Role of My Mother Within the Film and the Family
My mother turned out to be the central story teller of my film, going much into my fathers early childhood experiences. This parallels her experience as mother. She was central to the family, the one who held the family together. She was a mother, a wife, a professional. I relied on her memory of her experience being married 30 years to my father, as well as her perceptions and recollections of my fathers mother (my grandmother), her memories of my fathers grandfather (my great grandfather) who lived with my parents several years after they were married, my fathers minister Mr. Miller, and her connection with my fathers closest friend. I traced the tragic history of my fathers family, through my mother, back to the roots of his own family in which his father tragically committed suicide when my father was 13 years old.
In Micaela Di Leonardos article The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families and the Work of Kinship, Di Leonardo reflects on the significant work women put into kinship. She states:
By kin work I refer to the conception, maintenance, and ritual celebration of cross-household kin ties, including visits, letters, telephone calls, presents, and cards to kin; the organization of holiday gatherings; the creation and maintenance of quasi-kin relations; decisions to neglect or to intensify particular ties; the mental work of reflection about all these activities; and the creation and communication of altering images of family and kin vis-a-vis the images of others, both folk and mass media. (Di Leonardo 442-443)
She emphasizes that kin work is womens work, and in families of divorce or where the mother died, this aspect of kin work was generally neglected. Di Leonardo also found that women; as the workers in this arena, generally had much greater kin knowledge than did their husbands, often including more accurate and extensive knowledge of their husbands families. (Di Leonardo 443-444) This was very true of my mother. She was able to recite my fathers family history in detail. I have heard much more about my fathers side of the family from my mother than from my father. As I look at myself now, making my film and continuing now to further examine the family, I am continuing this kin work for my family. Di Leonardo also stated that Women were also much more willing to discuss family feuds and crises and their own role in them... (Di Leonardo 444) Similarly, my mother was able to communicate her mothers problem with alcoholism to my father, but my father never was able to discuss his fathers death or his own problem with alcoholism with my mother. Kin work, Di Leonardo points out, is like housework and childcare. It has traditionally been part of the womens role, but was not seen as work by our patriarchal society and its importance is just now being understood.
A friend of mine after watching my film noted that her husbands family had dealt with a similar problem of alcoholism with his mother. It was interesting to note that her husband had said to her that with the loss of his mother due to her alcoholism, he had felt like the family had died. For him, the mother was the family. In my family, even though my mother worked full-time, the centrality and importance of my mother to the family cannot be denied. My family was held together by my mother.
My mother is a strong woman. Along with her grieving, she also experienced growth. She had been able to accept my fathers fate, and come to peace with the issue. She grew stronger as an individual because of this experience. She had to re-examine her plans for retirement with my father to retirement without his personal presence or his income. In fact, she had to redefine her entire self, as one who exists on her own, without a spouse. She was no longer Toms wife, she was Karen Williams. This is not to say that my mother defined herself solely on her relationship with my father, because she did not, however, aspects of her social life were defined by others in this way.
The cultural attitudes concerning patriarchy and misunderstood issues of alcoholism were reflected in one newspaper article in which a fireman incorrectly stated his wife threw him out of his house. (Rabin 1) My mother viewed her separation as self-survival, and my sisters and I viewed it as a healthy action. Her only other choice would have been to go down with a sinking ship. The patriarchal society might view the latter option as more appropriate, or some may even view her as the cause of my fathers downfall. To be an independent women, to grasp on to ones own needs was important to my mothers survival. She was recovering from her co-dependency. I am sure her actions were understood and supported by members of Al-Anon. She clearly was seen differently after the separation by the people in the community she lived in, because there still is a social stigma associated with alcoholism. She ultimately divorced my father, and asked him to leave the house for good. The communitys view of her as the bad wife, because she chose not to support my father in his self-destructive behavior had a isolating effect on her initially. For example, another firemans widow in town told of how welcome she always felt when she was invited to fire department social functions, where as my mother did not feel welcome, and she was not invited. This was the difference between being a widow, and being divorced.
My mother talks about how her role changed slowly over the years as she took on more responsibilities of my fathers role, as he became more absent. She was very concerned about holding the family together, which for years she felt meant not divorcing my father. It took my mother a very long time to be able to face the fact that divorce was the right decision for herself as well as her family. As my father lost his job, she became the primary supporter financially for the family. My mother had risen in her nursing career to a supervisor, a position which fortunately paid well enough for her to continue financial independence. This is not always the case with all women, since womens wages generally do not equal mens wages, as well as having more limited job opportunities.
My mother still loved my father, but realized that in order for herself to survive, she had to sever their relationship. Our patriarchal society had instilled the concept of divorce as failure in my mothers mind. Must a woman feel that to not be in a partnership with a man, to leave a failing marriage for personal betterment is failure? Luckily, she was strong enough as a woman to end her marriage and survive independently, at the same time holding the family together as the matriarch. She then became a supportive model for me when I decided to end my marriage in 1999.
Through the making of my film and close questioning of my mother regarding her experiences, I have gained a closer relationship with my mother, and have gained a new respect for her. My sister Sue also feels that loss of our father has strengthened her relationship with my mother, as well as making my mother a healthier, better person, as well as our family becoming healthier. I found out how well my mother had coped with her experiences, had been able to find new meaning in her life and had come to peace with her past. My mother originally had some anxiety about the film because she felt discomfort with her open disclosure. She is still impressed with my continued confrontation with these family issues, which are much more foreign to her. I suppose both of us are just trying to understand each others generation, grappling with the memory crisis of the family.
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