Cutting the Strings
by Rosemary Mahoney

My mother had seven children in seven years. No twins. She also had a three-legged beagle who was compelled to bite strangers, a freakishly big double-pawed tomcat who regularly left dead rabbits on the front doorstep, and 70 white mice that one or another of us had smuggled home from my father's research laboratory. Not one day of my mother's adult life passed without some critical demand on her maternal role, without some urgent response from her. On those days when the tomcat arrived at the door with a bloody gash in his side, a son broke his arm, the beagle bit the piano teacher, the 70 mice escaped into the kitchen, one daughter got sent home from school for refusing to remove her floppy hat in class and two others ran through the house slapping each other's faces, my mother did what most mothers do—she responded. She said, Do this, Stop that, I'm sorry, and Have you lost your mind? She tended to the son, the cat, the piano man. She scolded the dog, enlisted someone to round up the mice, broke up the fight. In short, she handled it.

My mother was not what anyone would call sweet, and she wasn't conventional. When my brother couldn't find his shoes one morning, she said, "Oh, for God's sake, it won't kill him not to have shoes for a day," and sent him to school without them. Daily she kept us afloat, but her true talent as a mother lay in her ability to tell the right story at the right moment.

When I was 17, I wanted very much to go to Ireland to study for a year, yet I was afraid to try. Who knew what might happen there? What if I grew lonely? Above all, how would my mother feel with me so far away? I worried that she would worry, and the idea of making my mother unhappy was enough to keep me from going anywhere. After weeks of fretting, I finally told my mother what was on my mind. She looked silently at me a while, then told me a story. Her mother, an Irish immigrant, was determined that her daughters be educated. Though one by one my mother's classmates were dropping out of college to get married, she persisted in her studies because her mother had taught her that education meant independence and that independence was everything: "We knew that marriage was worthy only as a complement to personal freedom—not as a means of financial support."

There was, however, one conditional hitch in the leap from dependence on her parents to independence as an adult. Though my grandmother had picked up modern ideas in America, she still had some conflicting 19th-century Irish notions. She believed that daughters, educated though they may be, should continue to live at home until they were married. At 26, with an M.A. from the Columbia School of Journalism and a job as an editor at a Boston newspaper, my mother was still sleeping in her childhood bed. With distress in her voice even 30 years after the fact, my mother told me, "I didn't want to be living at home, Rose. I wanted to live on my own, to take care of myself, to be free!" Every morning when her mother knocked on her bedroom door and asked what she wanted for breakfast, her heart sank. And every evening on her way home from work, she prepared a little speech all about how if she left home, it wouldn't mean she didn't love her mother but only that she needed to test her own strength. As she approached the house, my mother was full of her speech, determined that she would finally present it to her mother; the click of her own shoes on the redbrick walk seemed to lend her confidence. Yet the moment she stepped through the door and saw her mother's face, the speech suddenly drained out of her. "I couldn't do it," my mother said ruefully. "I could not disappoint my mother." Though she had her education, my mother knew she would go from her parents' house to her husband's house without ever knowing what it was like to live on her own. "I made a mistake," my mother said, "in not going after what I wanted in order to spare my mother. It wasn't my mother who prevented me, Rose. It was I who prevented myself."

This is all my mother needed to do, all she needed to say. The very next day, I began making the phone calls and writing the letters necessary to go to Ireland.

Rosemary Mahoney is the author of
Whoredom in Kimmage, The Singular Pilgrim and Down the Nile. 

More from Rosemary Mahoney: Four writers remember "The Talk"

The Next Great Moment in Mothering:  Lessons in meat, potatoes and books


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