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Gayle Hedrington

May 7, 2010


Mother's Day

Each year I face Mother's Day ambiguously. I think of my mom who passed away in 1978, and long for a chance to thank her one more time for everything she taught me about life, motherhood and being a woman. I envy my friends whose mothers are alive.

Whatever type of relationship you have with your mom. She is the woman who gave you birth and for no other reason, thank her for this on Motherís Day. Below is an essay I wrote about my mom, I miss her daily.


The Queen of Say So

Looking back over my childhood, I realize I had the perfect mother for the '50s. There was no way she or I knew that the following decade would bring the sexual revolution, womenís liberation, and the culture of doing your own thing. Not that my mother was perfect, no mother is (except the TV moms of that era, Donna Reed, Jane Wyatt, and June Cleaver).

The only thing my mother had in common with the TV moms was she wore spiked heels like June Cleaver. Cleaver wore the high heels daily to appear taller as Wally and the Beaver grew. My mother wore spiked heels because she had great legs and she was not shy about letting those around her know. Mom was different from other women of the era. She carried herself as if she had the Crown and Title to "The Queen of Say So." She knew what she knew, and no one would or could change her mind. It was later in my life that I discovered she had skipped two grades in her Catholic high school and graduated at age 16.

She was born Frances Marie Knizikiewicz, and had a strong identity with her Lithuanian roots. She spoke the language and followed the traditions, even though she was born in New York City.

On Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Fat Tuesday), she would spend the day making homemade jelly donuts for our family to pig out on before Lent. The days before Easter she would prepare food, and then take baskets containing homemade coffee cakes, pickled beets, pickled eggs, ham, and a stick of butter molded into the shape of a lamb adorned with a red ribbon and peppercorns for eyes, to the church for "The Blessing of the Food," on Easter Saturday.

Mom stayed home with me for the first seven years of my life. She cooked, cleaned, and took care of the family. She was not a doting mom. If any of my siblings or I fell and suffered an injury, my mom comforted us with "It will be better by the time you get married." If any of us went to her with a compliant, she would always tell us to "Look on the bright side." When we, like most kids, were unable to find a bright side, she found one for us, even if it was, "Well youíre not dead." There was no excuse for complaining about anything.

I was the fifth child in a family of six. My eldest brother Richard died of cancer at age three, exactly one month before my sister Judy was born. As an adult, I try to imagine the various feelings mom must have felt at that time. Was it possible to feel the joy of a new baby while mourning another childís death? She commented once that she lost so much weight the month before my sister was born that Judyís skin sagged.

My mother mourned Richardís passing throughout her life. We were always encouraged to pray to him if we needed anything. I never knew Richard but I was forever asking him for things. When the anniversary of his death came around, she was saddened for a time, and she was not timid about telling us the reason for the change in her manner.

In the summer, she gathered an abundance of "Jersey Tomatoes" from our small and efficient city garden and she spent days canning. We had plenty of stewed tomatoes, whole tomatoes, and ketchup to last us until the next harvest. After the tomatoes, she moved on to peaches, bought by the bushel for homemade jams and jellies. The smells from our kitchen rivaled those of Stokely's, the local cannery.



Each night mom served dinner twice, us at at 5:30, and my father ate when he arrived home at 7. Often, for my father, she made an entirely different meal from what we had earlier. Frances hoped my fatherís special meal would keep his blood pressure and weight down. It never did.

Many women in the '50s did not have a driverís license and those who did, had their husband drive them. Mom could never understand why women wanted to be so dependent on their husbands, "What if he dies, or gets sick? What will they do?" Although my father usually took the car to work, my mother would get up early to drive him to work if she needed the car for shopping or errands.

When I was seven, my mom went back to work. It was a temporary position that lasted 25 years. I remember feeling abandoned. Like most children of the '50s, I came home from school for lunch each day. Now I went to the neighborís. No more boats made from oranges or having my sandwiches in pretty designs. The neighbor made me substantial food, but it wasnít like momís.

With mom working, not much besides lunch changed in my life, but Momís life did change. She needed to juggle transportation and one car. Every morning Mom slipped her full-length beaver coat over her sheer silky nightgown and drove my father to work, a 20-mile trek. Despite my father asking her to put real clothes on, she never did. His fear that police would pull her over had never materialized, and she continued driving in her nightgown and beaver coat for years.

After her daring drive she returned home, made breakfast, dressed and then drove another 30 miles to her job at Trenton State Hospital where she was an executive medical secretary. When her workday was finished, she came home, made dinner, fed us and went on to pick up my father. Upon returning home, she made his dinner. I donít think she ever sat down before 8 pm. She continued this routine for the next eight years, until our family bought a second car.

My mother always told us "Might does not make right" and that you can and should fight "City Hall." Once, at my brotherís Little League game, Mom spotted the mayor of Trenton. She was not shy and gave him her not so high opinion of him. The Mayor kept smiling while she stated her complaints. He waited until she finished and offered his side. Although my mother never cared for the Mayor, she did respect him because he did listen to her.

She also was not one of the mothers who made the monthly PTA meetings, but that didnít mean she was not interested in our education. It was not uncommon for her to march into the principalís office and expound a complaint against a teacher, or policy. She stated with pride, "They donít want to see me coming into the school." More than once, we would be afraid to go to school after one of her numerous visits.

When I was in sixth grade my teacher molested me, and I told my mother. She made certain I was not fibbing, and then took off to visit all the mothers of the girls in my class. She urged them to come forward and make a complaint. It was the '50s and no one discussed such matters. She was disappointed that none of the mothers wanted to come forward even though their daughters also experienced advances from the teacher. 

The fear and weakness of those mothers appalled my mom, but it fueled her mission. The next day she went to school, and in no uncertain terms told the principal what act she would physically perform on him and the teacher if the teacher ever touched me again. The teacher did not bother me for the rest of the year.

My mother was my role model for entering womanhood in the late '60s. She taught me to question authority, be independent, fight for what I believe in, not to be afraid of my sexuality and to not care what others think. However, the most important thing she taught me, through her words and actions, was to be a strong woman. For that I am eternally grateful.



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