There were two sides to my mother. One stayed tucked away waiting. When the moment came, it would explode like a battery surge. That aspect alone made for an intriguing woman somewhat out of sync with June Cleaver in “Leave it to Beaver.”
When I looked out the window there was mom in her white sneakers and embroidered apron tinkering under the hood of our car in the driveway. She wanted to see how the wires were connected before she took them apart. Often the neighborhood boys would pull up on their bikes. They would hang out with her in animated conversation putting in their two cents worth of advice all the while staring at the engine like a group of high schoolers preparing to dissect a frog.
It wasn’t in my nature to be mechanical, and looking back I missed opportunities to appreciate my mother for her skills way beyond the normal domestic engineer’s duties. She could handle a hammer like a pro, put in a new toilet and rewire the kitchen.
Dad admitted to having no ability for fixing things so he wisely left tinkering and repairs to mom. You might say that there was a little role-reversal in my childhood home.
If an appliance was “acting up”, mom’s term for a faulty piece of equipment, she would mutter to herself as she problem solved. She told me that she wished that she could have become an engineer like her brother and father. Her requests had fallen on deaf ears, and she was sent to a proper female college for a degree in Home Economics. She often mused that her father would have been happier having a second son.
“What are you doing that for?” That was dad’s classic question.
Dad shook his head and left mom humming a brisk tune in full concentration. He knew that she was happy. Later, he would call the auto service dealer to make an appointment to finish up what she couldn’t master. Never do I remember the mechanics at the garage complaining that they had to undo mom’s original work. Apparently, she was right on.
Certainly, my mom had all those lovely qualities of a homemaker in the 1950’s. She worked at her housework with a vengeance. She prided herself in running a tight operation with no detail left undone. And she was good at it, too.
Mom embraced the little box of Jell-O™ when it came on the supermarket shelf in the 50’s, and I often referred to her as the “Jell-O queen.” Every night there would be another a colorful dish coming to the table at the last moment once mom had performed her unmolding magic. We were served our fruits and vegetables concocted in this gelatin powder.
Mom lived on nervous energy. She was charged and ready to go dusting and cleaning from early morning until evening, Her slim body floated along with the vacuum. She ate voraciously without gaining an ounce. In fact, she stayed at 100 pounds her entire life and able to fit into her wedding outfit fifty years later, a feat neither of her daughters could replicate.
However, the more unique aspect of my mother was how she spent the rest of her day. Here is where she departed from the conservative, typical mothers of my friends.
Mom assembled my two-wheeler from looking at the diagram. It took her all afternoon while I was at school. She couldn’t wait to tell the storeowner that she done it on her own. Somehow, I doubt he was surprised.
Mom relished the conversations when the men in the family acknowledged her latest mechanical feat. It gave her a sense of worth that I could see all over her face, more so than cooking a delicious meal, or winning a prize for a pie at the fair.
Local electricians and plumbers didn’t get much business from our household. Even if she did call them, she asked the plumber a million questions as she looked on while he worked, because you knew that the next time she had a similar problem, she would take care of it herself.
“The light fuse has just blown.” Mom was annoyed that she had to stop her baking to go to the cellar and put in a new fuse in the box.
“Power out!” she yelled up from the basement while everything ground to a halt. That was my cue. I was her low-level assistant and not useful for much more in-depth work. I ran down the steps to hold the flashlight and screwdriver while she fiddled with the fuse box.
Mom was raised around tools so the second thing that she did when she got married after purchasing kitchen supplies, was to outfit herself with a toolbox filled with equipment.
When I saw mom daydreaming out the window, I believed that she wanted to be somewhere else. There was a little restless nature to her. She loved new gadgets and her curiosity for how things worked fascinated her up into older age.
I am grateful that I had an unconventional mother, one that pushed me to explore all the possibilities for my generation. My mom was a good role model. Now my job is to pass it on to the younger women in my family.