity and contradictions of my mother’s life and identity—the fuller picture of a woman who wasn’t just mom, but an individual with a life and traits that defy easy categorization.

Ginger (she hated her given name, “Virginia”) felt everything deeply and intensely—love, anger, empathy, judgment, anxiety, joy—and she expressed it vocally. No one could accuse my mother of repressing her emotions. In our house, we saw them on full display every day. The stress of raising four children and the nearly constant pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia made her yell. A lot. And she could be harsh. But the same woman who could scream, “How could you be so stupid!” could also be incredibly tender and compassionate. I’ll never forget the time I found her standing at the living room window, staring at something in the park across the street from our house. When I asked what she was looking at, she pointed out a mother walking with her two young children. She was holding an infant in her arms and was trying to get a toddler to keep riding his toy tricycle. But the toddler also wanted to be held and refused to pedal the tricycle. The mother was forced to keep walking, carrying the baby in one arm and the tricycle in the other while her toddler ran behind her, sobbing and screaming out, “Mama!” My mother watched this unfold with tears in her eyes, murmuring, “Poor thing, poor thing.” At first I thought her compassion was for the child (and I’m sure some of it was), but then she said, “She can’t carry them both,” and I realized her tears were for the mother.

Motherhood was the be-all and end-all for Ginger, which my siblings and I mostly benefitted from, although there was also a bit of a downside. Her dedication to raising us (reading countless books on the subject, not to mention preparing thousands of healthy—if sometimes unappetizing—meals for us) was absolute, and she raised my sister and me with the ideology that being a wife and mother was the best and most fulfilling role for a woman. Even though my sister and I excelled academically and loved the intellectual life of our college experiences, my mother, who had quit her job upon marrying my father, discouraged us from pursuing graduate school (lest we become “too intimidating” to men) or any career that might be “too demanding” to raise a family. Though I have found deep joy and contentment in a very different kind of life than my mother lived or envisioned for me, it has still made me feel a little alienated from her—or at least my memory of her—to care about and pursue things that are so different from what she cared about and pursued. Or so I’ve thought.

Unearthing this photo reminded me of who and what else my mother was. She was a woman who left her family and home in Minnesota as a teenager to complete a B.S. and, subsequently, nursing degree at the University of Colorado. She was adventurous enough to go to Germany with a friend and work as a student nurse for six weeks in order to earn enough money to travel around Europe. Once she became an R.N., she had the gumption to drive to California in a VW bug and take a position as a public health nurse in the city of Pasadena. She had the nerve to marry a Chinese immigrant in the 1960s, in spite of the fact that both families were adamantly opposed to the marriage and people in her hometown openly stopped, turned around, and stared at her and my father walking down the street because they’d never seen an Asian before. Not in person, at any rate. She gamely went to Taiwan with my father and my one-year-old brother to meet my father’s family for the first time, beaming in every photo I’ve seen of that trip even though she must have been wildly intimidated by her complete ignorance of the language and customs. Not to mention going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground. She also had the strength of character and conviction to recognize that the church we had all been part of for so long–the one she and my father had met and married in–had a number of serious issues, and that we needed to leave it, a conviction that was, in part, inspired by reading the novel 1984 (part of her good mothering was that she kept up with what we were reading in school).

All to say, while my mother was deeply conservative and traditional in many respects, her life and character had its radical components as well. And this daughter, who also feels deeply and tries to live authentically according to her convictions, who loves travel, independence, and a life of the mind, might not be so different from her mother after all. At least not in the ways that matter.

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