Mother’s Day Extra: Rooms of our own

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Gladys Yancey (aka my Mom)

My Mom taught me to read early. As the youngest of six, I was tossed into the deep end of a family of readers. I would gleefully spend hours with my Dr. Seuss and yes, Dick and Jane, books long before I started Kindergarten. Our house was filled with hardbacks and paperbacks, magazines and newspapers (two a day!).

We had stacks of books that spilled from bookshelves onto end tables, books in our dining room and, of course, books in our bedrooms. When I was in elementary school, summers meant weekly trips to Kmart with my Mom, and, if she had enough spending money left over for the week, a new Nancy Drew book for me. Those were in addition to the attic full of book series my elder siblings had left behind: Cherry Ames, Judy Bolton, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins.

I became such a bookworm, so intent on my own reading, that I never thought much about what my Mom read. Between laundry, cleaning and cooking for a husband and six kids, when would she even have time to read?

Still, she had her own stacks. Erma Bombeck was a favorite — I remember her laughing out loud whenever she read passages by the funny Ohio housewife with a wholesome heart and deadpan delivery. Norman Vincent Peale was another classic — I remember my Mom extolling the virtues of positive thinking so much that I became an early and relentless optimist.

There was another book, though, that always had a place in my Mom’s stacks. “Gift From the Sea,” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My Mom never talked about this particular book with me, but I saw it so often in our house that when I ran across a copy in a North Carolina bookstore last month, I decided to buy it.

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As I read the 50th anniversary edition, it was easy to both lose and find myself in its easy rhythms, in its beach-driven imagery and in its homages to the thinking and writings of Virginia Woolf, William James and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Lindbergh’s musings about being a wife, mother and writer, though, pulled me up short. They were lyrical reflections about traditional roles and expectations for mid-century white American women. And they gently yet passionately expressed realities and frustrations general enough to resonate with upper-, middle- and even aspiring middle-class women like my Mom.

But they were also more than that. They were philosophical treatises that articulated the distinctive struggle to maintain womanhood and patience, to balance inner life and outer responsibilities and to embrace the necessity of isolation in search of growth and peace. They explored relationships — familial and romantic, casual and professional — by giving them life, by charting the changes inevitable in their life cycles and by acknowledging their evolutions as painful, dynamic, and above all, natural.

In these essays, I caught fresh and surprising glimpses of my Mom. As I tried seeing the words through her eyes, I imagined her returning to certain phrases over and over. Did she, like me, underline sentences that inspired or puzzled her? What chapters brought her solace as she managed a house of children who spanned two generations? What pages did she dog-ear in the copy that sat on the living-room end table, positioned to settle thinking left frayed by door-slamming teenagers and a food-averse five-year-old?

As I read, I saw my Mom staring back at me between the paragraphs. She migrated from Southeastern Kentucky to Southern Ohio at the age of 18 to build an independent life only to find herself both rewarded and imprisoned by the prescribed societal roles assigned to her. Wife. Mother. Grandmother. As I read, I saw her yearning for her own creative freedom even as she sacrificed it to nurture her children’s.

“Eternally, woman spills herself away in dribbles to the thirsty, seldom being allowed the time, the quiet, the peace, to let the pitcher fill up to the brim.”
— A.M. Lindbergh

“The problem is how to feed the soul.”
— A.M. Lindbergh

The context and structure of “Gift From the Sea” also illuminated the chasm that separated Lindbergh, a child of privilege, Smith College and high society, and my Mom, who graduated from high school at 16 and educated herself ever after.

Lindbergh wrote her poetic ruminations during a private stay on an island, with few interruptions to her quest for solitude, peace and self-rediscovery. In contrast, aside from two-week family vacations, my Mom didn’t leave town unless it was to see a member of her family, typically someone in need of comfort or care. Even then, my Dad would accompany her.

My Mom’s schedule left little time for solitude and fewer minutes still for re-filling her own “pitcher,” but I could still see her nodding in agreement with Lindbergh’s prescription for a meaningful life, despite the inevitable distractions of not just motherhood, but womanhood overall.

“The life I have chosen as wife and mother entrains a whole caravan of complications.”
— A.M. Lindbergh

On the eve of my eighth Mother’s Day without my Mom to celebrate with, in the pages of this slim volume written more than a half century ago, I see so much more that we had in common. The “what am I now?” identity crisis that took root during my post-partum depression. The layers of loss — of self, of satisfaction — piled alongside the layers of riches — of the love of a new baby, of the challenge of facing a new unknown.

Not only that, I see how we shared the deep understanding of the “torn-to-pieces-hood” nature of life for women. Lindbergh described it decades before our own jobs, plus our children’s extra-curricular schedules and rising costs of living, helped drive fundamental shifts in our views about family, motherhood and success. From her seaside perch, alone and undisturbed, Lindbergh lamented the pace and demands of the life she would soon rejoin, a life filled with outward-focused obligations that crowded out space for self-examination.

“Modern communication,” she wrote in 1955 (decades before Twitter!), “loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry.”
— A.M. Lindbergh

This Mother’s Day, I recognize these unexpected new connections with my Mom as a gift, one that I can only truly realize without her, in my own quiet hours. I know that she found comfort in Lindbergh’s then-groundbreaking work, work that extolled self-examination, self-redirection and self-care for women as it called for regular periods of intentional solitude.

After reading “Gift From the Sea,” I can’t help but believe that sometime, when we all weren’t watching, my Mom was able to find that room-of-her-own space, a place where she could nurture her own gifts and replenish her own deep well of strength. As for me, I’ll keep looking for new connections, even as I realize that the most sustaining ones will be those I forge within myself.

“Woman must come of age by herself — she must find her true center alone.”
— A.M. Lindbergh

Find out more about the caregiving journey and my new book, “Grab Happy,” here.

Author, journalist, educator, community builder. Author, Day By Day; co-founder, A Picture’s Worth; teacher, The Poynter Institute. Cincinnati, Ohio.

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