Well, we got through another Mothers Day. Not that there’s anything wrong with mothers, mind you.
Beth and I celebrated by riding our tandem bicycle to U.S Cellular Field to watch a White Sox win with our generous friends Don and Juli (seats to die for, btw). And at our son Gus’ direction, I bought some very fragrant lilies and presented them to Beth on Gus’ behalf.
Which was all nice. It’s just that the avalanche of sentimentality and tributes and bragging’ on our moms can get a little cloying sometimes. And dare I say, dishonest? Maybe, a little? (And then there’s the equal time thing—as our single friend Brad asked our single bartender Sean at Hackney’s last night, “When’s bachelor’s day?”)
On Mothers Day (and Fathers Day, of course), somehow the notion that some people had really awful mothers — that any mothers can be awful — gets lost. I know, I know, that shouldn’t keep us from appreciating the “good” ones. But you know, I didn’t see any pictures of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest in my Facebook feed yesterday.
Plus, there just seems to be no room for ambiguity. Let me put it this way: to use a gender-neutral term, women can be assholes sometimes. Even the best of them. Ergo, mothers can be assholes.
I know mine could be. She could be abusive in her criticism of me and my sister. She had a crazy temper, and threw stuff at us. She could be defensive and insecure and combative to an extreme degree. She did everything she could to give me and my sister opportunities she didn’t have, but at times couldn’t hide her envy.
And I will always love and admire her.
She was born to Italian immigrants. She grew up 40 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a row house that was in a town owned by the coal mining company her father worked for. Paolo—as I would observe as a child—was a relentless critic of his children, even in their adulthood. So my mom, Esther, came by it honestly. Nothing she did was good enough for him. And so it was for me and my sister.
She won forensics competitions in high school, and traveled all the way to California to compete. She was smart as a whip. And probably could’ve been anything. I always thought a career in law would’ve suited her. Back then, though, the only option she had was state teachers’ college.
No doubt in my mind it wasn’t her first choice. But she did it. She started her career teaching Marines’ kids at Camp Lejeune during the war. She endured tragedy with the loss of her first husband when my sister was only six months old.
She went on to be a fantastic teacher for decades. I know this because of the many parents who have told me so, and from the kids I went to high school with who’d had her in grade school. (Who also professed some wonder at how I survived being Mrs. K.’s son.)
During adolescence, I had some vicious battles with my mom. There were times when I hated her.
And then, thanks in large part to who she was, I grew up and became a young man. With an analytical mind like hers. A sense of civic and social responsibility. A respect for the English language. A love of baseball. And an eternal suspicion of school administrators and gimmicks like charter schools and NCLB blah blah. And, yeah, sometimes with a temper like hers.
The very things that made me despise her in my high school years were the things I empathized with as a young adult. I could read her frustration with her lot in life, her ambiguous and simultaneous support and envy of her kids’ opportunities, and the source of her insecurity. It’s also clear to me now that she was prone to depression in an age where the idea of going to a shrink was unthinkable in her milieu. It wasn’t always pretty, but she slogged through.
And so, this year, in my world, Mothers Day will come again November 8. That’s when I expect to celebrate one brilliant, flawed, confounding, tough-as-nails mother by voting for another one.
And if you don’t do the same—don’t tell me, or be prepared for a coffee cup to come whizzing by your head.