Natasha, my mother, didn’t learn anything from her mother about the fine art of motherhood. I in turn, feel that I had to invent the whole thing almost from scratch, when my daughter was born.
Helena, my grandmother, was a Russian chemist married to an attorney. They fled the Russian Revolution and, after wandering through Europe, ended up in France, my mother’s country.
Inspired by the vision of a modern, more just and creative society outside of the grip of czars and Bolsheviks, Helena dreamt of a new kind of womanhood. Women, she told Natasha, will not need to cook, clean, wash, iron laundry or raise kids in traditional ways — and their spouses, enlightened men also, would not expect them to do any of that. Women were thinkers and inventors destined to change the world.
As my mother told me, in Helena’s mind, the only things a modern woman would need to know were to ride a bicycle, type at high speed, speak different languages, be a good conversationalist, study, work and dress well. Food would come from containers, ready to eat, so you’d just need to learn how to heat it. Dresses and all clothing would be made of disposable materials, so no need to wash or iron. Houses would be self-cleaning, so no need to mop or dust. Kids would be loved and spoiled and mentally stimulated, but all other related practical things like diaper changing, food, cleanliness and fresh sheets would be taken care by a gentle robotic apparatus — and so on.
The only thing that really mattered was knowledge and finding ways to teach it.
My mother married in Paris to an Andalusian exile from the Spanish Civil War. They moved to Venezuela in the late 1940s and gave birth to my brother and me.
Let’s say she followed as closely as she could on her grandmother’s advise. She was a writer, a great intellectual, multilingual, a tender, caring person who knew how to type and ride a bike, ski and play hockey. She also knew how to keep a spotless house and ironed like a wizard.
Cooking remained a mystery that she never wanted to solve.
But she did teach us how to think and listen and to read incessantly, to conjugate verbs in Spanish, French and English, and to play.
She loved geography and bought us colored crayons to draw maps and taught us how to use different kinds of blues for rivers and oceans.
I still love maps, and I confess that ironing and sewing are the mysteries that I never want to solve.
My daughter in turn, married a man who loves to cook. Smart!