How my mother made me a steampunk

My mother died late last month. She had an obituary written for her funeral, which was well-attended and struck all the right notes of sorrow, joy and comfort.  She had a proper send-off. And yet, because I’m somewhat odd, and I’m my mother’s daughter, I like to do things my own way. This is the way I mourn and celebrate my mother.

My mother gave me many things – love, support, moral guidance, strength, stability, a home, a sense of discipline.  But only last week, as I prepared to bury her (figuratively – she “didn’t want to be in the ground,” according to her closest sister), it struck me that she gave me the gift of stories. It wasn’t a gift that she could fully control, as I grew older, and I’m certain there were times she had cause to regret it. However, it is definitely a gift I cherish and one I hope to pass on to others.

Some things you should know about my mother. She was born just weeks after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. She was the daughter of a sharecropper in the Deep South, and the granddaughter of ex-slaves. Despite excelling academically, she had to quit school after the 8th grade to help her father and stepmother maintain the farm and the house and the still-growing family of 16 children (she was in the middle).

She was deeply pious. And she absorbed her father’s lessons: work hard, keep your head down, don’t look for trouble. And she did, until her wild, reckless husband started getting abusive, and she left him halfway across the continent and forged an independent life on the West Coast.  By the time I came along and was cognizant of things, she had been widowed but owned her own house. She didn’t listen to any music on the radio, but she always attended church and she loved Dodger baseball on the television, as well as the nightly news.

I don’t remember her reading to me, but she must have, when I was very little. She was proud when I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance along with the entire stadium audience at the start of a Dodger game. Prouder still that at age 4, I could read the billboards we saw as we drove by on errands and small trips.

The first stories she gave me were Bible stories, used books of Bible stories distilled for modern children. I also got my own Bible, so difficult to follow in some places, but thrilling in others. Curiously, she also let me have access to her magazines … Redbook, True Stories, Reader’s Digest. I read about true love, bad affairs and unwanted pregnancies long before anyone explained the mechanics of sex to me.

Her hobby was buying (or finding) old furniture and re-upholstering it — a talent she taught herself. And whenever she brought home a new-to-us couch or table, she also brought some used books for me.  One time, there was a little purple paperback of world mythology, with tales from the Greeks and Romans, but also the Egyptians and various Native American tribes, from parts of Africa and Japan.  I fell in love with mythology and ancient cultures. Another time, she brought home “Nightfall and Other Stories” by Isaac Asimov. I was my first science fiction and I read it repeatedly until the book nearly fell apart.

When I was 7, I began to press her to allow me to go to the library.  She was often reluctant, because she didn’t trust our neighborhood. I had to agree to go with other kids, often younger than I, and take only a certain pre-determined route — to be seen coming home down the wrong block was to risk a spanking with either a “switch” (i.e. a small branch from a bush outside) or a belt. But, once I got to the library … I could go anywhere. And often did.  I’d wander into the adult section after checking to see if there were any new Encyclopedia Brown and I’d find things such as the autobiography of an Italian-American gangster, or an analysis of 1960s culture, even a book on how  to use astrology as a guide to true love.

My mother was a very proper and religious Southern woman, but she let me read just about anything I could get my little hands on. It wasn’t until puberty that she started criticizing my reading choices. In high school, when she found the copy of The Hite Report on Female Sexuality that I had checked out from the library, she was absolutely livid.  But the floodgates had opened long ago. (Her first clue should have been when our pastor’s wife came up to me at age 6 and asked what was my favorite book of the Bible. My answer, said with great enthusiasm: “Revelations!” Because, hello, dragons!) Asimov led to the much beloved Ray Bradbury and then to the prickly, world-weary Vonnegut. I was on the cusp of discovering Philip K. Dick, which would then lead me to Harlan Ellison, and on to Octavia Butler and so on.

And now, many years later, I identify as a steampunk despite owning only one corset and not having a strong inclination for dress-up. But I relish the opportunity to immerse myself in new and old worlds; to consider technology, society and the human condition using the filters of the past, present and future; to play and muse and shiver in fear and growl with fury and shudder with pleasure; to have my imagination captured by words and images on a page or screen, or a scene set before my eyes.

It was mostly unintentional on her part, I suspect. When other people inquired about my bookishness, her general response was ‘well, she does so well in school and it keeps her out of trouble’. But I find that I must give her credit for leading me, indirectly, to Shakespeare, Whitman, Twain, Christie, Sayers, Gaiman, Westerfeld, Ballard, Byatt and many others.  To food writing, science fiction, fantasy, erotic poetry, regency romances, art deco mysteries, remixed fairy tales, and a great many other sorts of tales.

After going on for too long … thank you, Mamacita. Thank you for giving me the worlds — many worlds, in fact.  I will miss you.

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