Yesterday, on what would have been my mother’s 90th birthday, I mailed several forms to the Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard. She’s been gone almost three years and I’m convinced this was the last of the paperwork I’ll manage in the wake of her passing. I said that to my friend Rick and he laughed. He’s a lawyer.

My mother had a great big laugh that you could hear and recognize across a crowded room. Her ready laughter and sharp wit were there until her very last days along with her capacity for wonder and delight in the world around her. I can easily picture her face–mouth open, eyes wide as we stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon or under the canopy of the Redwood Forest. She was breathless at the sight of the Pacific Ocean, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, and the rolling prairies of Minnesota.

She was a smart woman who should have gone to college but my grandmother restricted her options to teachers’ college, secretarial school, or nurses’ training. My mother chose nursing because the program required students to live on campus. My grandmother was a tyrant but when my father struggled to keep a job my mother’s work as a nurse kept our family afloat.

She worked off and on throughout the 50’s and 60’s when most women of her background stayed at home. She was divorced in the late 60’s when divorce was treated like a social disease. A testament to her sense of humor, she often she said she hadn’t demanded liberation so much as had it thrust upon her.

When she finished nurses’ training she’d longed to travel to the southwest and work as a nurse on a reservation. My grandmother wouldn’t hear of it and my mother wasn’t bold enough at 20 to defy her. Instead, she did what was expected of her—obeyed her parents, married the person whose race, religion, and education met social expectations, had children. She felt utterly betrayed by life when it turned out that complying with the conventions of one’s social class offered no guarantee of security let alone happiness.

Over the course of her life, my mother often resisted and resented her circumstances but eventually the discordance between how she thought things were supposed to be and how they were became the foundation for a new self. She re-educated herself about race and class and religion and she sought connections across social barriers. She understood that cultural conventions are socially constructed and resisted the imposition of them on herself and on those around her. She freed her mind and urged everyone she knew, especially her children, to do the same. Thanks Mom!

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