Binders Full of Women: Getting to Know My Mom(s)

Couple looking through photo album together
Couple looking through photo album together

As I write out this heading, I can't help giggling at the irony. A few months ago, the phrase "binders full of women" was an embarrassing political gaffe that epitomized condescending male chauvinism; an instant punch line that lingered for a few days until after the election and then went away. It now serves as an appropriate and loving metaphor for the complex mind and soul of the first woman in my life.

A couple of weeks ago, my sisters and I cleaned out our mother's storage unit a full year after her death. Her personal papers ended up at my house in several boxes. My mom saved everything -- greeting cards, brochures, invitations, library cards, letters, poems, college assignments, postcards, scribbled notes, doodlings, you name it. So I began sorting out all these articles and organizing them in binders for easy access.

Opening this treasure trove of personal archives has been a mind-blowing revelation. My mom and I always enjoyed a close, affectionate and candid relationship, well-grounded in truth, spirituality and humor. Still, my perception of her while growing up was always sort of one-dimensional. Only when I step back and look at the big picture do the other dimensions emerge. Cosmetically, mom morphed from one type of woman to another every few years, making for a fascinating photo gallery. But that only tells a fraction of her story. There are certain things mothers don't share with their sons, and other things that my mother didn't share with anyone. So for the first time, I've been getting to know who she really was. Not just one woman, but in fact several, often all at once.

I had no idea, for example, that she was a brilliant and prolific poet. She kept journals and diaries off and on through her adult life, but her poems, which took up one of the larger binders, are the real window into her psyche, laying bare her fears, doubts, simple pleasures, eroticism, pet peeves and frequent acknowledgement of her mortality. She would also write out lyrics to Beatles songs, their works being her paradigm of poetic genius. One notebook she kept as a teenager listed titles of over fifteen hundred pop songs she enjoyed listening to.

I came to understand my parent's relationship -- and its demise -- a lot better. I grew up listening to my mom and dad fight, but never knew exactly why. Letters between them paint a picture of two somewhat co-dependent, fierce individuals, whose passion for each other was often matched by deep contempt for themselves, which was a constant frustration they endured for over four decades.

Letters to friends reveal a young woman at the crossroads, struggling to reconcile the old world conventional values with a barrage of new freedoms and ideas spewing from the social geiser that had sprung open in the 1960s. Even as a young child preoccupied with toys and cartoons, I was keenly aware that I was growing up in a non-conformist environment, with the only parents on the block, even the neighborhood, who dressed hip, smoked dope and listened to rock and roll. But I never got my mother's take on the experience before now. In today's 24-hour convenient infotainment cosmos, anything goes, until it doesn't. Sex, drugs and rock are practically available over the counter and are discarded just as easily. In my parents' day, there was much more at stake than just good times. They knew they were putting their whole world on the line in the name of cultural and philosophical evolution, and once they decided to jump in, they had to commit. There was no turning back. For my mother, it was often scary and confusing and sometimes complete chaos, but deep down, it felt right. In her mind, her lifestyle changed her life for the better, produced some open-minded, compassionate kids and helped her find her calling years later as an effective family counselor.

This exhilarating new understanding of how my mother lived also brings with it a sobering understanding of how she died. Her writings revealed an emptiness within her that appeared off and on through most of her life and consumed her in later years, making her last decade on earth painful in so many ways. But I choose not to wallow in the same darkness (she wouldn't have it) and I welcome it along with all of this new knowledge. It makes me grateful for everything that I am and that I have in life, and it all comes together to tell the story of a multifaceted woman I had previously thought I knew everything about. I hope I can give the same gift to my child when my time is up.

I'll wrap this up with a brief poem from the binders. Thanks for the gaffe, Mr. Romney. And thank you, Mom.

A Blatantly Sentimental, Unsophisticated Poem Recalling My Children When They Were Small

Stemless flowers
In a chubby fist

A heartfelt hug,
A warm, wet kiss

Shoes on the wrong feet,
knotted laces

My universe shines
In their tiny faces.

- Hallie Murphy