Mother’s (birth)Day

Today would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. I can’t even imagine what a wizened old crone she would have been, what with the sun-exposure, the smoking, the arthritis and asthma. I can’t imagine this specifically because the cigarettes killed her at 49, when I was 21, and that was a long time ago.

We did not have a great relationship. As a small child I worshiped her, greatly assisted by the fact that I didn’t live with her. She was someone pretty and shiny, with whom I spent very little time and almost all of it fun. Except when it wasn’t.

She married a good man, my step-father, Jack, who adopted and adored me, raising me as his own and giving my mother and me everything a hard-working man could afford. He came to the school recitals, the ER visits. He was faithful, and a good father. She was miserable; it was her default setting.

She was also in need of some serious therapy to get over her own bad childhood, filled with the emotional and physical abuse she would pass onto me in due time, also possibly the three children born before me, whom I never knew, for whom she lost custody.

There was much anger between us, in those teen-age years. An estrangement, ended only by the news she was in hospital, dying. She was way too screwed up on pain meds for anything to be discussed, revealed, or mended, so we told each other we loved one another, and I brushed her hair and tended her nails. When the end came, my first thought was, “It’s over,” as in all that agita and mess between us.

And God laughed, and laughed….

Because of course it wasn’t over, not by a long shot. It was years later and I had my own daughter approaching adolescence before I realized that, for all the truly good work I’d done on my head in the years since her death, my mother was finding ways to screw up that relationship. That there were things in my head scary enough to need a professional to guide me through them. So I found a warm and wonderful woman with a doctorate and many years in the field of Psychology, and she guided me in laying to rest some old demons, and taught me how to recognized the un-slain in the future, and deal with them when they arose.

When I think of my mom now, two weeks past American Mother’s Day, on this, her 82nd birthday, mostly I just wish she had been happier. Never happier than when she was miserable, she was just so deeply sad and angry. I wonder who she might have been? So far as I know, no one alive now could tell me who Donna Dee Kelly really was before she jettisoned anyone inconvenient and created her own life narrative out of thin air, spinning an elaborate web of half-truths and lies completely incapable of withstanding the weight of, or shielding her from, the circling hawks of facts and truth. For most of my early childhood the answer was to run, moving us every two years, whenever (I now realize) those birds of prey circled too near her.

It’s easy to recall some of her characteristics: generosity; flirtatiousness; charm; a vile,  hair-trigger temper; a complete inability to accept responsibility for her own actions (“you made me hit you”); fear, always fear, of censure, of being discovered, of being less than perfect, of being found out.  While I can recall some of her character traits, I have no idea who she was. It’s entirely possible she didn’t know, either.

I wonder, have I shown my daughter who I am? (Leaving open the possibility that she might know better than I.)

The Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas, in her excellent book, An Ordinary Death, writes movingly of sorting through her mother’s letters and writings, discovering a different woman than the one she knew, the woman her mother was outside of being her mother, and how she wished she’d had different conversations with her mother as an adult. I wonder if I do enough of that with my own daughter? Have I been brave enough?

I wonder, what conversations would you have, what things about your parent’s lives, would you want to ask? Keeping in mind that timing is everything, I’ll suggest to anyone reading this and fortunate enough to have a parent or two still around, it will be a treasure beyond price if you get their stories now.

All Women Have Weinstein Memories

The Harvey Weinstein revelations this week have been a particularly loathsome example of the hurdles women still face professionally but for me, it hit rather surprisingly close to home. It brought up a memory I guess I’d have to say I repressed, as it was days in before I realized, standing in my kitchen and listening to one of the accounts, that my visceral reaction was more than just my increasingly ardent feminism being offended. An incident I hadn’t necessarily forgotten, but had minimized in the way women do to these things, returned in glorious technicolor.

The memory returned, whole, connected, and with all the original revulsion, rather than the pale fragments I had allowed at the surface consciousness level for the intervening years. That I would only ken the wrongness, the vileness of an event thirty-odd years later speaks, I believe, to how endemic misogyny still is in our society and why women are 100% over being told to “Smile”.

I was 18 – literally, I had turned 18 years old the proceeding week – when I was asked to meet with the head of the modeling agency I’d signed with. He was the owner of the agency and at least forty years my senior.

He told me how pretty I was, though not pretty enough for high-end, cosmetics company work. “The girls who get those jobs are perfect,” he said and while pretty, I was not “perfect”. At 5′ 7″ I was too short for cat-walk, but ideal for catalog or calendar work. They didn’t mind “curvy” girls, he said, though losing a few pounds would only help me. Thanks to existing on one salad a day, I weighed 115 pounds at the time.

Carole at the Beach1 (2)
This is what Not Pretty or Thin Enough looked like circa 1980

The bottom line was he had the power to give me a career. He found me attractive enough that, despite my obvious deficits of imperfection and 115 pounds distributed over a 5′ 7″ frame, he’d happily further my career if I’d sleep with him. He could provide cocaine, if that sweetened the deal.

I would like to say I didn’t think about it at all, that my morals were such I turned on my heel and left in high dudgeon, but I’d be lying.

What I did think, for a maybe a nanosecond was, It would make everything so much easier. How bad could it be?

But then, completely unbidden by me and surely born by the voices of what President Abraham Lincoln referred to as “our better angels” came a solitary thought: but then I’ll never know. I made some lame excuse about not thinking of him in that way, but more like my Uncle Harry, and (of course smiling!) uh, thanks for the offer… and I beat feet out of the office. I never went back. Thus ended my modeling career.

There are concepts it is difficult for even an intelligent teenager to fully comprehend. On one hand, I could sleep with an old, ugly, and clearly immoral man and have a lucrative career. On the other, I’d never know if the career was earned or given as payment. With the black and white thinking of most teenagers, I thought accepting his offer would confer upon me a particular label: Prostitute. It never occurred to me to label him: Predator. I did know I had little power in this exchange, that my attractiveness to him was currency with a definitive expiration date, the date the next barely-legal girl he wanted to sleep with arrived.

Like most women I took the guilt upon myself, thinking that to sleep with this troll would make me a whore, rather than the truth, which was that offering young women cocaine and a career to sleep with him, made him an exploitative libertine, a predator, and morally reprehensible. It was his moral character on trial, not mine. And lest anyone take the mistaken notion that I condemn the women who made different decisions, let me refute that right here and now. It is always the predator who is in the wrong.

It is so endemic in our society that I had almost forgotten the entire, slimy episode. Oh, through the years people have occasionally asked why I hadn’t pursued the career, and I tell the more or less true story that my parents moved out of state and I chose to stay in California, and waiting tables was more immediately lucrative than hoping for a career in modeling to catch fire. Even through the many years since, I told few people about the meeting with the agency owner because then as now, who would believe me?

My life has not been glamorous or wealthy, but it has been rich. I have not known fame or fortune, but I have known love, friendship, loss, joy, motherhood, so many things, good and bad, that make an excellent life.

But, in the wake of yet another scandal involving a powerful man using women by threatening their careers, hearing people say, “Why didn’t she come forward sooner? Why did she smile in those photos?” makes my blood boil. These are questions men never face, because the power differential still tilts heavily towards the masculine. Women have smiled long enough for our place at the table.

For every Rose McGowan or Gwyneth Paltrow, I expect there are at least 100 other women, standing in their suburban kitchens recalling similar circumstances that left them remembering either a choice to walk away and the loss, personal and/or financial of that decision, or remembering an event that left her feeling dirty and used, and questioning her own talent and ability. This extends far beyond Hollywood. I had subsequent, uncomfortable episodes with male employers in Corporate America, just nothing so egregious as the modeling agency. I know I am far from alone. I have legions of sister-company.

To my sisters I say: it isn’t us who are dirty, we are not responsible for the immorality and predatory behavior of others. Let us support each other, vocally, and remove the conspiracy of silence once and for all. Let us embrace our sisters as they come forward, let us form a protective circle around them, let us assure our daughters they will be believed and we are their advocates. Finally, let us shout a collective, ENOUGH!