Proper Young Ladies: Writing My Mother’s Shakespeare Essay

A high school feminist finds inspiration at home

“It’s true, you know.”

This is my mother.

“I could have been Barbara Walters. My grandmother wanted me to go to Radcliffe. But my father said I wasn’t allowed to go further than a one-hour plane ride or a 500-mile radius, so I had to go to Boulder.”

It’s almost 5 o’clock. She’s chopping parsley in a long black jersey skirt, men’s large purple t-shirt, Merrell clogs, and an apron. She’s chopping parsley to garnish her famous beef and barley soup. It’s famous because she makes it for anyone in the community who’s sick. It’s also famous because it’s delicious. (The trick is to caramelize the onions with a teaspoon of brown sugar before adding celery and aromatics). Our entire house periodically smells like this, like deep, gloriously stewed chuck. The earthy sweetness of meat-braised carrots. Plump pearls of barley drifting and softening in their descent.

This afternoon, Mom made a pot for Dave Schneider, an elderly widower who caught pneumonia and is staying around the corner at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home. She’s already portioned it into six single-serving microwavable containers.

“It’s all Cousin Milton’s fault. Cousin Milton went to the University of Chicago, but then, like Grandpa says, he burrowed a tunnel through Ohio to the east coast and emerged somewhere in New Hampshire and no one’s seen him since. Grandpa said he couldn’t stand it if I left. Since there was no way he’d pay for Radcliffe, I went to Boulder, got a degree in Education, then came home. That’s what good girls did. If you weren’t engaged or already married by the end of college, you came home to live with your parents and teach. That’s why my college roommate and I made a deal our senior year: if neither of us got a diamond ring by graduation, we’d buy two guns and shoot each other.”

“I went to Boulder, got a degree in Education, then came home. That’s what good girls did.”

I am 17, sitting at the white Formica kitchen table opposite the counter peninsula. I’m supposed to be working on an A.P. English paper about symbolism in Macbeth, but we seem to be having a conversation, so I ask, “Why didn’t you go to Mizzou?”

We don’t have a lot of conversations though we are both chatty, even outspoken. I don’t know yet this is a cover — our barrage of words, witty retorts, clever, social scatting. I don’t know that I’ve learned to mimic her mannerisms, waving my hand around when I finish a sentence to immediately disregard it, or glancing at the ground when someone asks me what I think. In the early ’90s, most middle-class Midwesterners didn’t casually toss around phrases like “learned behavior.” No one would have known — even I didn’t know — that depression smoked from both our corners like dry ice, just offstage.

While we don’t have a lot of conversations, she does often engage in her continuing lecture series, Acceptable Behavior For Proper Young Ladies. Popular addresses include:

Proper Young Ladies do not stay out past midnight.

Proper Young Ladies wait their turn to speak.

Proper Young Ladies do not “hang out” in groups with non-Jewish boys.

I used to question her strictness. In our previous house, The House On 87th Street, in District 66, a lovely, WASP-y neighborhood across town, I used to talk back. When I did, one of two things happened. First, without missing a beat, she glared at me and warned, Proper Young Ladies do not question their parents. Second, if I whined, argued, or pressed an issue, or if I used a tone she didn’t like (I don’t like your tone, Young Lady), the events, on more than one occasion, unfolded as follows: she came toward me to slap or shove me, I bobbed or backed away, she became angry, I ducked out of the room, she chased me, even up the stairs, and, feeling sufficiently enraged by my insolence, slapped me across the mouth, forced me onto the closed toilet seat or edge of the bathtub, and shoved a brand new, family-sized, golden bar of Dial Soap in my mouth. She’d wipe the sweat off her brow with the corner of her apron, then say, in clipped, quick enunciation, Don’t you MOVE until I say so. She left. I stayed. I retracted my tongue from the bubbling triclocarban and lye as best I could. The corners of my mouth stretched and dried out. I counted the watermelon-red Kansas Peonies in our neighbor’s bushes to pass the time.

In the early ’90s, most middle-class Midwesterners didn’t casually toss around phrases like “learned behavior.”

This is to say, we don’t often talk about things teenage daughters want to know about their mothers.

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Most nights, I see her through the crack in Lauren’s door down the hall. She sits on her bed and rests her hand on Lauren’s stomach, or brushes her hair with her fingertips, while my sister whispers to her, and she whispers back. Even though I’ve got my driver’s license, and my girlfriends and I giggle about the logistics of a blow job, I sometimes still want my mom to tuck me in at night. Because I’m a teenager, and I ache. When I think she might be in a gentle mood, I call her to my door before she goes back downstairs. She enters, and it’s a quick touch on my hand and peck on my cheek. Goodnight, honey.

“No…wait. Stay…”

“I have to finish things in the kitchen.”

“Mom…”

She remains in the doorway. “Fine. What do you want to talk about? You have three minutes.”

“Never mind.”

So instead of writing, I ask about Mizzou. The University of Missouri in Columbia, or “Mizzou,” is the oldest journalism program in the country. It still has a great reputation. It has cachet. It’s only 320 miles from Omaha, an afternoon drive.

“I don’t know, I was young and dumb. Nice girls went to Boulder and became teachers.”

Gloria Steinem-reading, Lilith-fair following me presses the issue with compliments — the best way to earn a response. “But you were reading Moby Dick in eighth grade study hall. You were editor of the yearbook. You could speak French. You actually could have been Barbara Walters. Why not Mizzou?” I can’t understand why, for her first act of self-determination outside a domineering 1950s father, she would choose a nice college that pleased her parents instead of one that would help her do the exact thing she always wanted to do. Until I did the same thing.

I can’t understand why, for her first act of self-determination outside a domineering 1950s father, she would choose a nice college that pleased her parents instead of one that would help her do the exact thing she always wanted to do. Until I did the same thing.

“It was just different then.” Her chopping intensifies. “What do you want me to say? That my whole life could’ve been different? That I might not be making this same fakakteh soup for the ten-thousandth time if I’d gone to Mizzou and gotten a degree in Journalism? Who knows? All I know is I love your father, and this is our life. When is your paper due?”

Her argumentative moves are not sound, but they are swift, sharp, and exacting. She rinses the knife. The conversation is over.

“Friday,” I say. Mr. Daly assigns Friday deadlines. Until I started teaching, years later, I never even thought about his weekends, filled with A.P. English papers and stylebooks, grading schemas, assignment rubrics. I just thought it was nice he gave us the weekend to read instead of write. My syllabi follow his model today. “I have two more days to explain the significance of the drumbeat sound in the dialogue.”

“Drumbeat sound? Uh, hellooo. Why aren’t you writing about Lady Macbeth? Ambition, revenge, power!”

I prefer the poetry but don’t know how to say so without sounding weak. When Mr. Daly read the first scene out loud to us, emphasizing the couplets’ end-word rhymes, I heard a drumbeat, and the story began with sound: “When the hurlyburly’s done./When the battle’s lost and won.//That will be ere the set of sun.” Uhn. Uhn. Uhn. That incantatory hum, the tragedy it incites, the inevitability of every character’s arc built directly into the rhyme scheme — this enchanted me beyond its measure. I wasn’t sure how I’d write four pages on it, but I wanted to be the kind of student who could. To my tender reader’s heart, Shakespeare’s poetry magic overshadowed and overpowered any ambition another crazy literary character harbored.

To my tender reader’s heart, Shakespeare’s poetry magic overshadowed and overpowered any ambition another crazy literary character harbored.

I simply say, “I already have a page and a half.”

She stacks the Tupperware into a Hy-Vee paper bag and mutters, “And you call yourself a feminist.”

“What does that mean?”

“I missed the Women’s Movement by two years…”

“You didn’t miss the Women’s Movement.”

“And here you are, with all the resources and stories and information at your fingertips, and you don’t think Lady Macbeth is a juicy enough character to…”

“I didn’t say that.”

“A woman who was smarter than her husband. Who had more chutzpah than anyone else in the story. Who wanted power. Who was sneakier, and took risks, and was willing to do anything to change her lot in life. And her own ambition killed her! She ultimately couldn’t take it! Her repression drove her to murder and madness, and you don’t want to explore that?”

“Should I?”

“If you want to write an interesting paper!”

“I wanted to write about how the lines sound like the coming war. Like, that the war is written into the sound of the couplets.”

“BO-RING! I mean, write whatever you want. If you want to write about sophomoric tedium, gai gezunterhait! (go in good health!). If you want to write a great paper, you’ll write about Lady Macbeth. But do whatever you want. What do I know. I’m just the mother.”

Her repression drove her to murder and madness, and you don’t want to explore that?

She turns the faucet on full-blast. She clangs the soup pot into the sink and begins scrubbing. My father bursts in from the den, from the door to the garage. He has a heavy step and enters yelling.

“Sue! I don’t have time for this! I gotta be down on 84th before 6 o’clock…”

“You don’t “gotta” be anywhere. You can pick up the check tomorrow morning…”

“Would you stop? I want to pick up my check and deposit it before the end of the day.”

“What difference does it make if it’s deposited at 6 p.m. today or 9 a.m. tomorrow?”

“Would you just — ?”

The water is still running on high, overflowing the pot.

She hands him the Hy-Vee paper bag. “Hold it from the bottom. And tell Dave we hope he feels better.”

He walks back through the kitchen toward the door that leads to the garage. He does not acknowledge me. “I’ll tell him if I have time.”

“You’re dropping off the soup. How will you not have time? You’ll have time to tell an elderly man you hope he feels better.”

“Jesus Christ. Will you just let me go? I’m taking it, aren’t I?”

He slams the door. She returns to scrubbing. I listen to the mechanical sound of the garage door slowly rolling closed, each wooden panel lurching forward, then folding, riding the rails down to the ground. Now I am uncertain of my own ideas.

She dries the pot.Lady Macbeth was a bra-burning feminist before her time. This is good. Write this down. She has no children to speak of, expresses no desire to have a child, and longs for a more powerful position in society.”

“Mom. She wants to kill the King of Scotland.”

“So she’s got a dream! Good for her! Are you writing? I’m giving you great material.”

I turn to a fresh page. The paper crinkles in its binding. I press the ballpoint tip to the notebook to show her I’m ready. She continues.

“Lady Macbeth was a bra-burning feminist before her time…”

“I thought they didn’t actually burn their bras.”

“…but she is still an excellent wife. She is the Lady everyone expected her to become, hosting dinner parties in velvet robes, blah blah, AND she supports her husband’s aspirations and helps him achieve his dream, all the while sacrificing herself for the good of the mission.”

“Mr. Daly said painting her as a martyr is a trap.”

“Is Mr. Daly a woman or a wife?”

“No, but he did say there are parallels between her and the witches.”

“Until recently, when wasn’t a strong woman compared to a witch? I’m telling you, Lady Macbeth was misunderstood, she was before her time, and that’s what drove her mad. If she wore a bra, she would have burned it. Are you writing?”

I am.

“So, you don’t think it’s a good idea to write about the poetry?”

“I mean, I think it’s obvious this is a better paper.”

I transcribe the five-paragraph essay she’s dictating off the top of her head and worry. What does it say that I can’t see the better idea as easily as she does? Am I less intelligent than my mother was at my age? Am I the overly sensitive girl she accuses me of being, trying to stand up for an unimpressive interest in patterns and sounds? And wasn’t it inappropriate to allow my mom to dictate a paper to me? Anxiety, which I won’t recognize for years, blooms in me like the peonies, fully globed and layered, peeking out in a hundred little places in various shades of embarrassment.

What does it say that I can’t see the better idea as easily as she does? Am I less intelligent than my mother was at my age?

She dries the dishes. She turns 90 degrees to face me across the counter peninsula. She opens her arms wide, purple towel in her right hand, 10-inch chef’s knife in her left. She raises the knife into the air and wields it during moments of emphasis:

“Moreover! Lady Macbeth would scoff at feminist poster girls like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Lady Macbeth understood what they did not — the power of working behind the scenes. Of making it look like her husband was in charge, when in fact she was the…the chazakah! (internal strength!)…he needed to continue his mission. Without Lady Macbeth, there would have been no play. Period! She might have been devious, and she might have killed people, but she knew what was socially acceptable and did not deviate from it. Oh. Ok. Here it is: Her ultimate strength. Lay in her ability. To portray herself as a Proper Young Lady.”

Arms wide open, she tips her head back to look at the heavens through our drywall ceiling.

“My God, I am so good at this.” Then, to an invisible audience, with the knife raised for battle, “Someone bring me the King of Scotland! I have some interview questions for him!” She thrusts the knife up into the air, triumphant, then turns to the counter, lays the knife down, and puts the dishes away underneath.

“So, her deception is her greatest strength?” I ask, scribbling down the last of her monologue.

“Of course! You could even start your conclusion that way: Deception is very, very powerful. Lady Macbeth’s power lay in her unassuming, proper, social behavior. No one would have known she, you know, blah blah blah…you know how to finish it.”

To the best of my ability, I wrote my mother’s paper. It earned a B+.

Mr. Daly wrote, “Interesting character study, but where are you in this, besides here?” He drew an arrow up to the middle of the third paragraph where I’d commented on Lady Macbeth’s quote from Act I, scene 5.

She and Macbeth are at Inverness, and he announces Duncan is arriving to their castle that evening. She says, “…and you shall put/This night’s great business into my dispatch;/Which shall to all our days and nights to come/Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.”

I wrote, “Uhm. Uhm. This sounds like hesitation, but it echoes the earlier drum beat sound. Sure, she’s ruthless, but maybe Lady Macbeth is letting on that she’s worried. In the first scene, the battle was way off in a forest, but now the sound of it is laced into her language. She can’t escape it. As long as she keeps saying what she does — which she has to, she’s just a character, she’s not really in charge — she can’t change course.”

“You could’ve gotten an A.”

This is my mother.

“See what happens when you don’t listen to me?”

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