When our father passed away, my sister discovered three little dresses in our mother’s cedar chest. Fashion wise, she determined they had been mine, worn sometime between 1968 and 1970. I happily brought them home, and when I took them to the dry cleaners to prepare them for storage, I noticed the one that was my first little Easter Dress came from Neiman Marcus.
A couple of notes here: no, we didn’t buy all of our clothes at Neiman Marcus, however, it was a place my mother loved shopping for special occasions. My first memory of a dress from Neiman’s was a pink and white gingham dress to wear for my cousin Judy’s wedding when I was four.
Also, can you imagine how labor intensive bringing in new merchandise was for Neiman Marcus back then? To sew tiny Neiman Marcus labels in every item of clothing it sold?
But I digress. Sort of.
See, my mother’s love language was gifts. She love getting gifts, but moreover she loved to buy gifts. Though I never recall her loving grocery shopping the way I do, one of her favorite excursions was to go to go shopping for clothes. It didn’t matter if the clothes were for her, my sister, my father, or I. And some of my fondest memories are of going to one of the big malls in Dallas and making a day of it. Not just shopping but having lunch out at a fancy tea room or creperie.
To this day, I cannot eat a popover with Strawberry butter, sip a cup of chicken broth, or dine on chicken salad served atop a salad without thinking of good times with my mother.
Though these forays to Dallas didn’t happen more than once a year or so….and though my play clothes came from Sears or JC Penny’s…my mother ensured that I was always well clothed. We shopped for clothes three or four times a year: for back to school, for Christmas, for Easter, and for Summer.
We also ate well. Though I never really liked some of the basics when money was tight like red beans or wieners and sauerkraut, I don’t recall ever going to bed hungry or worrying where my next meal came from. When times were good, we ate out at least once a week. I vaguely recall a year when we ate out almost every meal, my mother having tired of cooking.
I owe my love of shopping, love of food, and love of reading to my mother. All things that carry me through this life with a sense of joy and love. All areas that fuel my creative life. These are imprinted on me, a part of the very make up of who I am.
On the question of Nature VS Nurture, I can tell you that Nurture matters.
Back in December, I shared with you the story of finding my birth mother. I wrote that piece mere days before I got on a plane and spent four days in Southern California. After several months of regular emails, I knew it was time for us to sit down across the table from each other.
To look into each other’s eyes and be willing to bear witness to the lives that began together with flesh and bone and traveled different paths for the last forty-nine plus years.
We had agreed to meet in the lobby of my hotel. I had risen that morning at 3 AM Eastern and it was 5 PM pacific when I walked downstairs. I was tired and wired.
And I knew her immediately.
It was like looking into a mirror in the future in so many ways.
We had a glass of wine thanks to my hotel’s Wine Hour and chatted as we people watched. She wanted to know all about the girls, the extension of this connection of blood and bone.
Though we had emailed for months and shared DNA, we were still strangers. Well, familiar acquaintances. The way in which you may feel about me: someone familiar, someone whose story you know a piece of, someone who feels like a friend. Yet, if we were to sit down over a glass of wine or cup of coffee, we would discover that neither of us had tapped the surface into each other’s real stories.
She’d told me in a phone conversation that when she came home from the maternity home, no one talked about her experience. The theory those days was that a young woman that “made a mistake” should simply go back home, get on with their life, and pretend that nothing had happened.
Yes. Pretend as if the previous nine months of your life hadn’t existed. That you hadn’t given birth to a baby.
After sitting out a year of high school, most folks, including her mother and father, were surprised that she wanted to go back and get her diploma. She did. She graduated high school and went to work. When she learned to read in elementary school, she realized her mother didn’t k now how to read well. Of course she couldn’t understand her desire to learn.
When she moved out to California, she wanted more for her life, so she began going to college in her thirties, getting a degree in accounting.
Life had never been one of ease or privilege for her, so she learned to figure things out. Once she faced any kind of crisis, she figured out how to not repeat the same mistake.
My love of learning, my need to research until I find answers, my understanding of how scientific research can be translated into actions I could take in my every day life.
On the question of Nature VS Nurture, I can tell you that Nature matters, too.
As humans, I believe one of the most important responsibilities we have is to bear witness to the lives of others. Unfortunately, there are so many people out there who have not had anyone, or at least many folks, willing to witness her life.
Not speaking about me for almost fifty years meant that the stories of her life came tumbling forward. My responsibility: to be the witness to these untold stories.
My life was never perfect, and often challenging. However, it retained an essence of sweetness and naivete.
It was nothing like hers. At least for her first forty years.
It’s something most of the people I know share, threads of connection with the lives of their parents that repeat generation after generation. A love of cooking or reading or a flair for design. Yet, despite the connection of nature, our lives had been vastly different.
My love of food was due to pleasurable memories of Christmas dinners and the results of good old southern cooking. Her first memory of food is meeting her stepfather when she and her brother were dumpster diving behind his bakery because they were hungry. He fed the kids and gave their mother a job.
She moved ten times before she was ten. She thought that throwing whatever you could in a trash bag and gong to a new place was how everyone did it. Too many homes she can remember had wheels. She didn’t live in a house with a real foundation until her late thirties or early forties. She’s lived in more than five states.
I have lived at only five addresses my entire life. I never left Texas for the first forty-two years. Hell, I never left Tarrant County Texas those first forty-two years. Every home I’ve known has had a solid foundation, sturdy walls, reliable heating and cooling, and more of what that stood for: stability.
Home, oh my love of creating a sanctuary within my home, is something deeper within me. A love for making home, something I think all humans crave, is more easily translated when you’ve experienced stability.
She got new clothes when school started, but the idea of updating her wardrobe to account for changing weather or various seasons was foreign. When she went to court on the day her stepfather adopted her and became her father, she wore a dress that was so short it showed her underwear. No one had noticed she’d had a growth spurt.
Not only were their no special occasion dresses bought at Neiman Marcus, the idea of shopping as a delightful day out was never a part of her fond childhood memories. Childhood memories of clothes are more akin to reminders of shame, neglect, and poverty.
Nature VS Nurture? Nurture wins hands down when it comes to the experiences.
Over my four days in California, we shared a meal to accompany her stories. I visited her home twice. An opportunity to witness how far her life is now compared to the life of her childhood. She has a sturdy home now. She also has reliable transportation, a bike she enjoys riding, and cats. Her husband is loving and not abusive, though he does have some Vietnam War related illnesses that are challenging.
Her life is solid. Not without challenge, but everyone has challenges.
We are back in our rhythm of regular emails and the occasional card via snail mail. I know that the decision she made fifty years ago to allow me to share her body and then release me into a different life was one of the best decisions a young woman of seventeen could have made. Most of us women are wired, by nature, to want our children to have a better existence than we’ve known. Her life was hard, and would have been harder trying to care for a child.
My life was far different from the kind of life I could have known. My life was rich with beautiful things, books, and love. I carry with me the privilege of being tended, nurtured in the ways in which all children should be, with all of my needs met.
Going to California was one of the most important things I’ve done the last few years. I left awash in both gratitude and guilt. For nature and nurture.
“Perhaps we are born knowing the tales of our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first bear them is not of surprise but of recognition.”
― P.L. Travers
About the Author: Debra Smouse
Debra Smouse is a self-admitted Tarnished Southern Belle, life coach, and author of Clearing Brain Clutter: Discovering Your Heart’s Desire and Clearing Soul Clutter: Creating Your Vision. When she’s not vacuuming her couch, you’ll find her reading or plotting when she can play her next round of golf. She’s the Editor in Chief here at Modern Creative Life. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.