Mama Didn't Raise No Damsel
My Mother. My Teacher. My Best Friend. My Fierce Mama Bear.
I was eleven years old the day that I successfully changed a tire for the first time. We were on the side of the road next to a bayou in southern Louisiana when our car blew a tire, and my mother seized the opportunity to teach my sister and I yet another survival skill.
I grumbled and groaned like the pro that I was as we fought with that tire. My mother told us that the user manual was in the glovebox and watched as we blundered through the ordeal. A State Trooper stopped to help, and though my audible muttering died down, my eye rolls dramatically increased as my mother declined his help, saying simply, “they need to learn.”
I will never forget how annoyed I was climbing into that car in my sweat-soaked clothes. I will also never forget the look on the face of that officer as he smiled and nodded at my mother. He looked at her with a smile of genuine approval, mild awe, and a hint of flirtation, but the look that really sticks with me the most almost thirty years later is the smile on my mother’s face.
My mother smiles a distinct smile when she teaches her two daughters a lesson. Even now that we are both full-grown, her face is often graced with that same smile. It is a look of approval, self-satisfaction, and a generous touch of amusement.
Despite my complaining and indignation, I knew that we had done something good, and I knew that my mother had taught us yet another valuable life lesson that we would take with us throughout our lives. Even at the age of eleven, I had already learned that my mother was the wisest and fiercest person I would ever meet.
Still, it was about twelve years before the I fully understood and appreciated the lesson from that day.
I was having a casual conversation with one of my female coworkers when she insisted that she would never learn how to change a tire because that was what “cellphones and men were for.”
I jokingly polled the people who were nearby and discovered that of the ten people present, most of whom were men, I was the only one who knew how to change a tire. Though those statistics had little affect on my coworker's intentions, they greatly affected me.
More than just being astounded by my friend’s naivete and the trust that the general population apparently placed in cellphone reception, I became filled with pride for myself and gratitude for my mother’s constant efforts to raise her two daughters as the strong and independent women that we are.
My mother had never known an easy life. She was forced to leave home at sixteen and lived in a tent on a small beach in Alaska. Before she was twenty, she had gone from an abusive father to an abusive husband, and before her 23rd birthday, she had a four-year-old daughter and a newborn to take care of and protect from their father.
We lived in extreme poverty those first few years, and I know that it was especially difficult on my mother. She designed and built a cabin in the woods with help from my father and some friends.
Though the cabin was delightfully quaint and cozy, it lacked plumbing or electricity. I know that it was no easy feat to raise two daughters in a home with no lights or running water.
Our bathroom was a two-seater outhouse that was a difficult quarter-mile trek downhill from our front door. During the summer months, we had to use the buddy-system to watch for bears, and during the winter months, we used the buddy-system to help each other up the icy path in safety. Our bi-monthly showers were coin-operated at the local Harbor Master where we also filled our jugs with drinking water, and food was scarce -- to say the least.
Our father was abusive, and the wilderness could be unforgiving. Still, our mother raised us with as much love and humor as she could muster. We learned early on how to work hard and how to view the basic necessities that most people took for granted as luxuries.
When most kids were playing with dolls and toy trucks, we girls were helping our parents work around town to make enough money to pay the bills. When other families were out picnicking and playing games, we were learning to camp, hike, fish and hunt for our survival.
Yet, somehow, amidst all of the moments of teaching us to work and survive, our mother also managed to teach us how to read and write and communicate effectively. Before most children our age were speaking in full sentences, we were already reading our favorite books and discovering a love for literature like our mother.
We knew that we had much less than other kids, but we also knew that our mother would have given us life’s luxuries and comforts if she could have.
We learned in those early years that our mother was a force of nature… A fierce mama bear who would do anything to protect her cubs, but we also learned from her how to be fierce in our own rights.
Over the years, we lived a life full of moments of upheaval, survival, laughter, and teaching moments, and through it all, our steadfast mother taught us to be strong and tough, joyful and quirky… just like she is.
Our mother showed us how to rise above the cruelty the world thrust upon us and appreciate the joy and humor in even the darkest moments. She had a favorite saying that we still hear from her today: “Whoever said that life was supposed to be fair?”
We discovered very early in our lives just how unfair life could be, but we also learned how to use our unfortunate circumstances to our advantage. Before I was a teenager, my mother had taught me many more lessons than just how to change a tire and how to read and write.
She also taught us two girls how to drive a car on the ice and in the snow, how to ride a horse, how to hunt and fish, how to mow and plant gardens, how to read blueprints and wield a hammer, how to camp and build a fire, how to avoid and survive a bear attack, how to scuba dive and deck hand, and so much more.
I would never wish for another person to experience those hardships that we did at such an early age. It is very true that severe poverty takes its toll on the human spirit. It tears you down mentally, emotionally, and physically, and when it is coupled with severe mental and physical abuse, there is no chance to walk away without feeling the effects of that trauma for the rest of your life.
Still, if you have a mother who fights for you in the ways that our mother fought for us, you learn that while you might walk away with a touch of cynicism and quirkiness, you can hold on to your sense of humor and joy and strength.
We have come to share our mother's ability to laugh in the darkest of moments. Her "Tim Burton sense of humor," as we call it, is a great gift when things are difficult. She strived to show us that when you laugh in the face of strife, you are more able to cope with the problem. You are also more likely to walk away better for having experienced the trial, wiser and more able to empathize with others.
She taught us that when you face down an attacker and show them that you won’t be their victim, you can come away the winner almost every time, and you will always come away stronger and ready to defend yourself and others.
We experienced many upheavals as our mother tried to protect us from our father, and we moved all over the country. Though my mother faced much sexism, bullying, and unwanted advances in the workplace, she continued to work hard to provide for us girls and teach us the value of hard work and determination.
She also taught us that though the workplace, like life, was often unfair, women could work just as hard and as skilled as any man. She never earned as much as she deserved, and she had to work twice as hard as her male coworkers.
Most of her coworkers loved and valued her, but she learned, as many women do, that when you are a competent and strong woman, there will always be a man who is threatened and offended by you in the workplace.
Still, she worked hard and was successful despite much oppression, and she shared with us one of the most valuable lesson a woman can learn in this life:
That lesson is that a woman can rely on herself and should never expect a man to come along and rescue her.
In a world that teaches girls at an early age to believe in fairytale endings where knights in shining armor are just waiting to rescue the damsel in distress, our mother raised her girls to be so much more than damsels. Our mother did not raise us to wait around for Prince Charming to come save us.
Our mother wanted her girls to be self-sufficient, confident, strong, and capable women, and she was successful. We all have our moments of weakness and temptation, but our mother was successful in raising two women who did not wait around for a man to rescue them. Nor did we spend our lives looking for a man to provide for us.
Though we are all-too aware of the cruel inequality of this world. We have all been held back by the abuse of our father and oppression in school, the workplace, and the world. We have all been held back by our gender from positions and pay that we earned, but we have also learned to fight for what is right and what we deserve and to not settle for the status quo.
By her example, our mother showed us how to work hard and not give up in the face of adversity. She taught us to roll with the punches as they come, not allowing our sense of security or humor to be so easily destroyed, but she also taught us how and when to punch back.
Our mother wanted her daughters to become the sort of women who could believe in themselves, provide for themselves, and protect themselves. She wanted her girls to be able to change their own tires, catch their own dinner, earn their own paycheck, and fight their own battles.
She taught us to be women like she was – fierce and strong, self-reliant and independent, confident in ourselves and in our own abilities, but also gentle and meek, unique and quirky. Our friends always called her “mom” and came to her for advice, love, and hugs. Now, her daughters are known to many as “mama” and looked to for guidance, protection, and warm hugs.
We have learned so much from observing our mother over the years. She showed us how to survive abuse and oppression with our joy and sense of humor intact, and how to persevere while the world did its best to push us down and make us doubt ourselves. We learned from her how to survive under the worst of conditions and how to thrive under the best.
Whether we were living in our cabin in the woods of Alaska, a car on the beaches of Hawaii, a trailer park in the middle of Kansas, or an RV in southern Louisiana, our mother continued to teach us how to find joy and contentment in life.
We learned to work hard for even the small things in life and to cherish what we have even when it seems like it’s not enough. We found delight in the successes of the daily battles and wisdom in the lessons of the losses. Our mother showed us how to find joy in the small things in life and how to survive the worst of times by focusing on the simple pleasures.
In our moments of homelessness, she took us camping at the base of a Hawaiian volcano and filled our plastic cups with cheap champagne. She pointed to the full moon as we sat at a picnic table and toasted to our new-found "freedom."
In those days of want when our meals came from the side of the road where the wild, Hawaiian fruits fell (road food we called it), our mother showed us how to find joy in our daily hunts for food, and though others might raise an eyebrow to hear of those days, they are some of the best memories I have.
We cherished the moments of luxury, but we also learned to embrace the moments of want. We learned how to relate to the rich while we lived among the homeless, but we also learned how to empathize with the poor when we had our moments of plenty.
When we vacationed to New Orleans, our mother showed us how to strut down the streets of the French Quarter in high heels with our heads held high, but she also taught us how to walk barefoot over fields of ice in Alaska and flows of lava in Hawaii.
And through the moments of abuse, just as in the moments of love, we learned that life is always joyful and beautiful. We learned that if you look for it, there is always something to bring you laughter. Always something to be grateful for. Always something or someone to fight for, and always someone who is worse off than you are who needs your love and protection.
But we also learned that there is always something to be afraid of, and if you’re afraid of something, you become fiercer than that which you fear. You stare that fear down and you fight with all you have until you come out stronger and better.
I have faced down those who would threaten me with their words, their fists, and their knives. I have defeated bullies and challenged the status quo in the workplace, and I have stood my ground against wild bears and men with their guns. I have learned to show my strength for those who are weaker, and I have learned to trust my own strength even when I feel that I am at my breaking point.
I am grateful that my mother raised me to fight for myself and for others and to trust in myself, never believing myself to be a damsel or a victim. I am grateful that she taught me to be strong and independent, relying on my own instincts. I am also grateful that she showed me how to rely on the strength and comfort of others and how to know who is deserving of my trust.
Our mother defeated abusive husbands, sexist coworkers, stormy seas both real and metaphorical, cancer and chronic illness, and the general unfairness of life. She did all of this with her sense of humor intact and her daughters in tow, treating everyone she met with kindness and compassion, but proving herself fierce when she had to.
Our mother taught us how to love and how to laugh, how to work and how to relax, how to read and how to drive, how to fish and how to hunt. She shared with us her love of dandelions and fresh-picked berries, pomegranates and strong coffee, her intense passion for the ocean and for the open road.
She taught us how to read maps and how to ask for directions, but she also showed us the value of getting lost at least once and how it is not something to be feared.
She passed on her hatred of all things artificial and of country music and took us to our first rock concerts. She showed us how a good grunge song can straighten your spine and make you feel balanced when everything feels unsteady.
She showed us how a dog can be your best and most loyal friend you can have and how they will see you through any trial with uplifted spirits. She showed us how to love the ocean and embrace its power and mystery and that everything is better when you can feel the mist and smell the salt of the ocean air.
But more than all of this, our mother taught her daughters how not to be damsels in distress. She showed us how to survive in a desperate world and how to do it with laughter and not bitterness or resentment in our hearts. Our mother taught us to be strong and confident but also quirky and meek. She raised us to be like her, and that is the greatest gift that she has given to us.