Charlotte Esther Robinson Swett, my mother, never knew how very much I admired her. We were, for many years, closer than most mothers and daughters, but she couldn’t know the depth of my esteem for two reasons. First, this complex woman never quite internalized the breadth of her inestimable value; and second, I never quite understood the scope of my emotions. So I write this now for my children and grandchildren. They need to know.
When I was small, my cousins referred to our grandmother as Mama, but I could never muster the word; she wasn’t anything like a Mama to me. She was harshly critical, emotionally cruel, and I recognized early on that she had not even earned the right to that moniker from the woman I knew was my Mama. Grandma had suffered terribly in her life, and in her last twenty years, after she found sobriety and a modicum of peace, especially after my grandfather died and liberated her from her subservience, she became a friend and a confidante, but it was clear to me that as a mother, she had provided no model for my mother to emulate, had failed to nurture and protect her daughters, and had damaged them all irreparably.
My mama shared her life with me in timid drabs over late night vigils. My father was a traveling salesman, and he was often on the road into the wee hours of the night; it was I who kept her company while she waited, always frightened that the worse might have happened. Fearing the worst was a learned response to a life of worsts, but she found them difficult to tell, difficult to explore, and until I was twelve, all I really knew were the funny stories. One was the story of her birth, which she told between gales of girlish giggles that invariably made me laugh too . . . until I was old enough to get it.
“I was born on a crystal clear Viennese night in April, 1923,” she would begin; she was only eleven months younger than her sister Thea, born in 1922, who was four years younger than their first sister Herma, born in 1918. “Mama told me there wasn’t a cloud in the sky outside her window, just a glittering sliver of moon. But poor Papa was devastated. He was sure this time he would finally have a boy. He had put his head at Mama’s belly, and he was certain that this time he would be father to a son. He was so excited he could not sit still for most of the 9 months of the pregnancy. I often imagine my Papa’s reaction when the doctor came out of the delivery room to tell him he had a big, robust, healthy daughter! He went crazy. Mama didn’t see him for weeks . . . maybe even months. The story changed whenever she told me. But when he did come back, he was determined not to be disappointed, and from then on he encouraged me to be a tomboy, which was just fine by me!