The Right Mom
By Ann Brown/Parenting Consultant
My mom hasn’t been well lately.
She’s getting better, but it’s been scary so I went to LA to be with her. I did a lot of cooking (nutrition for her, therapy for me) and a lot of asking her if she needed anything (mostly, she didn’t). At moments, I felt like I was home with my babies again – fashioning my day around her needs, tiptoeing around when she was napping, making sure meals were ready on time. It was a sad time and it was also a sweet time. One afternoon, I just sat next to her and watched her while she slept in the big chair in the den.
We did a lot of talking together. And I did a lot of talking to her while she was asleep. I had a lot to tell her.
For one thing, I wanted to tell her I’m sorry for all the times I made her feel like she wasn’t good enough. My mom must have either been pretty thick-skinned or she just didn’t burden us with her hurt feelings because my sister Karen and I were hard on her when we were young. We were such little know-it-all’s, my sister and I; criticizing her cooking, her hobbies, her clothes, the transgression that she sometimes forgot to use moisturizer on her legs so there were little patches of dry skin on them.
We were her judgment posse, offering unsolicited advice about her guitar playing (don’t), her penchant for talking to strangers at the beach (don’t), her volunteerism at our school (don’t), her decision to canvas our neighborhood, door-to-door, to campaign for the Fair Housing Act (please don’t), her African-print caftans (oh god, don’t) and her breath (stop eating Swiss cheese). And still she loved us. In fact, she seems to harbor no ill feelings from those days when Karen and I studied her every move and found her wanting. We knew that she was happy with us even if we weren’t happy with her.
I wonder if my own kids will be able to say the same about me.
I can only imagine how much love it took for her to be happy about the gift Karen and I gave her for Mother’s Day, 1963. That Mother’s Day we pooled our money to buy Mom a day at the beauty salon. To get a REAL hairdo, like the other moms in the neighborhood, like the moms on TV. It was the early sixties and we lived in suburban San Fernando Valley. Forget Sylvia and Murray Brown. We wanted Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
My mom played the guitar. She sang folk songs about peace. She wore colorful ethnic clothing and took us to health food restaurants. She wore huge silver earrings from Mexico. She used lemon juice on her hair instead of Aqua Net. I was nine years old and mortified.
Karen and I sent her off to the salon that day in a gingham shirtwaist we unearthed from the back of her closet and a pair of gold button earrings we found on the bottom of her jewelry drawer. She returned looking like every cookie cutter mom in suburbia: a hairsprayed, 1960’s mom-bot. Not an ounce was evident of her own style, her own personality. My sister and I LOVED it. We showed her off to the neighborhood. We took a picture of her. It pains me to realize the message we gave her that Mother’s Day: she wasn’t good enough just being herself. Our guitar-playing, lemon juice coifing, whole grain eating, Mexican earring wearing mother was too….unique..
In the summers of my preteen years my mother wore African print shifts to the beach, shook out a Mexican serape onto the sand and pulled out her guitar to sing “Jamaica Farewell” to the waves. I sat far away from her. I took my stiff, straw mat -which temporarily indented my thighs with a patterned harbinger of the cellulite that would permanently adorn them years hence-and headed towards the thinnest, blondest, most Gentile family I could find, hoping their thin, blonde, Gentile-ness might be contagious. I’d flash my most winning smile at them, blinding them with the miles of metal braces in my mouth set off by the glisten of my sunburned Coppertone’d face. It’s a miracle all that hot metal and oil didn’t start a beach fire. I studied their matching pastel bathing suit and cover up ensembles, their matching Knotts Berry Farm beach sheets. Thin. So amazingly thin, and eating potato chips and cookies! So blonde. Where was their thick, black facial hair, or arm hair or leg stubble? They were perfect. I wanted to be one of them so badly I could practically taste their crustless iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise sandwiches just thinking about it.
I don’t remember exactly when I began to get a clue about who I really was but by high school I was definitely sitting on the other side of the white picket fence. Lobbing disdain over it, in fact, at the girls who were not aware that The Revolution had come. It was the sixties; it was all about subverting the dominant paradigm. Not shaving our legs. Going barefoot to the family Passover Seder. I was one of the fortunate ones – a child of, by now I realized, relatively hip parents who were against the war, against racism, against the status quo. (Where they made their camp in the sexual revolution I am less clear but, frankly, I don’t need to hear their answer.) Fulfilling my developmental task to rebel against my mom was a bit trickier by then since I found myself secretly envious of how many guitar chords she knew and had recently discovered that her enormous hammered silver earrings looked pretty good on me.
On her 43rd birthday, my sister and I gave our mom a baggie of pot. The idea was a goof, just giving the finger to convention. My sister thought it would bring us all together but I did it, I think now, just to solidify our separate stations in life. I knew my mom wouldn’t smoke it, much less smoke it with us. Perhaps she was getting too hip for me and I needed the reassurance that even if she could play “Ruby Tuesday” on the guitar, I was still cooler than my mom.
As the birthday party was winding down my sister and I brought Mom into the bedroom to open her gift. Only one of her friends, Claire, the hippest friend she had, was invited back there with us.
“Is this…….?” she began as she studied the baggie in her hand.
“Wow! It’s pot!” said Claire, and grabbed it from my mom. “Cool!”
There was a moment of silence, of anticipation, of choice. My mom took back the baggie and ran to the toilet. “We have to flush it down. Murray would die if he knew we had this in the house.”
Claire screamed and tried to retrieve the leaves now floating in the toilet bowl, blowing on them to dry them, holding my mom’s hand away from the flusher. My sister laughed but I stood still. Now I could roll my eyes at how provincial my mother was. My world made sense again. My mother was Other, as nature intended.
My own sons are spared the fear of becoming their mother. They have been able to observe me from the safety of the gender gap; secure in the knowledge that even though they might have inherited my flat feet or my sense of humor they are not going to wind up identical, albeit younger, versions of me. I wonder, however, if they looked with a touch of envy at the minivan soccer moms who populated our neighborhood. I wonder if they wished they lived in the beige houses with lawns and comforting dinnertime smells coming from the windows at dusk. In our house, it was the comforting sound of my car horn as I arrived with a plastic bag of take-out and a cardboard holder of medium size drinks.
I hope my kids will come to look upon their childhood with affection despite the fact that I was not much like the PTA-going, minivan-driving moms they saw around here. I hope they will someday laugh at the memory of my trying to hide chopped spinach in their peanut butter sandwiches and sneaking flax seed into their chocolate birthday cupcakes. I hope that all the years of seeing me perform Bulgarian folk music won’t turn them off altogether from liking music. Or Bulgaria. Or me.
When my mom came home from the hair salon that Mother’s Day so many years ago, she must have hated the way she looked. I am so impressed that she chose to humor her young daughters and allow us to dictate what she should look like for one day. She didn’t balk, didn’t lecture us about honoring individuality; she graciously accepted our fawning compliments. I believe she was able to do it because she possessed enough confidence that a few days of looking like Harriet Nelson wasn’t going to erode her sense of self. I still have the photograph we took of her. She doesn’t look exactly like my mom; she looks more like a mannequin of my mom. Her smile is a little stiff but Karen and I are beaming, looking up at her with adoring eyes that hold promises of the grown up women we might someday be.
Watching my mom sleep last week, worrying that wasn’t going to get better, I realized what an inspiration she is to me. I’ve known for a very long time that she is vibrant and smart and wise and gorgeous and kind, but I also see that she has always been her authentic self. What a gift to her daughters to have a mother who knows who she is. Not a mom-bot. Not a soccer mom. Not perfect. Not a TV sitcom mom.
But just the right mom for me.
And anyway, from what I’ve heard, even Ozzie and Harriet’s real life wasn’t all that perfect.