Love, Now & Always
I always assumed that my mother’s apparent callousness, her unwillingness or inability to venture onto emotional ground, was due to the fact that she built bombs for a living. She did not express her feelings or talk about herself, and in many ways she was superficial. It’s not that she wasn’t smart; she was a bright and accomplished woman. Just sixteen when she started college to study engineering, she was the only woman in her graduating class of nearly two hundred. Years later, when her four children were all in school and she had returned to work, she earned an MBA by studying part-time in the evenings. She also volunteered for the Girl Scouts and the Society of Women Engineers. Several magazines including Business Woman and Woman Engineer featured articles about her, describing how she successfully balanced career and family. In one she was called “a fine role model for aspiring women engineers.”
Her intelligence and social skills served her well both personally and professionally, but invariably she kept to the surface of things, maintaining relationships that upon consideration appeared more utilitarian than human. My mother was a pleasant person but she was rarely intimate or empathetic.
Once when we were in a bookstore in Boston on a trip to look at colleges, I complained of severe menstrual cramps.
“They’re pathological,” she said and then moved away to browse another table of books.
I was shocked. “Pathological” and “liar” were linked in my mind—I thought she was accusing me of lying. I didn’t understand that she was identifying my pain as abnormal or unhealthy, or at very least noting that it was an unwelcome problem. I suppose it was her way of commiserating. And yet, despite my misunderstanding, she could have been more sympathetic. It would have been nice if she suggested that I take a couple of aspirin.
On another occasion we were in her car together when the topic of suicide came up—a classmate of my sister’s had tried to kill herself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco was an hour’s drive from where we lived and I had been across the bridge many times. Nearly two miles long, more than 700 feet high, and with a drop from the deck of 220 feet, the bridge is as monumental as it is iconic. I tried to imagine the girl, just a few years older than I was, standing on the deck, preparing to jump. To actually go through with it she must have been determined, and behind that determination I imagined a deep well of unhappiness.
Upon learning what had happened and that the poor girl survived, Mom, had no sympathy for her.
“Selfish,” she said.