Funny, Isn’t It?
By Jeanne Charters
My mother, (I never called her mom), Dorothy Jean Gibson Hackett, has been gone for many years, though never a Mother’s Day passes that I don’t think of her, sometimes with sweetness, sometimes, with a tartness that would occasionally rival her famous apple pies. “Granny Smiths—the only apples proper for baking!” But sometimes, she’d forget the sugar—if my father had in some way displeased her.
My mother was called by friends and foes a life force, a piece of work, a pisser, a corker, and a brat. She didn’t care. The one word that would have insulted her was one she used for others—common. And she was never that.
In my memory, she was a saint—and-Satan incarnate. And not in a bi-polar sense. Maybe most of us have the potential for such duality, but Dorothy Jean elevated it into an art form. She was that good.
She never drank. She never smoked. She baked every day of her marriage—cakes and pies. Cookies didn’t count as real baking. Each spring and fall, she washed down every wall in the house. As her only child, I was often put in charge of the baseboard. My cleaning of it never satisfied her, though. Soon as I was done, she’d go over my work and do it properly. My husband sometimes attempts to emulate her behavior, so I just go ahead and do things my way.
I hate housework to this day. I like to cook—hate to bake. But still love a good pie beyond all reason.
It was tough being the sole focus of her self-determined success as a mother. She was distrustful of people and brought me up to not trust neighbors or friends because only family was trustworthy. Everyone else was jealous.
Jealous of what you might ask? Beats me.
Now, my mother had reasons to distrust. The youngest of nine children, she lost both parents to tuberculosis when she was three, and lived in near poverty being reared by her Aunt Jewel and Aunt Mag, two maiden ladies, one of whom could cook and the other, sew. I’m not sure if, in those days, such children were named wards of the state unless someone claimed them. I’m also not sure if there was any social program that provided her aunts with an income. To my knowledge, neither of them ever held a job. How did they live? I have no idea.
Yes, being the only child of a woman like Dorothy was ummmm … challenging.
I was expected to be perfect, of impeccable sexual morality, and popular. Popular was a big deal in those days for girls. Good grades were expected. That came under the category of perfect. Fortunately, I did well in school. What would she have done had I been a non-traditional learner or a kid with dyslexia? Thank you, God, that wasn’t the case.
Fearing her ire, I followed the rules, married young and way too virginal, and never tasted alcohol until my thirties. I figure I was probably the only person who ever attended Ohio University without ever tasting a beer. I made up for that later. The virginal part, too.
It has been said by those who knew Dorothy Jean that, in another time, with her brains and energy, she could’ve been a CEO of any Fortune 500 company. I think that’s true. When she set her focus on something, her strategizing was unparalleled.
One thing she always set her sights on was getting tickets for the latest Broadway musical smash on our once-a-year trips to Manhattan. She had noticed that Sisters of religious orders got preferential treatment at the box office. My father’s sister was a Sister of Charity in Cincinnati. Mother badgered good old Sister Marie Eymard to lend her habits for years, but that was one subterfuge she couldn’t pull off. Sister Marie Eymard was as stubborn as Dorothy. Or maybe just a bigger saint.
Once, though, I remember when I was six or seven, standing there at the box office with her and hearing, “My little girl has leukemia. Her dying wish is to see South Pacific on Broadway.” I was old enough to be appalled at such a lie and to feel great guilt about being her pawn. I must say, though, that musical was great, from third row, center seats.
Years later, when I was married and living in New Jersey, I took her into New York to treat her to The Lenny Bruce Story. I had no idea that the three plastic cubicles at center stage would eventually revolve, exposing three totally naked males. Embarrassed and humiliated that I could have exposed my saintly mother to such debauchery, I scarcely noticed her nudge. When I leaned my ear toward her, she said, “Jeanne, did you happen to bring opera glasses?”
Funny, isn’t it, but you had to love her!
She was a fabulous grandmother. All the angst she felt trying to make me perfect seemed to evaporate around my four little girls. Their memories of her are sparkling, dotted with trips to the big slide in Snyder Park, and swimming parties at a neighbor’s pool.
With her, they would create miniature pies stuffed with buckeyes, which would magically transform into apple pies when they emerged from the oven. They really did think she could do anything. And she could.
I’m grateful to have had her for a mother. In spite of herself, she taught me to trust and love other women. Why wouldn’t I with such a powerhouse as my first female influence? When she died, her oldest granddaughter’s six-month-old baby girl, Lily, was crawling on her bed. Mother emerged from the coma long enough to see Lily and make that wonderful face that meant, “Ahhh, another one. My legacy lives on.” Then, she died. My daughter, Corinne, says she could almost feel her spirit entering little Lily. I think she’s right. Lily is a powerhouse, too—a lot like Dorothy, but without the tough childhood.
My husband and my daughters’ husbands call us “Ds” (for Dorothys) when they feel we are being pig headed. I’m D-2. My daughters are D-3s. The granddaughters are D-4s. There are worse things to be called, I think. She was a spectacular role model.
And she was never common.
Jeanne Charters, a transplant from New York, is a writer living in Asheville with her husband, Matt Restivo. Her collection of columns, “Funny, isn’t it?” is available at Malaprops, Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade, or at jeannecharters.com.
She has written three novels and has acquired an agent for her young adult novel, “Shanty Gold.” Jeanne is working on edits, per that agent, and hopes to have a publisher this year. She can be reached at email@example.com.