My mother would have been 90 years old on January 18 of this year. As I walked through the woods this morning I was thinking about her quite a bit. Memories — of me; of her; of the social constructs we call family and neighborhoods. My ponderings reminded me of how very complex humans are and that people are harder to really know than we tend to think.
Marguerite Mary Peggy Peg Koehns Pratt. So many names my mother had. And each of them tied to stories. I remember asking about the monograms on her purse, the towels, silverware, stationery. Some said MKP with the K big in the middle. Others said MPM or MKM with the big letter varying from article to article. It seemed as though my mother liked monograms, but had trouble with how she wanted to be identified. Or perhaps how others (who gave her monogrammed things) wanted her to be seen. It is even possible that she was experimenting, or growing and changing. Or perhaps she merely decided she liked the look of one over another once it was stitched in. I didn’t really understand either monograms, when I was first asking, nor the relevance of all these names. There were things that had initials that didn’t correspond to the names of anyone we knew, as far as I knew, and I had sort of given up on asking. It seemed a mumbo jumbo to me. And not very important.
Yet, as I grew older and the times were a changin’ it became clear to me that what we were called – and what we called ourselves – was significant. In the 1970’s I was in my early twenties, strongly identified as a feminist, and actively working for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States. It seemed clear to me that “Equality of rights under the law should not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” I expected that my mother, a woman, and mother of four daughters and a son, would be in support of the amendment. She shocked me. She had a strong reaction to the movement to amend the constitution, saying that she was proud to carry my father’s name. She saw herself as Mrs. Richard G. Pratt and she always would. She didn’t want to be a Ms. I, of course, had a strong reaction to her reaction. It felt like a slap in the face to me. Almost literally. We quickly devolved into my arguments about her being Marguerite, not Richard, and that she could choose to call herself whatever she wanted in terms of the law. The amendment wouldn’t change that. It just would be a step towards providing justice and equity for women in our country who wanted that. A status that was (and still is) sorely lacking. I was incredulous that my own mother would be aligning with the arguments put forth by Phyllis Schlafly, whose work to create fear of the change, in women themselves, largely helped to delay ratification by the final three states needed to this day.
Now wait just a minute, you might say (I certainly did!), how did this woman who named her first born child, a girl – me – Judith, fall to such depths? In case you don’t know the story, The Book of Judith is Old Testament apocrypha of a Hebrew woman and her maid who saved her people from the wicked marauding Assyrian general, Holofernes, by cutting off his head with his own sword. She succeeds through an interesting combination of trickery, bravery, patience, faith, and strength. We had a number of books of the saints in our house and I had searched for “mine” quite religiously, so to speak. Judith was in none of the books. When I queried my mother about this, she turned me towards a large falling apart black Bible kept in the record cabinet. It seemed sort of hidden to me, and looked and read nothing like the missals we used in Mass every Sunday. I read The Book of Judith as though it was a forbidden text. Judith was hidden away. My namesake had a whole book of the Bible written about her. She was a murderer, and not the murdered, as was true for so many of the stories of the saints. My mother named me after a heroine who saved a town when all were ready to succumb. Judith was clearly no wilting flower. She certainly didn’t define herself by the men she was surrounded by.
I suspect that every daughter’s relationship with her mother is complicated. If I were to take the surface evidence of the young women I have met from Cape Breton over the last four years it would seem that the steady flow of the lineage from mother to daughter is intact here, where the daughters seem excited about following in their mother’s footprints: marriage, children, living nearby. This is not how I would characterize my own relationship to my mother, now dead for almost twenty years. I matured (perhaps) in the sixties, graduating from high school in 1966 and attending a large land grant university until 1969, when campuses were being occupied in protest of the Vietnam War which was posed to spread into Cambodia and Laos over succeeding years. My battles with my mother had its roots before this time, much as did the war in southeast Asia. In truth, I hardly knew this woman who conceived, birthed, and nurtured me. It might be said that as I grow older, I recognize how challenging it is to know myself – let alone a woman from a prior generation who was my mother.