My Mother’s Day, 1989
by Margaret Donovan Bauer
“The ultimate piece of nonconformism for a Southern woman is bookishness or any ostentatious devotion to learning. It is even more likely to isolate her from her class than are radical commitments or professional ambitions.”—Shirley Abbot, Womenfolks
My husband is graduating from college, and my mother-in-law calls to ask about parking at the basketball stadium, where the graduation ceremony will be held. I give her the information, as well as the name and address of the restaurant where we will meet afterward if we don’t find each other in the crowd of spectators. And then she asks, “Did you forget something?”
I pause, ponder, and respond, “No ma’am, I don’t think so.”
She chastises me for not telling her Happy Mother’s Day.
To which, I blurt, “You know, I’m claiming this Mother’s Day as mine. I got him through college. I paid for it, and I made sure he went to class. Yes, I think this is my Mother’s Day.”
My husband has overheard, and his eyes widen in horror at the tone I am using with his mother. But I will hand it to her: she readily concedes: Indeed, it is my Mother’s Day.
Her son is five years older than I. He started and quit college while I was still in high school and again while we dated when I was an undergraduate. After I earned a bachelor’s degree and we married, he tried college one last time and finished two years after I completed a master’s degree, two months before I will leave for a PhD program in another state. And only because I woke him up for school, helped him with his papers, and paid our bills, so he could work part-time. I also paid his tuition, because a man who often found that he just could not tolerate his “asshole” boss one more day does not have savings. During his sporadic periods of unemployment in between these jobs he spent whatever he managed to put aside while employed.
At the graduation ceremony, I sit with my dad and stepmother, feeling guilty that their sense of family obligation includes their son-in-law’s graduation. We have positioned ourselves above and across from where the College of Education graduates sit on the basketball court. I make no effort to find my husband’s family in the huge stadium, but I also cannot find my husband among the future teachers below. My eyes widen when I see him, and I quickly turn my head back in the direction of the new teachers, pretending to continue my search for him there. I don’t want to let on that I’ve found him but not where we expect him to be. How is it that I was able to pick him out of that huge crowd, sitting in the area for General Education? Did I somehow already know what he would confirm on the way to the restaurant after the ceremony? That his grades from his earlier efforts at college were so low he had never gotten his grade point average high enough for the College of Education. I am mortified and disgusted when I grasp the situation, which compounds my guilt that my parents are wasting their time here. He has duped me—again—withholding that crucial information from the wife who paid his tuition for the past four years. I do not point him out to my parents after spotting him. As rage begins to rise within me, I weep.
My stepmother reaches over and pats my hand. “You must be so proud that he’s finished,” she says. I am not proud. Fury and relief are replacing my inner embarrassment, but I smile as though her assumption about my tears is correct.
I have recently recognized—or rather, acknowledged—the implications of my husband’s pattern of being unable to keep a job. While we’ve been married, he was supposed to be finally fulfilling his dream of an Education degree that would allow him to become a high school coach like those he had idolized during his own high school days. Back when we were first dating, during my first years as an undergraduate, we imagined this romantic scenario in which we would both work at the same high school, maybe even the very high school we’d both attended, where he had once been on the football team that won the state championship. This was the highlight of his life.
After I graduated, certified to teach, and he moved in with me, I agreed to pay for his tuition with my own savings because I believed that if he earned his teaching certification he would enjoy his work and not quit after a few months, his pattern since I’d known him. A pattern that won’t change, I realize when I see him among the students who have just earned a college degree that is not directed toward any particular career.
But his tendency to blame others for his job dissatisfaction—his bad luck that every supervisor in every job he ever had turned out to be an asshole—is no longer my concern, I remind myself as I look down at him from the bleachers. I am leaving him.
I had tried to leave him with the one thing I could give him: the credentials for his dream job, a dream I no longer shared as I now aspired to teach at a university. It was time for me to admit that his desire to be a high school coach was just another bullshit story he told to impress me early on because of my own plans to teach after college.
Recently, too, I have begun to understand the significance of my own behavior, particularly my having not walked out on this doomed relationship years before—indeed, before we got married. I have always found it easier to endure a bad situation than to confront someone. Such endurance is not unusual for women, and in the Deep South, women are still largely subservient to—and defined by—their husbands, even when it is the wife who is making things happen in her family. Once I became half of a couple, like so many women I knew, I forgot who I was outside of it.
Then, during my graduate classes, I began to remember the person I was before I tied myself to him. I had been voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by my high school class. I wanted to be a writer, as well as a teacher, so I became a double major in Creative Writing and Education. No one suggested to me that I could be a college professor, and most of my university professors were men. But the high school teaching job I landed as I approached my own undergraduate graduation fell through while I was in a summer abroad program. I returned to learn that the teacher I was to replace was not leaving after all. Her husband didn’t get transferred. I’d already moved to Lafayette for the job, and the only other English teacher position available was at a junior high all-girls Catholic school. The Catholic school I attended was co-ed, but I remembered too well junior high girls. No thank you. So I fell into graduate school to pass the time until I found another high school teaching job.
And I agreed to the man who finally moved out of our hometown to move in with me and go back to school, try again to get that degree he’d claimed he wanted so that someday, we could find those jobs we’d dreamed of, together at some high school.
While he struggled with the requirements of a degree that would allow him to return to the high school football field and basketball court, I fell in love with my literary studies and found out I could teach college students.
And yet I planned a wedding to marry this man, in spite of all of the red flags that revealed we were not compatible for the long-term. In short, he’d gone from being impressed by what made me different from girls he’d dated before me—largely my career ambitions—to being resentful of the time I put into earning my degrees. The first degree meant I lived two hours away from him, and in my senior year in college, he decided he didn’t like being alone so much. I panicked over the potential end to our relationship, failing to realize the significance of the fact that he was quitting right when we were getting closer to being able to live in the same town if we chose. Just another example of his resistance to really committing himself to something. I held on tight, rather than letting him go, and a year after I graduated, we married.
Working on the second degree introduced me to more people with my own specific interests in Southern literature. I was finding these new classmates’ company more stimulating than my husband’s friends, who enjoyed hanging around their living rooms talking about their children. I wanted to go out with these new classmate-colleagues and talk about the novels we were reading for our classes, the ideas we were pursuing in our papers on these novels.
How many of my parents’ friends remarked to me over the years, “You always had a book with you.” I learned early that would cure boredom if our parents got caught up in their partying, and we got stuck much longer than expected at someone’s house with no other children to play with. I would find a corner and read. I had imagined writing books like that, but my graduate school papers took me in a more scholarly direction with my writing. And one day my favorite professor called me into his office, essentially, to kick me out of the nest.
“You need to apply for other graduate programs for your PhD,” he told me, though I was over a year into coursework for the PhD program there by this time. “Our graduates get jobs in community colleges. You belong in front of a research university classroom,” he said, adding, “And it would be a good idea for you to get your third degree outside of Louisiana. It’ll give you an edge on the job market. Show potential employers you’re flexible.”
But was I? I was married by then, as I say, and my husband could barely stand to live forty-five minutes from our hometown. How was he going to feel about moving to another state?
I knew how he’d feel, and that pretty much quenched my own fear of such a drastic change to my own life. I would leave without him and finally escape this relationship without the fallout my mother had suffered upon leaving my dad a decade before. I applied to graduate programs, accepted an offer to attend the University of Tennessee, and was planning my move. Unbeknownst to him or anyone except my mother, I would make that move alone. I’d just been waiting until he graduated to tell him, so as not to give him an excuse to quit again and blame me this time for upsetting him with my impending desertion.
Sitting through the long graduation ceremony, as one degree-program of students after another stands up for their Dean to pronounce them graduated, I fantasize various ways of venting my rage. In one scenario, I don’t find my husband after the ceremony to ride with him to meet his family at a restaurant. I tell my dad and stepmother of my decision to leave him and ask them to drop me off at home. I wonder if I could get a locksmith to change the locks before he comes home. Is the upstairs window painted shut? I could lock myself in, start packing for my pending move, and throw his stuff out the window to greet him on his return.
In another fantasy, I stand up in the restaurant in front of my husband’s whole family, raise my glass, and say, “Congratulations. To all of you. He’s all yours now. I am not his mother, and I am done taking care of him.” I would then walk out, go home, and start packing: my stuff in boxes, his, in this scenario too, right out the window.
I play those scenes over and over in my mind to entertain myself during the tedious graduation ceremony. But we do not make scenes in my family—hence my fear of confrontation. So on the ride to the restaurant I ask my husband, “What the hell?” He makes his usual excuses, and we both put on our we haven’t been fighting faces before we walk into the restaurant to celebrate with our families. My excuse for my cowardly quiet during dinner that evening is that I cannot so discomfort my father and stepmother, who are at the restaurant too. What would they have done, sitting there with my husband’s family, after I made my fantasy speech and walked out? Followed me? Made excuses for my rudeness?
Ordered champagne for the whole table because I had finally seen the light?
They might even have applauded, at least on the inside. They will get to applaud soon enough, I tell myself. For now, I will keep my secret, just as I do not point out to either of our families that the B.S. my husband just received is in bullshit.
I know something no one at the table knows: when I leave to pursue my PhD, I am going alone. I am thinking as Mrs. Mallard does in Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” the very short story that ignited my desire to study literature, “free, free. . . . Free! Body and soul free!” And I am guessing that whether they say it aloud or not, not only my parents but also his will understand. I have raised their chick for them, and now I am leaving the nest.
A native of south Louisiana, Margaret Donovan Bauer is the Rives Chair of Southern Literature and Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. In 2017, she received the North Carolina Award for Literature for her two decades as Editor of the North Carolina Literary Review. She is also the author of four books on Southern writers, most recently A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara’s Literary Daughters, but since that book she has turned to writing memoir about growing up in deep South Louisiana. Read her previous work in Deep South here.