My mother, me, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, ca. 1985
As far back as I can remember, I’ve slept with a pillow between my legs. If you asked me when exactly I started doing this, I wouldn’t have an answer. But if you asked me why, I would tell you it’s because that’s how my mother sleeps. That’s how she has always slept, as far back as I can remember. Because she slept this way, I thought everyone did. When I got married, one of the things my husband commented on was how many pillows I use when I sleep. Two for my head, one for my legs, and I think that is more than reasonable. When my husband asked me why I did this, I realized that I didn’t really have an answer.
“Um… I think its because I don’t like my knees to touch?” I told him.
Maybe it was true. Maybe I don’t like my knees to touch. But the more honest answer is that I don’t really know. I sleep like this because it’s always how I saw my mother sleep. As weird as my husband thought it was that I slept with a pillow for my legs, I thought it was just as weird that he didn’t. I thought that was how everyone sleeps.
I’ve lived almost 33 years on this planet and it’s safe to say that at least 25 of those years I’ve been a three-pillow gal. As for my mother, somewhere along the line she graduated to a six pillow woman. Recently she and I were having a conversation about motherhood, and the relationship between mothers and daughters. She mentioned to me that she still sleeps with a pillow between her legs because, as a little girl, her mom would lay with her until she fell asleep. My mom would try to “trap” her mom to keep her in the bed with her for the entire night. And to do that, she would drape her leg across her mom’s waist. She fell asleep like this for years. When the time came that her mom didn’t put her to sleep anymore, my mom started putting a pillow in between her legs. I guess she just missed the feeling of her leg being draped over her mom.
My great grandma Rosetta rode the Shanghai Express to marry the love of her life. My great grandpa Albert worked for the Austrian government and he was in Shanghai on business. At the time, he couldn’t leave the country, so Rosetta rode by herself to be where he was so that they could marry. She wanted to look pretty for her wedding day, so she stopped to get her hair done. While in the salon, the hairstylist talked her into getting a perm even though she repeatedly told the woman that she didn’t want one. The perm was awful (no surprise there, when are perms not awful?). She hated it so much that she tried to cover it with a hat, but the perm was so extreme that the hat kept popping off of her head during the wedding ceremony. During the first years of their marriage, Rosetta traveled with Albert to Shanghai for work. She was in Shanghai when she went into labor with my grandma Ingrid. Because of China’s strict laws, Rosetta had to travel alone to Kobe, Japan to have her baby. I can’t imagine what it would be like to give birth in a country other than the one you knew. It must have been so scary. Rosetta was a devoted wife to Albert her whole life. Even though she loved the missionaries and the gospel, she waited for Albert to die before she converted, out of respect for him and his devotion to the Catholic faith. Albert died young, at the age of 59. Rosetta was just 49 when he passed. He had a heart attack and died in her lap, as she held his head and waited for an ambulance. By the time the ambulance got there, he was gone.
Rosetta and Albert on their honeymoon in Manila, ca. 1932
My grandma Ingrid was the first person to be baptized a member of the church in post-World War II Austria. In 1959, at the age of 25, she came to America on a boat, alone, like you see people do in the movies. She started a life for herself in America, away from her beloved mother and siblings. There were no calls home because there was no money to make a long distance call. There was no email or text message. There were handwritten letters that took months to arrive. She got married to my grandpa in the Salt Lake City Temple and started a family with him right away. She had seven children. A set of twins that she had died just hours after they were born. Though she wasn’t alone when her children were born, she was in a country different than the one she grew up in, just like her mother had been. She knew sacrifice, she knew heartache, she knew suffering. She also knew joy. She was the happiest sad person I ever knew, and I can count on one hand the times I saw her without a smile on her face, despite the fact that experienced so much grief and sorrow. My own mother often tells me the story of how, unbeknownst to her, she followed my grandma up to the pulpit during fast and testimony meeting one week. She didn’t know where her mother was headed, only that she wanted to be with her, wherever it was. When my mom tells this story, she says that she looked at the back of her mother’s legs all the way up to the podium. It’s an image that has stayed with my mother throughout her entire life. When she closes her eyes she can still see the seam of the black nylons against her mother’s calves.
My grandma Ingrid, ca. 1958
My mother didn’t have to travel to Shanghai to marry my dad. She didn’t have to leave her family to travel to another country for a better life. Because of the sacrifices of her mother before her, she was born in America and raised a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For her, being a member of the church didn’t mean relocating to another country. She grew up with telephones and televisions. In many ways, she lived a life much different from the one her mother and grandmother lived. But she still experienced heartache and suffering. Though her heartaches were different from my grandma’s, they shaped my mother into the woman she is today. She is a warrior. She is hard but soft, happy but sad, alive but so, so tired. I know many stories from my mother’s life, but those aren’t my stories to tell. I have my memories of her that I cherish. Moments together with her that have made me into the woman I am today. She has taught me to stand up for myself, to be independent. She encouraged me to be myself and not to worry what anyone thinks. When I think about my mother, I hear her laugh, which can be heard throughout the house. Or the movie theater. Or the mall. It is loud and sharp, and full of so much love. When I tell my kids about my mother I will tell them that I have her laugh and her resistance to the status quo. I will tell them that I pee my pants when I laugh and sleep with a pillow between my legs because I inherited both of those things from her. I will tell them that I love books because she read to me and my brothers every night. When I close my eyes I can see her mouth moving, transporting us to different worlds with the sound of her voice reciting other people’s words.
Backyard photograph of me and my mom, ca. 1986
My relationship with my mother has always been more like a friendship. She is one of my best friends. For the first 30 years of my life, she was my best friend. Nobody laughs harder at my jokes than my mom. I think probably nobody laughs harder at anyone’s jokes than she laughs at mine. When I think about everything my mom has been through, it makes me angry. It makes me sad. It makes me wish I could change all the bad stuff to good stuff. I’m sure it’s the way she feels when she thinks about everything that her mother went through. But we can’t take the injustices away from our mothers. We cannot right the wrongs done to them. We can’t retroactively pay them for all of the countless hours of work they’ve done for us, or for every job where they made less than their male co-workers. We can’t beat up everyone who has hurt them or lecture every man who has touched them without asking. We can’t change their history. If we did, then they wouldn’t be women. All women are women because of the heartache they know. It is a special kind of sorrow; a quiet kind of pain that no one ever sees.
Women are incredible when they let themselves be. They ignore the words of discouragement that are thrown at them, and smash the stereotypes they never wanted in the first place. The longer I am alive, and the more I experience as a woman, the more I think about my mother and all of the things she has experienced. Mothers are our best resource. Everything you are going through in your life, I promise you, your mother went through it too. Things are better now for women than they ever have been, and they’re still not great. Think about that the next time you think about the life your mother has lived. Talk to your mother. Confide in her. Let her love heal you, let her strength propel you, and let her hard work motivate you.
In my favorite movie, Titanic, the otherwise garbage character known as “Old Rose” says, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” The more I find out about my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, the more I realize that that old bat knew exactly what she was talking about. I uncover more secrets about the women in my life every day. Sometimes these stories are uncovered because I ask, and sometimes I find out about them in different ways. It is your job to honor your mother by hearing her stories. Hopefully, you’ll know enough about your mother so that one day you can share her stories. Though our lives are different from the lives of our mothers, they intertwine because we are women. Our lives are woven together by womanhood, and all that it entails. Whether intentional or not, we are constantly ingesting parts of our mothers, good and bad. Sometimes we take the weaknesses of our mothers and make them our strengths, and sometimes they become second generation weaknesses. Sometimes we can’t see that what we inherit from our mothers is good because we don’t have context. There is a reason that there is a universal joke out there about women becoming their mothers. “And that’s when I knew that I had become my mother.” Sometimes it’s because of something you say or do and sometimes it’s because you color your hair darker and it literally shocks you because when you stare into the mirror, you just see your mother. I don’t know why it’s such a shock to us as women, but I know that shock. Though I’m not a mother yet, I see little ways all the time that remind me that I am my mother. When you really think about it, it makes sense. Of course you are becoming your mother. You begin that process from the time you are born, it’s impossible not to. It’s actually quite beautiful.
The more you learn about your mother, the more you will learn about yourself. And when you know who your mother is, you will know so much more about who you are. It’s a whole process, and it takes a lot of time. Too bad we aren’t as smart as our mothers are, or we would probably just accept our fate from birth, but we all need time to learn for ourselves. Dismissing your mother and not taking every opportunity to know her is such a missed opportunity, and a disservice to yourself. We are our mothers, whether we like it or not. Which means that some day I will be sleeping with six pillows. And I gotta tell you, I’m really looking forward to that.