Monday, August 19, 2013


DEBORAH CROMBIE: As some of you may know, my mother passed away a week ago. She was ninety-two and had been ill for at least a decade, so while I am sad for my sake, I am not sad for her.  But I have done a lot of thinking about my mother's life, trying to put it in some sort of perspective.

As an adult, and particularly since I became a published writer, I've always had a very strong network of female friends. We go out to dinner together, we travel together, we keep up by phone or email on a regular basis, we provide one another with support through tough times. Most of these women are MY friends, and our relationships function outside my marriage except for the occasional intersection.

And so over the years I felt slightly superior to my mother, and thought that her life was lacking because she did everything with my father and she didn't have female friends that weren't "couples" friends.

Well, the other night at dinner, a (female) friend pointed out to me that I had it exactly backwards.

Consider the fact that my mom was born in 1921. When she was twenty, she married my dad, who was fourteen years older. My brother was born in 1942, and I suppose for the first few years she did stay home while my father worked and traveled, but I suspect it was not willingly. By the time I came along, my grandmother had come to live with us, freeing my mother to become my dad's full-time partner in work and life. They ran their own business. They traveled together. They played golf together, they went to the horse races together. There were no "men's nights" for my dad, and no "ladies' lunches" for my mom. (She'd have been bored to tears...)

My friend pointed out to me just how modern that was, in a generation where middle-class wives stayed home, taking care of the house, looking after the  children, getting supper on the table for husbands who came home from the office and settled down with pipe and slippers.

My mother led a life that was, for her generation, shockingly liberated.

And I wonder how I could have been so focused on the importance of my own life that I didn't see it.

So, dear Reds, do you consider yourself more modern, and more liberated, than your mothers? (And what, I wonder, will our daughters say about us?)

(I thought the photo, above, of the film, The Women, from which we take the title of our blog, was quite appropriate for the topic!  And what is with the Princess Beatrice hat? We'll get to that later in the week!)

RHYS BOWEN: Debs, so interesting to hear about your mother's life because it mirrored my mothers, in a similar time period. She had me at 21 but worked for her whole life (she ended up as a school principal). Her work was her life. She was always arranging district music festivals and such. When she wasn't working she and my father did everything together--shopped at the supermarket on Friday evenings, walked the dog, went to restaurants. After they retired they were never apart.

She had a couple of women friends from school but it was my dad who came first. Thus, when he died, she had a hard time coping with loneliness. She never learned how to make friends and when she was dying was surprised by how many people loved her.

I've been a writer for most of my life, thus not part of the daily grind, so my women friends are of major importance to me. I have a terrific support group in California and just starting to make lovely friends in Arizona. I enjoy doing things with my husband but I have such fun with my women friends. One of them claims we've saved each other thousands in therapy bills, and it's true!

HALLIE EPHRON: My mother didn't have any women friends. She and my father wrote screenplays together, and in those days she would not have had a peer group of women. Besides, a woman had to be so competitive and driven to be successful in the way that she was, it didn't leave room for friendships. Her social life was THEIR social life, and I'm quite sure that she was intensely lonely because my father had his own social life that revolved around tennis and poker, "guy" things. She died when I was 22 and not old enough to have asked her all the questions I now wish I'd asked.

I love my women friends, but my husband is my very best friend. We're very compatible, shared interests galore. He doesn't do a lot of "guy" things and, come to think of it, I don't do a lot of "girl" things. I wouldn't think of making non-business dinner or travel plans without him. Plus he makes me laugh.

LUCY BURDETTE: My mother had four kids in the span of six years and she also felt obliged to follow where my father's career led. This meant quite a few transfers from NJ to Illinois to NJ to Michigan to NJ. She did not get a lot of pleasure from cooking or homemaking, so eventually went back to school and became a teacher. I don't know if any of that explains the fact that I'm not sure she ever "found" herself. She had women friends but I'm not sure how much she confided about what she felt--and she was certainly lonely too.

Like Hallie, I feel like I have a very lucky constellation of blessings in my life, a husband who's a great friend and supporter, a compelling career, and terrific women friends! Woman today certainly have challenges--like realizing we can't have it all, not all at once--But I do think it's an easier and more satisfying time to be a woman than in my mother's lifetime. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Oh, I don't remember any of my mom's--oh, wait yes, I  do. But she didnt have close women friends when we (five kids!) were growing up. There were woman who Mom did things with, but in my memory, they were the wives of my step-father's business acquaintances.

AND you know me--Jonathan and I do everything together. I don't have any urge to dump him to go off with the girls--although I adore you and love when we hang out. And I certainly would never make a book world decision without consulting the Reds.  Jonathan has a group of men friends who from time to time have an MBE--Male Bonding Experience--where they have dinner and  go to a bad movie. The "wives" --some of whom are my dear friends--are now lobbying to go with them.

I wonder if--because of our jobs and career pressures--there's something that has to be "given up." I think it's so true that now that we can have it all--we've realized we CAN, but only a few things at a time, if we're going to be successful at any of it. So much of our lives, now, have to do with choices. 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: In some ways, my mother has had a very traditional life for a woman of her generation. Got her "MRS" in college, followed her husband's career around, and spent a great deal of her time as a stay-at-home mother. However, she also survived an early widowhood, poverty as a single mother who worked as a substitute teacher to support her children while going to night school for her masters, and has picked up stakes and moved lock, stock and barrel more times than I can count.

My mother wanted all her children to have happy marriages, but she always stressed the importance of being able to make a living - for yourself and for your kids. "It's harder to find a good job than a good husband," she said. Mom has always been very social and sociable - officers club, bridge club, volunteering at her church, exercise buddies. Of the two of us, I'm the one with few friends, male or female. I can be very hermit-like and hard to get hold of. I agree with Hank - that may be the result of my choices. I protect my work/family/marriage time by keeping other relationships low maintenance.

DEBS: Such interesting responses! Like Julia, while my women friends are a very important part of my life (and have, as Rhys says, saved me a fortune in therapy bills over the years) I tend to be very protective of my time and of the energy expended in those relationships. Nothing takes precedence over my Friday night at-home movie date-night with Rick, or time spent with my daughter...

And then we start to think about how our mothers as models affect our female characters... Isn't that another can of worms????

What about you, our RED readers? Do you feel that you are more liberated than your mothers?

As a last note, here's one of my favorite photos of my mother.  I think it was taken sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, and it's the one I used for her obituary, but I had to crop out my dad. It was very hard to find a picture of her in the prime of mid-life without him.  And that, I think, is a pretty nice epitaph.


  1. What a lovely picture of your mom . . . so sorry for your loss . . . .

    My mom didn’t have an easy life, but she was always devoted to her family; she and my step-dad enjoyed traveling and doing things together. She was an amazing woman, one of the strongest people I’ve ever known.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear about your mom, Debs, and what a wonderful woman you describe. I love hearing about all the Reds' mothers. I agree that it can take some perspective to appreciate our mothers' accomplishments.

    My mom also had four children in six years and had an ostensibly traditional role as a wife - Girl Scout leader and Cub Scout den mother, seamstress of dozens of ballet costumes, home for us when we got home from school. When I was in high school I scoffed at her lack of makeup besides her daily powder and red lipstick and her plain fingernails; as adult I wear even less makeup and admire her no-nonsense approach to life. As a parent I realized that her fair and supportive mothering was just how I wanted to be with my boys. And after she produced more than 100 beautiful quilts in her retirement, I saw how her artistic bent had been a constant in her life (right down to the homemade puppet theater she made out of a refrigerator carton by applying paint, sewing a curtain, and making a dozen puppets for us).

  3. I am sorry for your loss-- I lost my mom to death in 2007, but we lost her several years before that, gradually and heartbreakingly, so that the woman who died was no longer the woman who brought us up.

    Funny you should ask about this topic. I will only say that I stopped watching "Little House on the Prairie" when they killed off Caroline's (the mother') best friend in a fire. I used to watch those two women exchange looks about Mrs. Olsen and I saw the friendship there. (It was back when I was serving as a Commissioner on the Status of Women, so maybe I was more tuned in to those things, but I don't think so).

    And funny you should ask, because the novel I am working on right now deals with this topic. And that's all I'm going to say about this, because as my friend Judy Bridges titled her book about writing, I believe one shouldn't talk about one's writing projects, but "shut up and write."

  4. I am sorry for your loss. But thank you for your comments and insights - and for the depths your piece here has brought out in the others. You have started me thinking back, too, on so many things about my mother - and will now probably weave into my next book, as someone on the post has suggested... Thelma in Manhattan

  5. I am sorry for your loss, Deborah, and hope this introspection about your mother is comforting.

    My mother's career path was set when a WW2 recruiting poster with a nurse under the word "Victory" was put up in her elementary school. Her family was poor--she was the youngest of 7, her father died suddenly when she was 9 months old, and she borrowed tuition money from the little town doctor to go off to Charity Hospital and learn nursing from very strict nuns. She is very proud of being a nurse. She was a working mother throughout my childhood. She had many friends from work, but she and my dad went out dancing with friends on many Saturday nights. My dad's a social butterfly too. After he retired, he became a ROMEO (Retired Old Men Who Eat Out). His pals meet at McD's every morning, so much so that they have a reserved table and a waitress.

    I am a big "let's do lunch" person, as well as "let's take a field trip" person with my women pals. I get it from my parents, but I work from home and grab at any excuse to put on grownup clothes and go out.

    I am also blessed with, to steal a phrase from Nancy Mitford, a Great Friend, the one who Knows All but never Tells All. (I hope!)

  6. My condolences, Debs, but weren't you lucky to have your mother for so many years? What a lovely photo, too.

    My mother was the middle child of nine, and she feels bereft of friends if she isn't doing something every single day, even at age 83. Like Ramona's dad she meets childhood friends (and new ones) every morning at McDonald's. I envy her that.

    She married my dad when she was 21, feeling it was her "last chance". Little did she know. He was an alcoholic who left her with little choice but to start working when I was two, all through the 50's and up until 1990, stopping for a few months only to have my three younger siblings. All through my childhood she had card club, and Avon parties, and went out with the girls, as well as out dancing with my dad.

    When he died when I was 17 she started dating in earnest, and before long was married again, but still kept her job. They were married for 20 years until he died, and within three more years she had married again, only to again lose a husband after six years. We call her the Merry Widow, and she still flirts outrageously.

    My mom has been a role model, not just to me and my sister, but to her four granddaughters, dozens of nieces, and a couple great granddaughters, as well. We all love "Granny Smith's" spirit!

  7. Debs, I am so sorry to hear about your mom's passing. Losing a parent, even when expected, leaves a hole in our lives, I think. Sending some love your way.

    My mom and dad had the kind of marriage I grew up wanting. It took me three tries to get it right, and it was worth waiting for. While Donald and I share the same core values and care deeply about those things, there are lots of things that we just do not care to do together. I don't go on long hikes in these gorgeous mountains with him and he doesn't go to mystery conventions with me.

    My mom had two very, very close girlfriends who died very early - I'm not sure she's ever come close to replacing those two women in her life. She's also had some women friends who turned out not to be the friends she thought they were. Those experiences, I think, have made her less open to friendships than she once was.

    I have a group of women who I think of as sisters of my heart and they are irreplaceable in my life, sadly, they are not physically close by, so I don't get to do as much with them as I would like. But we are there for another when needed.

  8. I'm going to say cheers and congratulations to all of us for having mothers we can/could learn from and who inspired us in some way. All of your mothers sound like interesting, fascinating people ... and while everyone has flaws, they all made you the wonderful women you are. So kudos to moms.

    I'm only more liberated than my mother in that I'm a product of these times which are somewhat more so. But my mother attended UC Berkeley in the mid-60s, served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria with my father a couple years after that, and then forged her own path as a single mother with a kid after my parents divorced in the 80s. She's always been much more adamant about the "you can do anything you want" message/mantra than I've ever been, because I know she's had to fight harder for it than I have. I realize I wouldn't be where or who I am without her example.

  9. What lovely stories, what lovely memories. Thanks, Debs, for starting this conversation; condolences for your loss. I sometimes think of women in terms of archetypes -- Jean Bolin's idea of the "Goddesses in Every Woman" -- and it's interesting to think about an Athena in a cultural that valued Hera and Demeter, and vice versa.

    It's been fun for me to give my character, who's 20 years younger than I am, a very different mother than I had -- shaped by a different time and background -- and explore how that's influenced her. Now creating a 2d protagonist, and getting to think about those things with her as well.

  10. Such interesting stories, everyone! Sounds like most of us had good role models... There are always amazing women in any generation--we're going to talk later in the week about some of the intrepid Victorian and Edwardians.

    Kaye, you're so right. It feels very strange now to be parentless, even though I'd been taking care of one or the other or both of them for almost fifteen years. Now I'm an adult orphan.

    And Kaye, Don and Rick must be made from the same mold:-) Nothing he likes better than hiking, camping, canoeing, and especially mountains. Give me a nice hotel or B&B, good food, and a hot bath:-) And you couldn't pay him to go to a mystery conference, although he is making "hmm" noises over Bouchercon in Monterey...

    But we like each other, and that role model of a marriage is probably the greatest gift my parents gave me.

  11. My mother became one of the women who stepped into what had been men's jobs during WWII. She was a radio producer (Alastair Cooke's first American producer) while my father was in Europe then the Pacific then back in France as a radio journalist. Shortly after the way, she took a government job in Washington DC, a white collar job. But as the men poured back into the workforce, she was pushed back into the kitchen, and it was her undoing. By then, she had three kids and she was no good at the housewife role - bored to death, I imagine. To my recollection, she never fit into suburbia, never had women friends. While my step-father made documentary films and got caught up in the McCarthy witch hunt, she couldn't seem to find a role that gave her any intellectual, creative, or visible rewards. I see all of that more clearly and with more sympathy now that I've spent so much time as both a parent and a working woman. And, yes, I have the strength, support, and affection of women friends that, especially since Tim died, makes a huge difference in my life. She never did.

  12. Deb, I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for posting about it.

    My mother has been dead for four years and I've had a chance to get some insight into her unhappiness. My sister and I realized that she was depressed almost her whole life. What a boon good anti-depressants would have been for her. One of the reasons she was depressed was that she had a job during World War II that made her feel really needed. After the war, like so many women, she returned home and never really found fulfillment as a mother and wife. She resented women who "worked", and I know that it was because she wished she could be in their shoes. She didn't go to college and didn't want me to, either. At least she had a deep relationship with my father, who was truly the love of her life.

  13. My condolences, Deb, on your loss. Thank you for sharing your mom with us.

    These days, I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about my mom--her life, our relationship, the woman I am. She suffers from dementia, and it's been stressful because I've had to face down my own baggage when it comes to her.

    As far as modernity. Born in 1931, my mom didn't get married until 1965 -- very late in life by the standards of the day! She lived and partied in Europe and D.C. (she worked for the CIA!) before settling down. She was always quite modern. In fact, she has called ME a prude. :-)

    Leslie, I loved GODDESSES IN EVERY WOMAN. I think I still have my copy.

  14. Debs, I was so sorry to hear when your mother died. I know how difficult that can be, no matter how old we or they may be.

    I am more liberated than my mother, but I can't take any credit for that. I simply lived in a time when I could be. She lived a very unhappy life with a violent man in a society where no one would help her and her six kids get away, not even her own parents. We forget how cruel those times were for women.

    I treasure my dear women friends, but I also tend to set limits like Julia and spend most of my time alone or with my husband. Ben is my second husband and my best friend. We do most things together, and although his professional life is in the "literary" world, he loves to come with me to mystery conferences and adores the Jungle Reds. He's so totally supportive that some of my friends can't even understand it. "You mean he drove you on your book tour and sold your books for you?" Yes, he did.

    I do know that I have more women friends now and value them more as I grow older. Research shows that women's satisfaction in old age is greater when they have a ring of good women friends.

  15. So sorry for your loss. I also loved seeing the picture!

    My mother had a tough childhood and after marrying my father (at 18, he was 19)had my brother and was pregnant with me when she realized that both of them would have to work to support a family. She told me, "I decided that if I had to work I would do something I love" and so she put on her best circle skirt and went to a nightclub to audition as a singer. She stood on the stage, hands clasped, and sang an old standard. Apparently the owner, (a Chicago Mafia Don) took pity on her and hired her. The bartender was another older Italian man who had her sit on the end of the bar and allowed no one to hassle her. She went on to work in Las Vegas, then get a record deal, and finally ended up in the movies. Through it all she deftly avoided the casting couch and the substance abuse pitfalls, got divorced and raised four kids. Growing up with a jazz singer as a mother can be chaotic and odd, but as I look back at her life (she's 78 now and has alzheimer's)I realize that she always made every one of us believe that we could do anything. I owe my strength to her.

  16. So very sorry for your loss, Deborah, both from my own personal respect and on behalf of Seattle Mystery. Be gentle with yourself.

    I come from a long line of very strong women, and I haven't had nearly the experiences my mom had. A lieutenant stationed in England during WWII, she did things I've only heard about peripherally (she never much wanted to talk about herself).

    She raised me, with her mom's help, being head of household for years until she married my stepfather. She did the stay-at-home mom with neighborhood wives over and things like that, but it wasn't exciting enough, so she ran for public office, and later ran her own daycare.

    Powerful women are my inspiration. It's nice to know I'm in good company!

  17. Just fascinating, everyone's stories. It seems that sometimes we make our choices because of the examples our mothers set, and sometimes, like Linda and Hallie, because we don't want to live the same lives...

    Lisa, my mom suffered from dementia for at least the last fifteen years, so my heart goes out to you. It did seem easier the last few years, as except for the discomfort from the physical symptoms, she didn't seem unhappy. Her carers adored her, and she always had that smile for everyone, even up to the last few days. My dad had dementia, too, but it came on very late (around the time he turned 90) and was mercifully brief.

    Jamie, I LOVE your mother's story!

  18. Sheila, I didn't know you'd lost your daughter. I'm so sorry. Losing a parent whose time has come is one thing. Losing a child of any age is terrible beyond my imagining.

  19. I'm sad to hear about your mom's passing. It's so tough to lose parents.

    I see my mom a lot; she moved into my apartment building a few years ago. She's very optimistic and curious, fun to be around.

    I'd say I'm more liberated because of the age I grew up in, but I remember growing up thinking that I could become anything I wanted. She didn't have the idea that being a girl was a limitation. So she was always a feminist, although she never thought of herself as one.

    I definitely got my love for making things (both food and other) from her.

    And socially, we're similar. Outgoing but introverted. Spending lots of time in our own worlds.

  20. I'm very sorry for your loss. My mother is 93 and also suffering from dementia. She wasn't up to attending her granddaughter's bridal shower yesterday and I was thinking about a eulogy as I drove home from the shower. Morbid but timely, I'm afraid.

    My mother was a Navy nurse in WWII. I'm pretty sure she had a lot of fun times while serving at various hospitals. Her pictures all show a group of men and women living life. She didn't get married 'til she was 30 and didn't work outside the home until my youngest sister was in high school 25 years later. I'm fascinated by her life - being born before women had the right to vote and, hopefully alive to see the first woman President. At least she's seen some strong women elected. My only regret for her life is that my father died when he was 65 and she's been along for so long. We celebrated our 39th anniversary on Saturday and I've been married longer than she and mt Dad were.

    I've always had more male friends tan female but maybe because I've been so involved with sports cars and racing. My husband is, by far, my BFF.

    Your stories are lovely. I appreciate how much you all enjoy your private quiet time. You deserve it.

  21. My apologies for all the typos in the previous post.

  22. OUt on a story all day..just wanted to you, Debs...

  23. Sorry for your loss, Deb. I´ve read your stories with much interest.
    My Mom was born after WWII, as a daughter in a catholic house where man had more rights than she. She learnt a job, but was soon pregnant and married my father, who was working hard but had much fear of loosing her to another man (his mother died when he was young and new mothers changed often). So she had a life of threats and force. She died with the age of 34, murdered by my father, when I was 8. We were 7 children and I came to a family I knew. My Care-Parents had 5 daughters, who were then married and a son in my age. Later my care mother even took my two youngest brothers against the will of her husband. She once said, that he didn´t spoke to her about a year. Then he gave in, and he took us in his heart while my care-mother was cold and we never had a big relationship. We were glad about having a home, and when she died 10 years ago, it was hard to let her go although she wanted it.
    I rarely have female friends, most are in my family and I am happy about them. My husband loves me and we are often together and lived together for 10 years, before our son was born. My husband loved our child since then, at the beginning he always said, that he doesn´t know how to behave with children, but he was the only one for me, because I found out, that he can take care of children (he is often more a child than our son). Now I care for the household. It does not fill me out fully, but I have time for me (I can´t work anymore, because I have a traumata). Maybe I would like to study, when our son is elder or make some voyages by bike with my husband..

  24. Deb - I'm so sorry about your mother. She must have been quite wonderful to have raised a daughter who could write such thought-provoking books.

    My grandfather died in an indus. accident when mother was 7 mos old, leaving three young children. No money, of course, it being far in advance of Soc. Sec. or Workers Comp. Her older brother developed TB and died in his early 20s. Mother and her sister went to work early, to help out. Aunt Mary worked for 50 yrs, mother got married to Dad and did all the traditional things of a '40s-'50s housewife...kept house, cooked, cleaned, and chaired every committee, headed every fund drive, cared for friends' children while they had "nervous breakdowns." I think she would have loved a career, something involving travel perhaps-- when I moved from PA to SF she said "thank goodness, now I'll get to see CA!" She laughed at her many woman friends who thought Disneyland was next door to SF. loved coming to visit. I wish I could ask her what her career would have been. Teacher? Maybe. She started me reading mysteries at 8!

    My life has had some of each -- traditional housewife, then a return to college and a career. Now a nice long retirement to enjoy women friends, travel with husband, and fabulous beautiful grandchildren. Oh, and three book groups!

  25. Deb: First, I agree with all--so sorry for your mother leaving us, but glad she is no longer suffering. My mother died in May of this year, and she was a quasi-traditional wife for many years. She went back to "paid work" when her youngest child was five. It was hard on her since she insisted on doing a lot of the same stuff she had been doing, even though we other kids (four of us) were capable of doing chores, and we did.
    But! Once my dad died in 2011, and even though she was sick with breast cancer and terrible emphysema, she had a year of being on her own, and made some lady friends, who took her out and got her into finding a bit of herself. My mother was brilliant, funny, never complained, had a big drinking problem (depression, I suspect) and had to put Dad first because of his blindness and also because their marriage was just that way.
    I have never felt superior to her because I led a similar life to hers despite having four degrees--I have a husband with bipolar disorder, and we moved a lot due to issues relating to his disorder. I never had "real" jobs besides finally becoming a mother after years of infertility, and focused on raising our girls. Then, I went back to school for a degree in social work, moved AGAIN, could not find work, got a master of arts in teaching, went through Hurricane Rita right after Katrina, and could not live where we were due to no housing. You get the idea. I am almost 54, am questioned by interviewers where I was all those years/gaps between work, and find myself like my mom--undervalued, unappreciated for my skills, etc. So, yes I had some choices, but really, my mother made more of a success with her life than I did. Your mother obviously did a lot with her life, and was ahead of her peers by working alongside your dad, and doing things that many women of her time did not do, and that is remarkable. Plus, she raised a remarkable daughter, Deborah, who is a great writer, and a great mom.
    I think the fallacy(and I am a feminist)is that of choice. If we choose to be a life partner with someone, someone has to to compromise. We are criticized for being "domestic engineers," as I call myself, and that is not right. So, I think your mom made a beautiful sculpture out of poor clay (the times) and just got on with it, as did my mother.
    We all do the best we can, as we can, and that sounds cliched, but I think it has a strong basis in fact. Take care. Ann Flynt