My mom has always been the utmost loving, tender, affectionate kind of parent. Of course, that's considered the norm, and while it's still always worthy of celebration, it's rarely worthy of note.
Except now that I'm a parent too, I realize that it is. Because as far as I can tell, I learned most of what I'm good at as a parent from what my mom and dad got right with me. But conversely, my mom didn't have a model. She grew up in flats above liquor stores in various impoverished neighborhoods of downtown Detroit and, more pertinently, her own mother was a mean, bipolar, alcoholic ex-prostitute.
An omniscient storyteller would probably say this woman was mentally ill. In fact, that’s probably what my own mom would say, with the power of maturity and therapy and forgiveness on her side. But from my own privileged position, I don’t conceptualize the woman in such terms. I gotta tell you, my summary is that this bitch was crazy and violent, and that anybody who yells “I’ll give you something to cry about,” can get “FAIL” stamped on her tombstone as far as I’m concerned.
She didn’t buy toys. She didn’t buy food. My mom and my aunt scrounged for coins on the apartment floor so they could buy 5 cent hamburgers from the store downstairs, and got by most of the time with candybars, which were only a penny.
Obviously, these are all facts that I only came to know as I grew big enough to understand them – my mom didn’t reveal it all one day like on a 90’s talk show. It was just the truth, and since she’d come to terms with that truth, she was able to answer my questions honestly and without a bunch of baggage as I got old enough to ask more and more pointed ones. Though I do remember her changing the channel once when I was trying to watch the musical Annie because, as she admitted with a self-deprecating chuckle, Miss Hannigan reminded her just a little too much of her mother.
My mom’s maternal model was Miss Hannigan, and yet she somehow parented me with the most encircling, unconditional, unrestrained, joyous love. Go figure. And for the record, she didn’t over-compensate either: she hadn’t the slightest compunction about enforcing limits and teaching me actual life skills, and anybody that’s watched her kick ass on city council for the past 10 years knows that being “assertive” is not exactly something she’s had to struggle with. I have her and only her to thank for teaching me that a whole, vital, effective person is both soft as roses and tough as nails. She even knew enough to tell me that only life would help me learn when to be hard and when to be sweet.
Now, my mom is a therapist, and you can guess that part of what put her on the road to becoming one was learning what the brutally hard but overwhelmingly healing process of therapy could offer. And it's logical to assume that she wouldn't have been able to overcome the fact that she simply wasn’t parented at all, only to nonetheless become an amazing parent herself, if she hadn't gone through that. But that seems to me like it goes even further to prove what an incredible person she is. She chose to walk back through her trauma all over again because she knew throughout what was probably a truly awful journey that a way happier life was on the other side of it, for her and for her family. Honestly, my mom is such a barrage of energy and honesty and humor and purpose, the hard scrabble beginnings of her personal legend seem like a superhero origin story sometimes.
I was 14 when my mom completed her MSW – while working full time and caring for me. My dad worked nights and my big brother was in the army by then, and though a kid is just barely within the acceptable range to stay home by herself when she’s between 11 and 14, my mom knew that the sheer amount of time she was gone at night would leave me by myself a lot. And that just wasn’t good – or maybe a better way to put it is it wasn’t good enough, especially for a heretofore introvert like me (Inorite, lolwut? Put me back in my shell already). So she made sure I was never alone. I’d go over to our neighbor’s house, or she’d have family friends who were in high school come hang out with me (if the friend doesn’t get paid, she’s not a babysitter. Um…right?), I’d go with my dad to work and watch movies with headphones in the tiny hospital “library” room while he fixed broken stuff or did rounds, just so he could come chat with me for a while before his next call.
I also just went along with my mom sometimes. I came with her a lot to the battered women’s shelter she was working at, and talked to women and kids from so many backgrounds and so many walks of life, it cemented in my mind forever the fact that women being victimized based on a paradigm built on gender isn’t an issue for any one class or cultural segment – it’s a universal form of bullshit. I declared myself a feminist based on the radical notion that women deserve, and should be conditioned to expect, equal power. And so far, nothing I’ve experienced or read has made quite as strong of a case.
So the fact that my mom's birthday falls right near Thanksgiving is, of course, very appropriate. Being in the same room with the two of us is no doubt an exhausting cyclone of big words and hyperactivity and I don't envy Matt or my dad in the least. I can't wait to see her.
Happy birthday, mom.