Women’s History Month and the Two Things My Mother Gave Me

clare_her_momThere’s a few minutes left to March and it’s been one deadline after another, but I couldn’t let Women’s History Month slip by without noting the greatest female hero I knew first hand, my mom.

Of course I spent the month enjoying whatever public celebrations of great women I could find…the Joan Baez American Masters special on PBS was probably my favorite, since I could re-appreciate her political stamina over a lifetime more than I ever did. Whatta chick!

But I guess my number one female hero would have to be my mom. Everyone called her Millie, though her formal name was Carmela. Carmela Mary Musto before she married my dad.

It would be great to tell you that my mom fought for public justice, ran for senate or started a non-profit organization. I think you would be impressed with her if she did those things. But in her own way, she lived the life of an iconoclast, and I saw her struggle to be herself without the advantage of education or social enlightenment, long before women’s rights were cool. I saw her do what she wanted and face the consequences, no matter what anyone said. I saw her help others without a thought of what she would “get out of it”, and this extended far beyond her family. She saw through people’s facades with an uncomfortable accuracy. And of course, like many Italian American women of her age, she was a great cook! But more than anything, there were two great things she taught me that have become foundations of my life.

Being Different is Just Fine!
Millie  really liked being “different”. In fact, one of the things I remember about her now, was that she encouraged me not to do what everyone else did…one of her famous (and classic) “mom” sayings to me was “so if everyone was jumping off the bridge, does that mean you would jump too?” Maybe this started me off with a certain comfort level to follow my own heart and not someone else’s (though I won’t say it’s not sometimes a lonely road). She was naturally skeptical of what I have learned to call social consciousness: doing, feeling, or going along with what “everyone else is doing”…the mindless march of the masses. Millie was full of her own mind, and certainly marched to her own drummer.

Being Generous is What Life is About
Millie’s generosity was legendary and didn’t seem to have any edges or boundaries to it. When she was in her mid-fifties, she took on the full-time care of two small children, they were three and four years old at the time. Their mom had just died. They were cousins on my dad’s side, not even her side of the family, but my mom took on their care like it was a mission from god. And it probably was. We all lived together and she did everything from breakfast to bedtime, 24/7 with these two beautiful girls; with occasional Sunday breaks when their dad would take them out. I guess I don’t know many women who would take on the care of toddlers at that point in their life, when their own child was almost grown; seems a bit nuts to me when I think about it. Unless the situation was forced on someone, most women would run from this kind of thing. Maybe my mom saw it as her opportunity to really make a difference in the world,  one person at a time. I know it wasn’t easy for her.  And while it’s not like inventing a cure for cancer, this attitude of hers did indeed impact the lives of so many, not to mention those two young girls, now grown with children of their own.

Millie and I argued a LOT, fought like boxers for a championship title and neither of us ever gave in. Like all heroes, she went beyond what was expected, she went where her own heart took her, no matter how unlikely that seemed to be. I still miss her. She’ll always be the first woman who made history in my life and I’ll always be proud to have had the good fortune of being her daughter.