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DURING ONE OF THE TEXTING SESSIONS that became our habit over the period I now think of as both late and early in our relationship, my mother revealed the existence of someone named Janis Jerome. The context of our exchange was my need for context: two years earlier I had set out to capture the terms of our estrangement, to build a frame so fierce and broad it might finally hold us both.
If not an opponent to the cause, my mother was a wily associate—allied in theory but elusive by nature, inclined to defy my or any immuring scheme. The channel that opened between us across her sixties and my thirties spanned two countries and bypassed decades of stalled communication. We pinged and texted our way into daily contact, a viable frequency. This was its own miracle, a combined feat of time, technology, and pent-up need. As she neared seventy, the repeated veering of our habitually light, patter-driven exchanges into fraught, personal territory was my doing, a response to a new and unnameable threat. Perhaps she had felt it too: that there may not be time to know all the people I had been in her absence; that I might never meet the many versions of her I had discounted or failed to recognize. That we wouldn’t tell the most important stories.
If our withholding was mutual, it was part of a tradition I took from her, and she from her mother. I sought a context for this too, the narrative affliction so common to maternal lines and so little changed by a century of marked progress. If anything, the supposed release from pastlessness and isolation that kept a woman from imagining herself as universal—worthy of story and its ritual transmission—had further troubled a primary bond. “Mother-daughter relationships are generally catastrophic,” Simone de Beauvoir once observed. This we knew; this everyone knows. It has been understood too that the general catastrophe of mother-daughter relationships makes them less and not more interesting, unfit for inscription.
As much as anyone, I have manifested this view. For the better part of my life, only contemplating our relationship interested me less than contemplation of my mother. As a writer the subject appeared fatal. Our catastrophe represented an absence of imagination and vitality; it was where story went to die. By the time my mother introduced me to Janis Jerome, however, early in 2016, something had shifted. Unbeknownst to her, I had spent the previous two years struggling to articulate the terms of a new project—about legacy, feminism, and failure, questions I sought to examine and refract through the prism of mother-daughter relations. In my half conception of it, the project would rest in the shadow of my mother’s mortality, colored and inflected as I saw fit by the vague, theoretical specter of her loss. It would deploy specific elements of her life—our lives—to larger, abstract ends. As a matter of inability as much as instinct, it would privilege argument over plot, ideas over narrative, something else over straight memoir. When an editor asked that summer why I wanted to write such a book, I made a comment about it being the hardest thing I could do at that moment, like I had any idea.
Past seventy when she shrugged off mother-daughter affairs, Beauvoir refused to identify as a feminist for most of her life. As a product of similar if not the same confusions, I have found comfort in this. I see a heritage in it, however twisted, and heritage is what I seek. I had not turned to my mother for such things; she seemed to prefer it that way. Like her, I learned by example and lack of example not to look to the women closest to me for a sense of who and how to be, what was possible in life. Unlike her, I had a mother who had lived out a neoclassical epic of self-determination: 1970s housewife turned MBA turned CEO. Still, her example proved dim, her transformations hidden, their terms boggled. This appeared to me by design: the breach between us had not been a cost of her emancipation but its requirement. As a child I stopped seeing her clearly; in adolescence I stopped wanting to. I charged forth into an old and new kind of catastrophe: despite a near-complete failure to know my mother, my own becoming was both guided and thwarted by a determined effort not to become her.
Standing on the far side of that calamity, I began coaxing our relationship toward disclosure, background, dimension—a shared line of analysis. It was my habit and my handicap: inquiry as an act of love. If she saw it that way, my mother remained a slippery subject, too cool-minded and wildly individual to suffer grand unifying theories, or to share space with the dominant social movement of her time. I respected her resistance even as I weighed its consequence. Early in this process, her lack of interest in feminism interested me most: What was more feminist, I thought, than the purity of its confusion? I found her attitude perverse but not unfamiliar. I had sent at least one of my selves into the shadow sisterhood made up of women who learn to live for themselves, pretending a discrete existence, hoarding their petty freedoms.
I may have met my mother in that lonely place. I would not have known.
* * *
MY MOTHER MENTIONED Janis Jerome as though I might recognize the name. She had popped up that early spring evening—texting, per usual—with questions about that class, my puking dog, Mercy, and an outstanding payment for one of the contract gigs I used to slap together a living. When I complained, again, about the missing money, she urged me, again, to follow up, keep on it. She took a reliable interest in career and financial concerns, but I recognized her advice as an act of mothering by the way it reached one arm back toward the woman who had had to figure these things out for herself. Be persistent until you understand what’s happening, she went on.
When I started at Canada Trust almost 40 years ago, they were underpaying me
I pointed it out and my boss accused me of thinking only about money
Can you imagine
It was their mistake!!!!!
It made me furious
How did you figure out they were underpaying you?
I did the math
My salary was supposed to be 10,500 and they were basing deductions on 10,000
I had the letter!
But I was made to feel small for asking
It’s a thing with me
* * *
IN THE BEGINNING, they made her a clown. They had her bake cakes. At thirty-three, with a six-year-old and a toddler at home, she had answered an ad in the local Pennysaver: assistant coordinator of branch promotions for a national trust company that functioned as a bank. The job was her entry into full-time work. On Saturday mornings she would blow balloons and hang streamers while standing on check-signing podiums. She orchestrated “birthday” parties for branches opening around the city. She baked sheet cakes in our kitchen, wrapping nickels in foil and dropping them in batter-filled pans. Sometimes the cake paid a penny per slice. She would dress in a clown costume: rainbow wig, painted face, floppy shoes. The idea, I suppose, was to make customers feel at home, to promote the bank as another member of the family, with occasions to celebrate and a mother willing to make a fool of herself.
She felt too old for grunt work, to be hustling between warehouses and wearing jeans on the job. Within a year she had agitated for a promotion to product communications and a desk in the head office. I have no memory of my mother the clown. From this period I recall only the texture of white crusted icing giving way, the crumble of burnt yellow cake and beguiling tang of money in my mouth.
It was a thing with her: being underpaid, undervalued, undersold. Part of a new generation of girls educated as a matter of course, she had spent four years submerged in the grammar of a failing language, studying the epics and great myths. She earned a Classics degree in 1966 and entered an unreconstructed world, marrying three months after graduation and picking up teaching work where she could find it. Five years, a first home, and one baby later, it appeared she might repeat the course of her own mother’s life: raising children, following her husband’s career, adding tick after tick to a thousand-page cookbook. She feared channeling her mother in other ways: a darkness visited. Sitting in her perfect new dining room with her brilliant husband and precious baby, she would fall to sobbing. But this was hormones, stress, exhaustion. This was not her mother’s life.
Earlier that same year, an event advertised as a Dialogue on Women’s Liberation took place in New York City. Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and two other women joined Norman Mailer at Manhattan’s Town Hall for a much-anticipated debate. D. A. Pennebaker leapt through the aisles, collecting footage his codirector, Chris Hegedus, would eventually help shape into the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall. Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett had declined to join the panel. Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag sat in the audience. Greer, then thirty-two, gave a dazzling performance, dispatching Mailer with ease. He was made to play the glib, shabby fool; she emerged as a new kind of empress.
Only one moment rattled Greer’s command. Handed the mic where he sat in the audience, the poet John Hollander began by paraphrasing the first half of an Oscar Wilde quip: “All women come to resemble their mothers—that is their tragedy.” From there he asked Greer “how the transformations you envisage [for women] might result in a transformation of that theatrical down-curve.” Visibly irritated, Greer dismissed the question: “I can only say that I don’t resemble my mother at all,” she replied, “and [the question is] based in a false premise.” Diana Trilling, then sixty-five, filled the awkward, intervening silence. In fact she thought it a marvelous question, with far-reaching implications. “Who will a daughter identify with if not her mother?” Trilling wondered. “If women are not to grow by identification with their mothers, what are they to grow by?”
* * *
WHEN, AT THIRTY-SIX, my mother decided to leave Canada Trust and pursue a business degree, her boss jeered. Who did she think she was? He stood in her office doorway at the close of her last day, arms folded. Even with an MBA, he told her, you might find yourself back in your kitchen, eating bonbons.
She had also applied to law school. A professional income was the goal, enough to survive on her own if need be. At thirty she feared the marriage at the center of her world was beginning to unmoor. The sense of being undervalued as a partner crushed her before it made her furious. She would rise, still married but divided from that self, well-protected by a fat salary and her own place in the world. The law school’s rejection letter settled it: she would get an MBA.
Business schools were growing commodities just then, the new sure thing. Their share of total graduate program enrollments nearly doubled between 1975 and 1985. You might call it a movement, a dazzling mesh of systems, ideas, and aims; a culture unto itself, resolved in its vision of the value, order, and operation of things. My mother understood both her world and the wider one to be changing, and demanding change in turn. What was a woman to grow by? Who could even pretend to know? It was necessary—basic, urgent—simply to grow.
No part of this directive drew her closer to the thing called feminism. From my mother’s vantage, the movement then at hand was chaotic, excessive—opposite the secure, empowered, self-sustaining existence she sought. Its mission was overwrought, ill-defined, its promise too diffuse. Feminist identity was limiting, more pigeonhole than portal. Above all, it seemed to her, a feminist was an imprecise thing to be. Radicalized on first contact with a male-dominated profession, even as she seeded her independence my mother failed to see what all those shouting women in bigger cities had to do with her.
One of a handful of women in her section of sixty-some MBA students, in the program’s early months she panicked. The business school’s acceptance letter had expressed concern over her high school math transcripts, recommending a summer prep course. Management science gave her nightmares. When her economics professor made sadistic work of handing back test results, she would fume: I’ve got a house, a car, a husband, two kids—why am I taking this shit? Anger bore her down at her desk, each night and every weekend. By the second semester she was acing exams and collecting scholarship checks.
Midway through the program, she was hired as a financial analyst at a life insurance firm. She wore skirt-suits, not jeans, to her new office. She convinced a florist to waive delivery fees for a standing order, letting people wonder who sent the weekly bouquets. Fresh flowers on the desk, she thought, seemed like a female-executive kind of vibe. After a year on the job, shortly after her graduation, she was assigned to train a new hire, a man with the same title and position as her but no MBA. Asked to review an internal budget, she discovered this new hire was making a lot more money than she did. She went to her boss, then to HR, asking for parity. Both times the answer was no.
As we texted, my mother continued filling in the details of a story she’d never told me: another job came up, consulting work—well-paid but outside her domain. It was also in Toronto, a two-hour drive from our home in London, Ontario. Aware of my mother’s unhappiness at the firm, a visiting consultant had floated the offer. “Sounds tricky,” I wrote her. “Do you still know him?”
It was tricky
I do still know him
He certainly changed your life
He put the opportunity in front of me
Do you remember I mentioned Janis Jerome?
There’s a business case about that whole story
It’s called Janis Jerome
But it’s me
* * *
HOW MUCH had gone missing between us? To what version of me had she introduced this other version of her? I spewed questions. She made clipped replies. We kept doubling back over each other. A former professor of hers had written up my mother’s signal career decision as a business case: Beginning in the mid-1980s, MBA students at her alma mater considered the facts and decided whether “Janis Jerome” should leave her family and take the better job. A parallel case describes “Jack Jerome,” whose situation varied from Janis’s only in first name and gender pronoun. When they teach Jack, everyone votes for him to move for the great opportunity, she told me. When they teach Janis, they don’t think she should go.
But what’s the point of the exercise? Do schools still teach it? Where can I find it?
“I think the case was sold to Harvard,” she wrote.
Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Orange