When I was a little kid about ten or so, I used to stand naked in front of my mirror. It was pale yellow and oval with tons of dirt smudges. The mirror, and me.
I’d tell my mom I was going to shower, take off all my clothes, and talk to my naked reflection as if she were someone else.
“Oh, hi.” I’d double wave wildly with no care for the jiggles. “Did you see what I did to Tim at recess?”
Pause while my reflection responded as enthusiastically.
“I know!” I’d squeal softly so my four siblings wouldn’t hear. “And I was wearing my new clogs! They’re wooden!”
Pause while we laughed together.
“Totally!” I can see myself clasping my hands together. “He had to go to the nurse’s office. And then Mr. Pierce came in our room to talk to us about personal space…”
My reflection agreed that fourth-grade Tim had deserved that kick to his personal space. She agreed with me about everything, and she always looked at me like I was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. I loved her so.
I’d chat with nudie me for what felt like hours in my memory, but was probably only fifteen minutes at a pop, tops. There were no locks on any of our doors. Even if there were locks, we didn’t use them. That’s how the world worked back then.
My mom walked in on me once. She was holding an armful of clean laundry, and she looked at me without changing her face that much. In my memories, her face was always delighted to see me.
Do you remember that period of time when you think nothing you do can get you into trouble? Nothing is weird or wrong? It just…is? I must’ve been in that slice of time. She must’ve been that type of mom.
She set yesterday’s outfit on my dresser, told me dinner was almost ready, and closed the door behind her.
“You’re so lucky.” Even my reflection was jealous.
My mom feels guilty for yelling at us all the time when we were young, but those are her memories, not mine.
Sunday mornings before Mass were a mess. I’d watch her in the kitchen, her make-up halfway done and her hair in giant curlers, screaming while she prepped a roast and potatoes to be finished precisely when we walked back in the door an hour-and-a-half later. We’d pick up a Pepperidge Farms coconut layer-cake on the way home.
Everyone else got to get ready leisurely. My oldest brother was usually reading the comics, his hair still wet from a shower that had emptied the hot water tank. My sisters were probably still peeved about their frozen showers and debating outfits, my other brother was probably playing with matchbox cars, and my dad had surely walked by to ask if she could sew a button or iron some pants. There was a lot of sewing and ironing in those days, if I remember correctly.
I’d watch it all from my perch on the other side of the countertop, my chin resting on my arms, nowhere else I’d rather be. I could see her mouth forming words and I’m sure it was loud, but all I could think was, “She is so pretty.”
If you’re worried your babes will only remember the worst of you, I’m here to tell you you’re probably right. I was just a weird kid.
I was the one who never got spanked. My dad punched my oldest brother in the stomach once when he was a senior, so it’s not like I’m from a line of wimps. They just somehow knew my antics would come to a screeching halt if they told me, “Karey, we love you. Of course, we will always love you. But right now, we don’t like you very much.”
I think they used that line once or twice, but wow it left a mark. To this day, I think liking someone is the important thing. The only thing.
You can’t imagine my antics when I decide I don’t like you. Or, worse, when someone decides they don’t like me.
Going into parenting, I knew one thing: I would never spank any kid of mine. Never. I resolved that there would not be a situation where I’d need more than my words. It wouldn’t happen.
You might be wondering how that worked out for us. Well, I made it through three daughters and about a hundred million moments where I could’ve lost control, but most definitely did not. I used my parents’ line a lot with them: “Girls, we love you. That will never change. But right now, we don’t like you very much.”
And. Umm. My girls’ memories include me and my husband slapping them. In their faces.
WHO SLAPS PEOPLE IN THE FACE. I MEAN I THINK I WOULD REMEMBER THAT KIND OF VIOLENCE.
Other people’s memories are completely out of our control.
My brother’s teacher asked my mom for an after-school meeting. She had to bring me along because I was too young to leave at home. My brother was at least eight.
Like I said, that’s how the world worked back then.
“I’m worried about your son,” the teacher said. All his work for the year so far was set out on the table between her and my mom, and even I could see there was a problem: It was all black. All of it. So many crisp papers and a pet rock and a popsicle stick sculpture. Black black blackety black.
When I ask my mom to retell the story, she remembers how the teacher wanted to test him and send him to the school nurse to make sure he wasn’t depressed or in need of special services. She was sure he needed extra help.
I don’t remember what my mom told her, but I remember thinking she was calm. Whatever her mood, it did not disrupt the day. Does that make sense?
Later that night, long after the conference, she flipped hamburgers on the electric griddle and asked my brother, “Why do you paint everything black?”
He answered, “It looks so shiny and cool. Then it dries and it gets ugly, but…”
He shrugged and she smiled and he smiled back, and that was that. Nothing to see here, psychologists and elementary school teachers. It’s like she never worried about who we were; she knew who we were, and enjoyed us that way.
Other people’s opinions are completely out of our control.
Anyway. My brother ended up going to Harvard.
The best advice I ever received was, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
Admittedly, it was passed along by my dad in a hazy-but-real dream after he’d passed away, but still I used it with wild abandon for the next eight years. I quit a few dumb jobs without a back-up plan, and let my clothes pile up on the floor of my closet
“Eight?” you may ask.
“Yes,” I’ll smile back serenely. “Eight years later, I had my first daughter.”
Now I do everything I don’t want to do.
I think I’ve told you this before, but my mom’s most useful advice to me as soon as my first babe was born was, “From now on, you’re going to be half right about everything. There will always be something you wish you’d done differently or better for your children. You’re going to have to learn to be okay with getting it right half the time.”
She has other hits, too. Like, “They have to be jackasses somewhere. Make sure they feel comfortable enough to let it out at home.”
And when your babes piss you off, remember all the things you admire about them. The stuff that will make them interesting, interested adults and not prison adults. The stuff that makes you sigh and remember your grammy or your cool uncle or your dead sister. The stuff that makes you hope they stay within hand-holding distance of you as long as possible. The stuff that makes your heart hurt. I swear to you, whatever moment you’re in will seem inconsequential.
I learned this one a bit late, but it didn’t matter in the long run. My girls think I slapped them when they were six or seven. Jesus.
She taught me it’s nice when your kids and their kids share their music and favorite programs with you, and that being brilliant isn’t as important as being kind. Open-mindedness is always the best option. An unwillingness to grow and change is the ugliest quality in a person. And for God’s sake, don’t watch Fox News. Do the NY Times crossword puzzle if you’ve got time to waste.
She stayed home with us and put everyone before herself, but she would never tell you that’s the best way to parent. She’d encourage you to be the best you possible, whatever that means to you.
What else what else what else I know I’m missing something. Oh, yes. Make sure, in your babes’ memories, your face always looks like you’re delighted to see them.
She’s one of the best in the business.
One of my daughters’ pals is going through it right now. In case she didn’t know, I told her that every family is mucked up a little. Every one. We’re just all out here pretending we’re mostly okay.
The fifty percent thing.
It was awkward and I felt bad butting into her life, but I really wanted her to know this before she’s an adult and has her own family. I want her to go into it knowing there’s a real possibility that she’ll get it wrong half the time and that it will be too much half the time and that it sometimes gets worse before it gets amazing.
Amazing is the goal, but there is amazing in the worse, too. Promise.
I don’t want her getting stuck trying to stay in the half-right part of life. I don’t want that for any of us.
Esmé reads me emails she’s about to send to her teachers.
“Does this sound professional?” she asks.
How the hell would I know? I end all my notes with exclamation points and walk around my life thinking that we’re all in this together.
Are we, though? I hope we are.
“I think I’m a bad person,” my mom told me the other day.
“Why?” I tried to hold in my giggle.
“I don’t know…” Something was upsetting her greatly, I could tell.
I won’t tell you what she said. It’s political and personal, and I understand her point completely. But it was pretty funny to me, too. I mean, this is a person who spent her entire life – over eighty years! – enjoying people for who they are, not who she wanted them to be.
Like, when one of my cousins got pregnant before she got married and our entire extended family ostracized her, my mom dragged us over to her little box house after Saturday night Mass to give her a present and celebrate this someday baby. I remember it was dark inside their house. I remember my mom turning on lamps when we walked in. I remember the house looked bigger when we left.
I said, “You’re not a bad person.”
“I think I am.” Man, she was resigned to this one.
“Well,” I suggested. “Am I a good person?”
Her tone immediately brightened. “You’re the best person I know.”
“So if I like you, you’re good.”
Now, I’m aware my mom isn’t perfect. Actually, no. I’m not. That’s a fib. I mean, I know there were awful moments, and more than a few of those fifty percent wrong decisions, but my life as I remember it was mostly her letting me be exactly who I was, which led me to exactly who I am today. And I like that guy when I look in the mirror. Mostly fully-clothed now.
She paused, and I could tell she was smiling again.
“They’re the bad ones.”
She’s likely half-right.