This grand narrative that constitutes social identity is nothing more than the sum of individual stories told between pairs of individuals. Think about your relationship with your parents. You have a particular story that you tell if you are asked to describe your relationship to your mother. She also has a story. Your story may change, depending on who you are talking to; you may add some details and leave out others. Your relatives have stories about your mother…so do her friends, and yours. Anybody who knows her contributes to her social identity. The sum total of stories about your Mom is the grand narrative of who she is.
This passage doesn’t say anything too unexpected. After all, I feel as though I’ve always known that the stories we tell are ways of constructing our reality. But Conley has a way with words. This passage, weeks after I first read it, arrested me often, and at unexpected times. And last month, when I went to Caldwell, Idaho to visit my family, the line “She also has a story,” repeated itself over and over in my head. I looked at my mother, and tried to place myself into the grand narrative of her life. It’s not a story I particularly like. I think sometimes, that the plotline is unfortunate, and that there are simply too many foils. Though I didn’t always, I now disagree with God, whom she tells me is the “author” of her life story, regarding “the fundamentals” of human nature and human experience, which He incorporates, rather too heavy-handedly, I think, into the prose of my Mother’s life. It makes it hard sometimes, to sympathize, or even relate to my Mother. In my least sympathetic moments I think she is amazingly complex, as far as fictional characters go. But I make up for such uncharitable thoughts by remembering that she too, possesses agency. Someday, I think, she’ll be courageous enough to snatch the pen from God’s hand and fill in the blank pages of her future self. But there are a number of cunning deterrents in her way. For example-- the minister of the church my family attends, a staunch Baptist congregation of only roughly 150 members, once said that Godly women are like precious vases. It was a Mother’s Day sermon, and the delivery was so sincere that I almost fell for it. My pastor asked the congregation this: if you possessed a vase, say something many centuries old, in perfect condition, beautiful beyond description, and worth millions of dollars, what would you do with it? Certainly, he continued, you would make every effort to preserve and care for it. Certainly, it should be visible, on display in the most prominent room of the house. Perhaps you would put it in a display case. You would treat it with pride and with respect. My Mother does her best to be a “precious vase” in her role as a wife and mother, striving for an ornamental virtue. “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies,” the Proverb says. It is enough for my Mother that God declares her worth rubies; it is one facet of her story, one narrative she lives within. I, however, cannot help but ask: what are rubies really worth? What can a beautiful, antique vase do? My Mother would not ask these questions. To her, they don’t matter; the analogy is just that—an analogy. One of inner worth derived from faith and moral virtues. It’s difficult to argue against virtue, and my Mother is a very virtuous woman. Perhaps that’s why, for so long, I hadn’t the courage to ask even myself why my pastor’s comparison of virtuous women to valuable vases felt not like true admiration or appreciation for our sex, but rather like a rhetorical device, designed to make our sex believe that we are most useful, most distinctive in predetermined roles, designated not by God, speaking through the pen of a man—a king, apparently—named Lemuel, who described the virtuous woman of Proverbs chapter 31 excelling not just in the roles of wife and mother, but also those of business-woman and administrator. According to this Biblical passage a truly virtuous woman might also be an entrepreneur, a real estate agent, a chef, and a minister to those in need. She is admired and respected both inside and outside the home. Unfortunately, my pastor declined to discuss this aspect of the chapter, because docile bodies, as Foucault described the compliant masses, are, like million-dollar vases, best kept in a controlled environment. And because God, whether He is really culpable or not, has been appropriated. Words have, for centuries, been shoved into His mouth, to the point where many submissive wives, like my Mother, can no longer distinguish between God and the man in the pulpit, not to mention all the other men who have shaped Christendom throughout the millennia.
If you were to ask my mother, she would tell you that I am the prodigal eldest--and in her more charitable moments, she might assure you that someday, I’ll relinquish the pen, and allow God to complete his interrupted masterpiece. That I too, will someday attain million-dollar vase status. But I don’t think so. As I grew older, I became ever more discontent with this and the several other motifs that accessorize my mother’s patriarchal belief system. I don’t want to be merely pretty, and am constantly disappointed to see woman, young women especially, constantly reducing themselves to the merely ornamental, because they don’t know how else to assert themselves.
It’s hard going home. It’s hard, because I want badly, very badly sometimes to appreciated. As a woman, yes, but also as a daughter. For the first 18 years of my life, I was my Mother’s companion and confidant in a world where few convictions could resonate in the marketplace of ideas. If my Mother is aware that she lives in a male construct of reality, socially and spiritually, she justifies it, and dutifully. I can’t honestly blame her, but am critical of her choices because many of them seem made on the basis of fear. She is often fearful, and her fears cause her to react negatively toward people and situations that challenge the role she has practiced and honed. In college, I realized the importance of authenticity in constructing one’s identity and I changed in ways that upset my family and many of my friends. To their minds, I was rejecting a universal truth. I am perhaps not much more authentic than the person I was as a teenager. I am aware that many of the choices I make are not made from personal conviction or conscious volition. But I feel now, that I have the freedom to evaluate myself, where I didn’t before, and that I needn’t rely on a set of static analogies and metaphors to define the roles I fill as a woman, a wife, a student. I do not have to be a precious vase.