A Contentious Woman

From first grade until high school, my parents expected me to memorize Bible verses. When I was eleven, my dad assigned Proverbs 8, which I found abstract and dull. I tried to persuade him to let me choose one of the later passages, one with the pithy two line sayings, but no go. Maybe he foresaw what would happen.

Invariably I read anything but chapter 8. There are plenty of easily absorbable lines to apply promptly to one’s living. I saw the need to become wise and so enjoyed verses like: “The wise in heart accepts commands but a chattering fool comes to ruin” and “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.”

Perhaps I should have re-read the bits about a loose tongue. Instead, I glommed onto one proverb, “It is better to live on the corner of a roof than in a house with a contentious woman,” and I weaponized it against my mother.

I had a penchant for self-righteousness. I used it often over the years. But as a peevish pre-teen, I perfected this. My mother made a convenient target. She was harried by raising seven kids. I could trigger easily with a churlish retort. When she rebuked me, I accused her of being angry “all the time.”

“Not angry, dear,” she responded one night after we’d discharged the tension. “I’m frustrated. Don’t confuse the two.” I had too narrow an emotional vocabulary yet. Anger, frustration. To me they were no different than yelling and having a curt tone.

“You yell all the time,” I’d say. But she hardly raised her volume, only her pitch.

In retrospect, I see how the mother I grew up with shouldered too much, trying to cover shortages of money, of time, of being good enough. I admire her now, but not then.

She stayed home but she was full partner with my father at Household, Inc. She made food stretch with clever casseroles, coupons and calculators. She managed our huge garden, sending us out in rows of tomatoes and carrots to weed and pick. She put up, which is the country term for preserving, hundreds of quarts of beans, pickles, tomatoes, peaches, and applesauce. She kept the diaper budget low by using cloth diapers. She garage-saled– yes, I just made that a verb– for our outfits. By the time I was in third grade, she’d delivered four of us, too many to afford private tuition at our church school on my father’s hourly wages. She and my dad went to the first home-schoolers meeting in Fort Wayne and she added home-educating to her daily duties. Perhaps because we constantly stomped through the house with dirty feet and left a wake of mess behind us, she maintained cleanliness as if the Bible actually said cleanliness is next to godliness. Within the next decade, she’d have three more living children and a miscarriage. She’d also live out of a small camper for nine months, trying to keep her kids from wilding while she, my father and her parents did most of the labor to build a proper house because my father had decided “no boy is going to pick up my daughters for a date in a trailer park.”

My mother managed the narrow margins with military style discipline. We learned to fold underwear and make a bed as if we had enlisted. When I skipped away from the kitchen, she usually called me back over my sloppy inattention. She knew when I didn’t dismantle the stove fully or move the sugar and flour canisters to wipe the counters beneath them. She lectured to justify why these steps were required after each meal. Mice. Ants. Varmints of all sorts. As I grew up, I resisted her. I felt the interior of our relationship and found her switches and buttons. I flipped them with a menagerie of tactics: psychological warfare against my siblings, argumentation, and sneaky behavior. I’d observe how her jaw quivered. She couldn’t cover cold anger, which I now recognize as an attempt to bridle her reactions. As her pitch rose one day, I lobbed the proverb at her.

“You know, the Bible says it is better to live on the corner of a roof than in a house with a contentious woman.”  

I see her stiffen in the kitchen of that new house. She’s dismantled the stove to show me the broth that had boiled over and pooled under the electric burner pans. She shows me why smoke curled off the coils- pancake batter from breakfast had slowly charred. Her perm curls are wound tight as a black girl’s. I register the hurt and see my aim was true. One time failed tp satisfy me. I slipped it in again and again in her presence. It took a few years to niggle enough at my conscience, to grind down my gratification into guilt. It took having my own children and hearing my voice mirror hers, all grit and frustration before I knew I’d grown up like my mom.

When my daughter was three, I bargained then hollered for her to pick up her toys while I cooked dinner. It took months to realize a preschooler simply doesn’t sequester herself in her room, efficiently tossing her earthy belongings into a crate and cheerily appearing at the table on her own. I sat blockading her door for a few weeks, telling her each item to toss next into the crates while I re-assembled wooden puzzles for her. She groaned and fiddled, made up excuses about bathroom and drinks while I kept guard. As I blocked the door, my warfare against my mom came back to me as if I’d assaulted myself.

I accumulated guilt upon guilt as I tried being a stay-at-home mother (and freelance writer to save my dignity as more than a mere domescile). I raged one night when I drove my daughter to Chicago separate from my husband’s band.

“Wait for us for supper. We want to eat with the band,” I’d told him earlier (this was the pre-cell phone era). When we arrived, the event staff said the band had left thirty minutes before to grab food. I drove around Chicago, angry sobbing. I’d been reduced to domescile, I felt. My daughter pleaded with me not to be mad at Daddy. Then I despised King Solomon or whichever sage penned those words. I was contentious. I was lonely. I was impatient. I wanted more. I wasn’t supposed to want more. I was supposed to be fulfilled as a stay-at-home mother, clipping coupons, babysitting on the side, mowing, managing the bills, gardening, preserving, handcrafting gifts, having playdates with the mom across the street, home cooking all our meals, sewing my own clothes.

It would take a few more years to realize how one-sided, how man-centered, – dare I call it misogynistic?-  that proverb (and many like it) is. I’d reduced my mother to “a contentious woman” without consideration of her dignity. She spent decades demonstrating such ingenuity and work ethic. I’d dismissed the causes of her frustrations. I’d reduced her to “a.short fuse.” While I never gave thought to her inner life was like. Who had tended her soul and encouraged her to become a fully creative, intellectual, actualized person? I’d sold out my own mother because I’d reduced her to a “just another woman, a homemaker.”

After I married, when I’d grown up enough to stop saying “I’m not friends with girls. They are so petty and emotional. I’m only friends with guys,” I realized I had come to despise the company of my own. It took deeper literature to teach me that a combatant sears herself when she participates with violence.

I see in my mother now as a kind of imposing woman. She had the capacity for authority, but my warfare, compounded with her generation of evangelical culture’s campaign, took her down, made her smaller than she could be. I wounded her. She might have been more. Meanwhile I reaped from the efforts of her generation. I credit her quiet work and my father’s outright encouragement for the capacity to mature into an imposing woman. I shrugged off a kind of soul-destroying imposition that the church around me fostered. And, I responded to my own nature. I never could be the nurturing model of femininity prized as the ideal of motherhood.

But also, I packed up some of my haints, the weird ideas that trouble me still. I reacted easily to the “should be” and allowed myself to grow shrill. My anger has 88 keys: pitched, shrill, throbbing,fuming, icy, irate, caustic, contrary, pissed off, inflamed, cold. I’ve skipped church to jerk the vacuum about while ranting at low volumes. My husband has shielded our kids from the tension by jumping into the circumference of my anger. He’d butts into my chores giving me no excuse but to discharge my emotional energy.

In this ecology my children had slack. They learned to slink away rather than brave my rants. They circled back to pacify me. But they’ve always sensed what I bottle inside, this tension within me. When they hit college age, they fantasized about moving out. They too preferred the corner of the roof, another roof but ours, to living with my contention.

Moving to the roof is a temporary solution, even when the roof is flat rather than pitched. It’s an isolation, not solitude. It’s far better for a person to get help resolving and repairing the tension before it becomes contention. I didn’t start getting professional therapy, or reading useful parenting books until my children were too old. And still, the tension within me is hard for me to understand. It reminds me of the story of the desert monk who approached his abbot for permission to leave his monastic community. He said the other monks drove him to rage. He asked for his own skete. Reluctantly, his abbot sent him to a cave with a bowl and basic sleeping items. Not long after, the monk lost his patience and threw his bowl against the side of the cave. It shattered. He returned in humility. It wasn’t fellow monks, but his own disposition that drove him to rage.  

I have years of soul work, confession, turning away from my passion, and I’m still learning to be calmer. Meanwhile that proverb, two short lines called wisdom, incited a false narrative. It put my soul in contention with itself. With each mistake of anger, I learned to despair, and to hate myself. The story I told myself about my mother, that she was her frustration, that was the story I’ve been telling about myself. I have no idea what my mother thought when she read that proverb. I know I think the worst thoughts. I despair. I cycle into “I’ll never improve. I might as well quit trying.” The problem is, there’s no grace in those lines. No grace for my mom, no grace for myself, no “seek first to understand.” I have to give up on that proverb (and a few that I think are actually more harmful and hurtful). I’m not sure where that puts me. I have to hope for some grace. I have to forgive my mother her trespasses which are so much smaller than her achievements. If I don’t, I’ll never forgive myself.