A few eons ago, when I was young and writing my doctoral dissertation on archetypal transfigurations (i.e. versions, re-imaginings) of Jonah and Job in modern American literature, I began to collect whales. Not real ones, of course, that would be wrong—and impossible, given the size of my place. No, I was doing what every self-respecting tourist on this planet does—collecting bits of meaning from flea markets and antique shops to clutter up my living space and collect dinosaurs of dust. Not about to trust my own senses about experience on planet earth, I instead opted for brass or wood or stuffed icons of whatever fetish struck me at the moment. So focused was I on the archetype of the whale that I began to see whales almost everywhere, from weather vanes to cuckoo clocks, from great art to children’s toys.
At this time, my mother, bless her heart, thought to assist me in my temporary obsession and so began to purchase—mice! Not the real ones, mind you, that would be wrong—and icky. No, she bought every stuffed, painted, crocheted, molded, and metal mouse figurine she came across. As a certified black belt in shopping, my mother could (and did) shop almost daily. Her only rule was that if she left the house, she never returned empty-handed. I know she meant well, in her obtuse way, but I was not interested in mice, just whales. She wasn’t dumb, but she thought that I should be collecting mice, not whales, and she was sure I’d eventually recognize her wisdom once she had filled my house with tiny, cutesy vermin.
She did the same thing to me when I was a child, always buying clothes that she liked, in the colors and patterns that she preferred. The problem? She was a brunette and could wear red and yellow, for instance, and still look beautiful. I, on the other hand, am a porcelain blonde with deep blue eyes, so white washes me out and yellow makes me look bilious. Red makes me look like Dracula’s intended—not an especially appropriate image for a young girl. I preferred blues and purples and could even pull off green, if it was heavily loaded with blue rather than yellow. She did not care, however, what I wanted, only what she knew that she looked good wearing. She was very intelligent, but this was an area where logic completely escaped her.
Over time, following endless discussions that inevitably turned rather loud, occasionally I could convince her that I knew what I wanted and what was best for me. She pretended to acquiesce, even as she (perhaps, unconsciously) plotted ways to undermine my sense of self. Somehow, she always managed to embarrass or humiliate me, often in such an insidious way that observers failed to see what she was doing. To them, she would appear the proud parent, concerned for her frail daughter’s welfare, which somehow justified her meddlesome interference in my affairs. What mother, upon meeting her daughter’s employer for the first time, would announce to him and the professional world that she was so happy someone had finally hired me, as she feared I would never find a job?! I was an excellent student and a terrific teacher, a very good writer, and a decent human being, but to my mother I was the tiny girl who couldn’t run (and, thus, would always be a burden to her!).
Maturity lessened the hurt, or at least any outward sign of the pain she inflicted, and I stopped trying to use reason and common sense against her machinations. I let her rail on about my shortcomings and would then change the subject. Arguing with such a person gives her fuel for her fevered imaginings. As an adult, I accepted her unwanted gifts, even thanked her, but would not wear the wrongly colored or badly designed items, except on rare visits home. I let her think she was right, except in cases of life and death, and that made her happy. But I lived my own life and kept my own counsel, for better or worse…
So, then, this whale problem. No, this mouse problem. I attempted to explain to my mother that I had no interest in mice, but only whales. So she calmly explained to me that mice were easier to find in the shops and flea marts she attended. She couldn’t find any whales to buy me, so she got mice instead. It was as if I had asked for water and she had brought me an anchor in its place! Assuming that she just didn’t understand the symbolism of the whale and its importance to me as I wrote about Jonah in literature, I tried to explain how important the image was, from the whale that swallowed Jonah to Moby-Dick, the great white whale in my favorite book, to the leviathan in Job, and how they were employed as metaphors for more significant things. I might as well have been speaking French or Klingon. Hers was a simple, black-and-white world with no room for metaphor.
To her, it was just an animal, so I should be happy with her choices because mice were cuter… So, I began to wonder what the literary world would be like if my mother had her way about animals chosen to represent deeper meanings. So, Jonah, attempting to escape God by sailing to Tarshish, is thrown overboard in a storm and is swallowed by a great MOUSE. And Ahab destroys his life and the lives of his men by his fatal quest for the great white MOUSE that took off his leg. And as God yells at Job for his chutzpah at questioning His (God’s) decisions allowing Job’s sufferings, He asks, where were you when I made the great MOUSE?
Sandburg’s “the fog crept in on little mouse feet…” (mice feet?). Burns wouldn’t have to change a thing, but Kilmer might—“only God can make a mouse.” Richard III could rail against fate: “a mouse, a mouse, my kingdom for a mouse.” Art? The Mousa Lisa and the Last Mouser. Twain: “Mousing It,” “Jumping Mouse of Calaveras County,” “The Mouse and the Mouser,” “A Connecticut Mouse in King Arthur’s Court,” “Life on the Mousessippi.” Hemingway could join in: “To Mouse and Mouse Not,” “A Farewell to Mice,” “The Mouse Also Rises,” and so on.
Hmm, I sense an epic coming.
© 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD