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When I was finishing my last year of high school, my mother suggested that my family move back east from California. My sister, Lisa, was less than thrilled with this idea, as she was with most ideas, but I was exuberant. Back east meant snow, something I'd only seen once. It meant we'd have four seasons.
We sold the ranch the three of us had built ourselves two years before, and prepared to move, leafing through home magazines from Massachusetts, drooling over tiny, badly printed photos of horse farms with their very own covered bridges.
Then came the shock. Escrow closed on our ranch and the IRS took everything in order to pay one of my stepfather's back tax bills. It didn't matter that my mother had divorced him three years earlier, the money was gone. Adding to the insult, our only car picked that moment to experience an untimely death.
"We're still going," my mother said. "Let's scrape together what we can."
What we could scrape together came from selling two horses, five goats, and a pile of metal stakes for barbed wire fencing. We had sixteen hundred dollars, a quarter of which was allocated to buying a car. Since we also had seven dogs and seven cats from the ranch, our chariot of choice turned out to be a repulsive blue station wagon from the sixties. It wore bubbling retreads and shimmied as we drove down the road.
We packed up the dogs and cats, as well as two tons of books in a U-Haul trailer my mother refused to give up our library and started off. We decided on a destination first, of course. Actually, I think my mother yelled back from the front seat, as I madly flipped through The United Farm Catalog, "Pick something we can afford!"
Since we couldn't afford anything, I picked the least expensive property in the magazine. I thought I was fairly brilliant. It was a lease option on a kennel in Indiana.
The trip was horrendous. Our car smelled ripe an hour out of town. People goggled at us as we rolled into the K.O.A. campgrounds each night. Loaded down as we were, we couldn't make it over the Rockies. The wagon was like a hot-air balloon trying to lift off with too much weight.
"Throw out the Dickens! Throw out the Dickens!" my mother shouted.
Yet, as she had vowed we would, we reached Indiana.
We intuited, as we drove into the very small town and all eyes stared at us warily something we should have been used to by then that we might not belong here. When we saw the kennel, intuition became certainty. The place, was disgusting, filthy, scary. It looked like a state mental hospital for dogs. I had visions of shih tzus being hooked up for electroshock therapy.
"Okay, that was fun," my mother said, once we had escaped the real estate agent and expressed a collective shudder. "Now where do we want to go?"
She opened our map of the U.S. "How about Charlottesville?" she asked. "I think I went there once and it was pretty."
Now, this was a true gamble. My mother is notorious for her lack of direction. I sometimes doubt she could find her way to the mall, even if she had a laser-guided missile strapped to the hood of her Jeep Cherokee.
We found Virginia, though, and she was right. It was truly stunning. We spent one of the most memorable years of my life there. But as fondly as I remember the trip from California, it was also a terrifying and uncertain time for us. My mother's blind faith that we would make it was the only thing that kept us going other than a desperate need to make our final destination and air out the car. Never mind that the cottage we rented turned an out to be one in a community where the other tenants were part of a coven and that our animals began to disappear one by one. That wasn't her fault.
My mother's willingness to take a risk started us on a long series of adventures I will always cherish, no matter how harrowing or stressful. What she taught me has kept me from shying away from a few risks of my own. She prepared me to meet the good and bad and not flip out over either.
I've learned from her that it doesn't always take faith to become pregnant, but it does take faith to have a child. I'm not talking about a religious faith, but instead something purely, instinctively human. Sometimes, however, even faith is not enough. I don't know where mothers go then to find that extra quality that will make sure their child not just survives but has what he or she needs. I've tried to put my finger on it. Is it unwavering knowledge? Is it gall? Is it bravery? Some sort of weird Freudian selfishness? Some might simply say it's love. I don't know. Love is a big part of it, sure, but motherhood is a force unto itself...I don't believe anyone has, or ever will, put an adequate name to it.
It is precisely this mysterious attribute that I hope you will discover and enjoy as you read the contributions of these fascinating and exemplary authors. Each has explored a different expression of a mythic figure with a half billion or more unique faces. Is it your face? Or the face of your mother? Your grandmother from the old country? Between them, these writers show us women at turns learning, reveling in, living for, praying for, frustrated by, terrified by, losing, rejecting, finding redemption in, drawing upon, championing, and offering to others what it is to be a mother.
Perhaps, you will even find the name you'd most like to put to that face.
Copyright © 1998 by Claudia O'Keefe