Friday, May 6, 2016

True Hollywood Story: My Mom

Colby was only two when my old dog Blue passed away, but she still misses that dog something fierce, and often tells complete strangers out of the blue, "My dog is dead." She approaches the untimely death of my mother with the same sensitivity and care.

Colby: I love this necklace.
Me: Me too.
Colby: Don't ever give it away. Until you die. Then give it to me. (This is a common theme lately.)
Me: Okayyyyyy.
Colby: But I don't want you to die anytime soon.
Me: That's good. I won't.
Colby: But your mom is dead.
Me: Yes she is.
Colby: But she died in a terribow pwane cwash so dat's why she got dead before you.
Me: This is true.
Colby: When are we going to go on a aiwpwane again?
Me: ...

Much is made of The Motherless Mothers on Mother's Day, but I never really know what to say.

I remember the feeling of my mom. I remember a million scenes and snippets. But it's kind of like catching snowflakes. Only a tiny fraction of them land in your hand, and the ones you do catch melt away before you can get a really good look.


My mom loved to read. She loved to sleep. She loved hiking and camping and backpacking and rock climbing. She ran marathons. She loved sunbathing. She loved to cook and bake and entertain. She got terrible migraines. She loved dogs. She did not like cats. She did not like wearing clothes (but loved buying them). She had little patience for stupidity, small talk, whining, bad manners, bad grammar, disrespect, disingenuous-ness, clutter, or clatter. She didn't have much patience at all, actually. She loved flowers, and taught me you didn't need someone else to buy them for you. She loved music. She was big on soundtracks: Dirty Dancing, Stand By Me. She loved Prince and Madonna. She loved musicals - Cats and Phantom were her favorites. Is this love genetic? Or was it tattooed on my soul from a young age? Is this why I physically cannot listen to a good musical [ahem, Hamilton] without crying and feeling like someone is ripping my heart out from behind my rib cage? She had one actual lullaby she sang to all three of us as children, but her go-to's were The Animals (House of the Rising Sun), Harry Chapin (Dance Band on the Titanic), Lynryd Skynrd (Simple Man). Also Amazing Grace. You know, light, sweet little ditties ;)

My mom had great legs. She had terrible haircuts. She was quick to laugh but brooked no bullshit. She was independent and unapologetic. She loved margaritas and anything spicy. Did I tell you about the time she made it onto The Wall of Flame at David's Thai in Auburn? The first time she went there, she tried to order 10/10 spicy and they would only give her a 5 and it was so hot she could barely eat it. In law school, I interned about half a mile away so I started to go there a few times a week, building up my tolerance. I finally got up to 9.5/10, and said to the waitress, "Yay! I'm so close to getting on the Wall of Flame!" She replied, "Oh, honey, no. We just put 1 through 10 on the menu. The Wall of Flame is about a 25." Alrighty then! Anyway, the point is, she had intestines of steel!

I always saw my mom as hip and fun. I never went through a stage where I was mortified to be seen with her. She really was "a cool mom." Or maybe I was just a dork. But I basically idolized the woman. I wanted to wear matching outfits with her until I was in sixth grade when she told me I was probably getting a little too old for that.

I've written a tribute or two to my mom here, the most popular of which is Mama Mama Misses HER Mama. In my continuing efforts to be "Green," I reduce, reuse and recycle the hell out of that post. Mother's Day, the anniversary of their death, the second Sunday after the full moon. It kind of felt like that's all there was to say about that.

But a while back, a good family friend made me think twice about my memories and my lasting impressions of my mom. Admittedly, my "Mom" post is sugary sweet and written through the rosiest of rear-views. She herself would have quailed at the preciousness of it. Saccharine was not her style.

After that I was committed to writing a "realer" post about my mom. Why? I don't know. To reflect the good, the bad, and the ugly, I guess? (This reminds me of a quote from Almost Famous. Russell Hammond: Just make us look cool, man. William Miller: I will quote you warmly and accurately.) But I kept coming up empty. The best I could do was ask "What is a memory, anyway?" At the end of the day, my mom was a lot of things to a lot of people, as we all are.

Every time I talk about her I kind of feel like I'm filling out one of those Mother's Day questionnaires the kids do now, like, what's your mom's favorite color, favorite food, favorite thing to do, etc. And I can't help but think I'm probably as wrong about her as my kids are about me. (Seriously, kids. My favorite food is tofu? Do you even know me at all? By the way, tofu is the favorite food of nobody, ever, in the history of the world.)

The thing is, it's essentially impossible for me to view her objectively. Not just because she was my mom, and because she's been gone now half my life, but because I see so much of her in myself, and you can never see yourself straight-on. And also, yeah, she was my mom. It didn't often occur to me that she had a preexisting identity in addition to "Mom." However, if my memories of my mother are a house, having my own children was like unlocking a door to a part of the house I never knew existed. It's a whole new wing, and as I progress down the winding path of parenthood, I just keep entering new rooms and going down different hallways and it is a never-ending journey of getting to know her. Or getting to wonder about her, anyway.

It's also hard for me to "get real" about my mom because, while she wasn't perfect, she was pretty much perfect to me. One of my best friends lost her mom a year ago and it's hard because they had this complicated relationship, and the circumstances of her departure were less than ideal, and it's just an all-around shitty situation. It breaks my heart because I know that my friend and her mom were both doing the best they could and giving everything they had to give. But to have the guilt and the second-guessing and the "what ifs" and "if onlys" haunting you, on top of the flaming psychic trash-pile that is losing a parent? That is rough, man. I would not wish that on my worst enemy, and it is hard to see someone you love struggling with that and knowing there is nothing you can say or do to ease the pain.

I consider myself #blessed that I had such a good relationship with my mom, and that she didn't die leaving unresolved issues and unanswered questions behind. I didn't resent her, I wanted to be her. With her shoulder-padded power suits and her matching pumps and clutches and her statement earrings, with her BMW and her speeding tickets and her pilot's license, with her attitude and her irreverence, with her wit and her intellect, with her California girl style and her Midwest roots... She was, and remains, the gold standard (to me).

Maybe it would have been different if she had lived longer. If we'd gotten into arguments about paying for college and law school, about wedding invitations and child rearing and why they're never around to watch their grand kids for free. But honestly, if you can make it through your teen years relatively unscathed, how much worse could it be?

Despite being my personal Platonic ideal of Mom, she was not particularly "nice." She was thoughtful and generous. She was a good person and a good mother and a good partner and a good daughter and a good sister and a good friend. But she liked who she liked, and if she didn't like you, she didn't even try to fake it. She didn't go out of her way to befriend neighbors or the other moms at school. She was who she was and she didn't take pains to comply with anyone else's expectations.

I'm not judging. I'm not that nice either. I often laugh at the fact that my two best friends are probably the most likable people on the planet, whereas I could most aptly be characterized as snarky and awkward. Or maybe just plain bitchy, depending on who you're asking. Funny, now that I think about it, her two best friends are also among the more likable souls on the planet as well. (I actually used to be a lot nicer. I don't know what happened. Like a cheap wine, I guess. I get more vinegary with age ;))

Her love was fierce and strong, but she wasn't especially doting or demonstrative. Daddy Mack recently called me "zero tolerance" and "kind of harsh," particularly with respect to our kids (and my siblings,) and I think I get that from her. It's not that I don't have feelings, or big love, but I am basically allergic to drama and theatrics and, perhaps most importantly, the level of noise it entails. I think my mom had a noise thing too. At least, I inherited her "Chew with your goddamn mouth closed before I start to gag" death-stare. Also, I greatly dislike having to ask people to do things, on average, 537 times.

Which begs the question(s).

Mom. Inquiring minds want to know. How did you get us to listen to you??? Like, the first time? Seriously. I don't get it. I remember when I was older, you rarely said no, so when you did, I didn't argue. But I also know that I ate vegetable crudite as a "treat," and had wheat germ pancakes and pita bread sandwiches and wasn't allowed things like KoolAid or Lucky Charms or even Honey Nut Cheerios like the "cool kids." I know we didn't have a TV and we had to entertain ourselves. I know we did our own homework and school projects. I know you didn't brush my teeth or my hair or wipe my ass when I was in grade school. I packed my own lunch and did my own laundry by the time I was ten, so I KNOW there were some rules and regulations in place. You didn't hit and you didn't yell. (Sure, you raised your voice, and when we called you on it you replied, "This isn't yelling. If you want yelling, I can show you yelling!" You didn't morph into a shrill, nagging pygmy shrew. I remember you told me that when your parents told you no, you saw that as the opening salvo to negotiations, and you swore that would never be you. But what I need to know now is HOW, sage master of child rearing??? This is coming from someone who was recently accused by her husband as being a dictator trying to run a totalitarian regime.

ALSO, HOW DID YOU RAISE KIDS BEFORE THE INTERNET?

How did you have babies without an epidural?

Tell me about breastfeeding. Lord knows my personal journey was a roller coaster.

How did you get us to daycare at 7am? And yourself to work on time. With clothes on and everything?

How did you feed us real food every single day???

Did the sound of us crying and fighting make you want to stab yourself in the eardrums?

Did you ever want to spank us? Okay, that's a stupid question, I know the answer to that. I guess the question is, why didn't you?

Why did you explain the birds and the bees to me when I was 3 years old? (Or, in this case, "the wenis and the china.") I can't bring myself to do it yet. So far I've gotten by with a lot of hand-waving, improper anatomical references, and a vague allusion to mystical wizardry of some sort.

Why did you divorce dad? Wait. Back up. Why did you marry dad? Wait, back up even farther, why did you marry that one dude when you were 18? When/why/how did you get divorced? When did you come to California, and with whom? What was going through your mind when Dad knocked you up? Why did you marry him? (I actually did ask you this, once. Your response: Have you ever seen a picture of him with his shirt off circa 1979? Hubba hubba! ;))

Then, why did you divorce him? What was the straw that broke the camel's back? How did you manage that scary decision with two little kids and an uncertain future in front of you? Was it because you sorta kinda already knew where (and with whom) you were going to land?

Did you ever think about moving back to Michigan?

I remember a fight you had with Stepdad. He wanted a child. His own. You thought you were done making babies. Obviously you made the right call, but how did you get there?

And speaking of fights with Stepdad, I literally remember two. I mean, you guys argued about silly things plenty, but I only remember two actual fights. Were there more that we weren't privy to? How do you fight in a house full of kids?

More importantly, how do you make up?! I don't understand when and where you're supposed to have sex once your kids are old enough to know what's going on!

Did Stepdad snore? If yes, did you have to fight the urge to smother him with a pillow?

HOW DID YOU KEEP UP WITH LAUNDRY ALL THE TIME??? (Oh! Wait! See paragraph 73, above, re: us doing our own laundry by the time we were 10. I have this perception of our house always being clean and the dishes and laundry being (mostly) done, but last year I saw a picture and in the background was a couch stacked with folded laundry and it made me SO HAPPY! I was like, OMG, Mom! You too??? :))

Did you ever feel like you just couldn't do it a single second more?

Did you ever feel legitimate concern that you might be losing your ever loving mind?

Why did you send us to private elementary school? But then encourage public high school? This particular issue is weighing on me now as we navigate that process with our own kids. It feels like the decisions we make now will forever alter their course in life. It's scary as hell.

I was kind of a douche in high school. I remember Stepdad saying as much, and you telling him to cut me some slack. For someone who didn't put up with a lot of bullshit, you really tapped into a deep reservoir of patience, indulgence, and grace for those few years. I would love to hear your take.

I have one kid that I kind of just "get." She is basically a miniature me. That understanding and identification makes the day to day interactions easier and more intuitive. This is not to say she's not an asshole. She totally is. Big brother is, by all accounts, a more pleasant child (at least presently). My love for him is no less strong or pure, but I sometimes feel like I am trying to communicate that love in a different language. Did this happen to you? How do you navigate these different relationships while still conveying the fact that you love them both so much you feel like you might die?

On the nights you worked late, did you come watch us sleep before you went to bed?

Did you cry when we weren't watching? Over 18 years, I only saw you cry a few times. Once when you thought you and Stepdad were going to break up. Once when you had (another) fight with little sister and she called Dad to come get her (again). And once when your grandpa died. Oh yeah and that time you were rushed to the hospital for an ectopic pregnancy, but that was different, and scary.

I do kind of remember this period where you were in a "funk." I guess I was so self-absorbed, and depression was such a nebulous and unknown concept to me, it barely even registered. How did you work through? And continue to handle your life? Did you act stronger than you felt? Is it our job to appear strong to our children? Or to be real? Or some combination of the two?

You really seemed to maintain your identity as something other than "Mom" even after you had three kids. This was probably my only conscious complaint as a teen, actually. That you weren't very Mom-y." (You even asked me not to call you "Mommy" when I was little because the word was "too cute.") Our homecoming dances always coincided with your birthday, and while other parents had us over to pin on corsages and boutonnieres and take eleventy billion pictures, you were out drinking margaritas with your friends. Did you feel guilty at all? If not, did it ever occur to you that you "should?" If yes, what pep talk did you give yourself to get over it?

Same goes for "working mom" guilt? This is probably my biggest psychological stumbling block. Could you help me sand it down?

What would you have told me about motherhood if you knew you weren't going to be here to tell me yourself?

Phew, okay! I could probably write a whole book, but this oughtta do it for today!

Do you (not the ghost of my mother but people who are reading this with their actual eyeballs) still have your moms around? What would you ask her if you knew she wasn't going to be around tomorrow to tell you? Think about it.

Gee, this is a super uplifting post: You better have a deep heart to heart with your mom about the meaning of life because she might die tomorrow. Whee! Happy Mother's Day!

You still here? ;) I'll end on a note of gratitude.

Mom. Thank you for instilling in me a love of music and mischief and spicy things. For leaving a cook book full of delicious dishes for me to ruin, as well as the recipe for Wet Woodys and the perfect margarita. For teaching me how to travel without looking like a tourist. For (attempting to) weed out my whineyness and wimpyness. For demonstrating integrity and strength of character while letting us know we all have chinks in our chain. For loving the Stepdadders and bringing them into our lives. For showing me true love is an actual thing, and it looks different than depicted by Disney. For working with Dad at making divorce not suck (for us). For giving me the two best siblings a big sister could ever ask to boss around. For bestowing upon me a sense of adventure and a love and awe of nature. For showing me that respect is earned not given. That strangers who call you sweetie, sugar, or say "You'd be a lot prettier if you'd just smile" can suck it. That you don't have to be "nice," but you shouldn't be a dick, either. That good manners, good grammar, eye contact, and a killer pair of heels will take you far. That being tall and smart and strong are things to be proud of. Thank you for being a kick-ass, independent woman who got shit done, so that I grew up knowing I could be one, too. Thank you.


Okay. You guys. Is this even written in English? I have been on this crazy diet for two weeks and I am so hungry I think my body is starting to digest my brain for fuel. I honestly feel like I'm drunk/high/hungover all at the same time even though I am none of those things. Like the thoughts in my brain are hardening in cement. My apologies if I just had verbal diarrhea all over you, but really, what could be more fitting for Mother's Day?! ;)


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