Tuesday, February 20, 2007

An Ode to Mom

Sometimes I miss my Mom. Especially on days like early last week when I had the flu. Driving home from work, hunched over the steering wheel in a way that seemed least likely to make me puke all over the car, I dialed her work number. "Mommy, I'm sick," I whined. When I was little and sick, my mom would take the day off work to stay home with me, make me blue jell-o, and rub my tummy until I felt better. No matter how much anyone says they love you, there's no one else in the world who will do this for you in quite the same way. This particular day she gave her best flu-care advice over the phone; "Stop and get some Gatorade, take an Advil, take a nap, and then make whatever you vegetarians eat in lieu of chicken noodle soup." I did, and I'm all better now.

I think about my mom every time I give myself a manicure too. When I was a kid, I loved her hands. I liked the way her wedding ring looked and the shape of her nails. They were what I believed a grownup lady's hands looked like. And now, I realize mine look just like hers. We both have long fingers with wide knuckles and oval nails that break too easily. We have short, square palms with long life lines. Both of us have veins running across the tops of our hands, visible under our pale Irish skin. We have beautiful, delicate wrists that contrast with the curvy-ness of the rest of our bodies.

I'm proud of those hands as much for their functionality as their beauty. My mother is the most efficient, capable, hard working woman I know. She knows how to take care of the people she loves. She doesn't like to cook, but she does it with pride. Ours was not a Chips Ahoy house growing up. We had the real thing. Weeding the vegetable garden, the chore I hated most as a child, she taught me not to buy things that you could make yourself. It would taste better that way. It appalled her that we like mashed potatoes out of a box much better than the homemade kind because they were runnier. She taught me how to iron clothes (and how to get away without ironing things). She taught me that Saturdays are for cleaning the house, vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing the bathroom. She taught me that I should always balance my checkbook (a lesson that I observe in my own non-mathematical way) and how to count back change without using a calculator. She taught me to drive a car, all the while clutching the door handle.

When I was a spoiled teenager going to a private school on a scholarship supplemented by her work on the custodial staff, she taught me not to flinch from working hard for something I want and not to let other's opinion of what it meant to "have to work" bother me. "Working is nothing to be ashamed of, she told me. "Nothing in life is free." She also taught me that if I want something I should buy it myself. "You'll appreciate it more, if you bought it yourself." And I did. I earned and spent my own money on my love of fashion, going out, and even my education.

In all her practicality, my mother was a little bit of a softy. She cried when she read the poems I wrote for her on Mother's Day, and she's kept every single school craft project any of her children ever made. The Christmas tree I used to loathe for its gaudiness was loaded with our elementary school ornaments. Our baby albums are filled out in great detail, with letters from her to us that she wrote before we were born. In all those things, she's instilled in me a sentimentality for the artifacts of our daily lives, the symbols of the relationships we have with others. She taught me that the best gift we have to give is ourselves.

I like to say that everything I know about fashion and makeup, I taught myself. My mother grew up in the hippie era of fashion. To this day, except for special occasions, her approach to makeup is generally a little mascara and blush. I have been the one to teach her how to use spray wax and how to magically conceal our hereditary undereye circles. But actually she did teach me a few things. She tried to teach me that nice girls did not wear skirts that short or shirts that low-cut, but she also taught me not to hide in my clothes. She taught me to shop for a bargain and the art of the end of season clearance sales. She taught me to have good posture and that carrying yourself with confidence makes any outfit sexy. Most of all she taught me that I was beautiful. Even when I was a gangly teenager who wanted desperately to have boobs, even when I had a curvy body and wished I could have the angular one back, and everywhere in between, my mother has genuinely believed I looked perfect. In a world where everyone is judging you, it's nice to know that at least one person wouldn't change a thing about you, not even your back fat. And in her no-nonsense way, she made sure I knew that attitude is 99% of beauty; "That's a really ugly attitude you've got on, and you better change it pronto." Now I know enough pretty people with sucky attitudes to get exactly what she meant.

Some would call me independent. I learned this from Mom as well. She taught me not to rely on others, not because they couldn't be trusted but because I was strong enough in myself. I knew that wherever I went—a sleep over, away to college, traveling abroad—she and the rest of my family would be there when I got back. She taught me to seize opportunities, if you are on the right path for you, everything else will fall into place. Because of her, I never felt homesick, I never felt incapable. She made sure I knew from childhood onward that anything I wanted to do career-wise was a possibility. There was no class I couldn't pass with flying colors. There was no limit to what degree I could earn. She taught me that I shouldn't stop learning new things until I'm dead. She thinks I can do anything, and you know what, I can.

My mother has also been the person I confide in about guys and relationships. I haven't always liked her advice, but she's been right more often than not. She's not the kind of mother that believes no man is good enough for her daughter (that's my dad); whatever makes me happy makes her happy. But when happy turns sour, she's made me take a hard look at whether what I thought I wanted was so great after all. "Why would you want to be with someone who doesn't appreciate who you are?" "Well, he's obviously not mature enough to be in a relationship." And the last, my least favorite, "There will be other men. You won't always feel this way about him." But she was right—there are, and I don't. While my mother has taught me not to take any shit from guys, she's also a bit of a romantic. She and father have been married for over 30 years, and I'm even convinced that they still like each other a whole lot. She believes in things like the necessity of being swept off your feet, the existence of true love, and the value of committing yourself to someone special. If I ever believe in those things too, it will be because I've seen in her that they are possible.

My mother and I don't always agree. Sometimes I still roll my eyes at her. She's the conservative to my liberal, the country to my city, the old-fashioned to my contemporary. We don't always understand or fully appreciate where the other one is coming from. But now that I'm older when friends or family members say I remind them of my mom, I take it as a compliment. At the heart of who I am lie an idealism, determination, and compassion that grew out of watching her. There are a lot worse things I could become than my mother.


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