Gifts My Mother Gave Me

My Mother, Pearl Matko (1921 - 2007)

I recently was invited to a book club to discuss my book. I love visiting the book clubs because that’s where I hear directly from my readers and they get a chance to discuss their thoughts and questions with me. I’ve been to dozens of book clubs so I pretty much know what they will ask me but on this one occasion someone surprised me.

“Why did you mention your mother in the front of the book? You wrote that she was ‘the bravest woman I have ever met, my heroine and inspiration.’ What did you mean by that?”

The question took me by surprise. I didn’t think anyone paid much attention to the dedications and no one had ever asked me this before. I paused for a few moments. How much do they really want to know and how much of my personal memories do I share with strangers, I wondered.

My mind flashed back to the time my mother took a job at the local dress manufacturing mill when I was just starting school. I remembered as a child, sitting on the ledge of the dusty ceiling-high windows. She was a presser. I watched the steam billow around her as she clamped the new dress between the padded jaws of a pressing machine. It was summer and there was no air conditioning in this factory. I watched the sweat pour down her face flushed with the stale heat. The acrid odor of the cloth dyes stung her eyes, but she still would look over at me, smile, and give me a watery wink. When she got home, I remembered feeling the knotted callouses across the palm of her hands as she wrapped her arms around me. She taught me what true love and devotion felt like.

Her friends told her to apply to the Aid to Dependent Mothers, a public handout for widows and single mothers with children, and stop working. My mother always replied, “These are my kids,” referring to my brother, sister and myself, “and they are my responsibility.” In this, she taught me the lesson of self-reliance, pride, and being responsible for our own choices even under difficult circumstances.

My father died when I was ten but in truth, he was out of the picture long before then. My mother relied on me, being the oldest, to help her with the household chores, buy the groceries, take care of my infant sister, and keep my younger wayward brother in line. When my mother was working and school was out, the next door neighbor agreed to keep an eye on us – when she wasn’t busy with her own six children. For the most part, we were latch-key kids. I suppose I should have resented what was expected of me as young as ten years old, but instead, I felt like I was valued and my work appreciated. I was contributing to my family. By including me in her day-to-day decisions and routine, I developed a confidence beyond my years and a feeling of self worth.

I grew up in the fifties. Soldiers had returned from the war and the jobs women held were handed over to men. It was a man’s world. Women were modeled after Betty Crocker and expected to stay home, keep their man happy, their kids spotless, and serve delicious home-cooked meals. The man was the unchallenged head of the home. But there was no man at the head of our home, so all things “manly” fell to my mother. No challenge fazed her. If the lamp plug was frayed and needed fixing, she bought a new plug and spliced it into the lamp wires. When we needed furniture, my mother bought it second-hand and refinished it. She then learned how to upholster it. When we grew out of our clothes, she made new ones or bartered for new ones with the other mill workers. There was an underground exchange system among the mill workers. Two dresses equaled one coat. Four dress shirts equaled one dress and so on. She showed me how to “make do” and stretch resources but she also taught me not to accept limitations imposed on me because I was a woman. (Well, there was one limitation. I had to give up my goal to play basketball with the Harlem Globe Trotters.)

So here I was, facing a group of women eager for my response about why I dedicated the book to my mother. It was just a few weeks before Christmas.

“That one sentence is a tribute to all that she taught me through the years.” I began. “She gave me the gifts of unconditional love, confidence, pride, responsibility, self reliance and independence. She taught me not to accept the limitations placed on me by other people. All of the other Christmas gifts I’ve had over the years are gone, but these precious gifts have been important guides in my life and will be with me forever.”


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