Which woman most influenced my creative life? First, I think of Virginia Woolf, then Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Friedan. What about Tillie Olsen? Surely, Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. Rearrange them in whichever order you wish. It doesn’t matter. Maybe I should add Hillary Clinton. After all, smart bitches deserve to be president now, don’t they?
Shall I say it was Miss Marian DeMirjian, my fifth grade teacher, who was twenty-three, drove a 1955 pink Thunderbird and lived in Beverly Hills. She called on me whenever I waved frantically to give the right answer. She was my hero for a time.
Ultimately, it’s you, Mother, to hold the title, Most Influential Person.
You shaped me by what you didn’t do and what you urged me to do: earn your own income, get a university education, have a profession you can always depend on, never have to depend on a man. Of course, there were consequences for us both, including failed marriages with and without divorce.
You were a role model for how to create the sweetest smelling sheets, the cleanest dishes. Your vast library included volumes, many unopened, about how to become a writer. I see you, hunched over the dining table, reading the Los Angeles Times, scissors in hand, clipping articles that triggered ideas, the piles consuming the surface until there was no place for your cup of tea.
Your letters, most never sent, were an autobiography of romantic idealism, blame, and yearning. Your life was truncated, determined by a husband overwhelmed by fear, your own anxiety fortified by war and famine, too many children (you said), and not enough money.
How could you be my hero when by common measure, you accomplished so little? Does motherhood define a complete human life? All that laundry and dishes, clean, only to become soiled again, a continuous rhythm of incompletion.
Then, I remember the multi-syllabic words that rolled off your tongue – lyrical puzzles, fancy words now lost in the common vernacular. Truly, there was nothing about you that was common.
Look it up, you would say, when I asked you the meaning of a particular word. Use it in a sentence, you would insist. I hated that, then. Having to go to the dictionary when you could have just told me the answer.
The last word you taught me before you died was risible, Old French, meaning laughable or ridiculous.
It’s risible that you left me before I was ready to let you go.
Norma Schafer writes and photographs from her home in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she organizes an annual women’s creative writing and yoga retreats, textile and art history study tours, and publishes the blog Oaxaca Cultural Navigator (http://oaxacaculture.com)