The first time I recall being embarrassed by my Mom I was in the 3rd grade, and I had forgotten my lunch at home. She showed up at the door to my classroom wearing a faded blue Mickey Mouse t-shirt splattered in nondescript food, double-knit polyester shorts with a seam up the front and red sneakers we called “bo-bos”, covered in grass clippings. This was nothing you’d ever find in Good Housekeeping magazine.
“Jennie. Your lunch,” she hissed.
Around this time I started noticing my friends' moms.
The Austrian with the beehive hair and white shag carpets throughout the downstairs, “Take your shoez off,” she would order. “Do not use ze' glasses the maid has vashed. Zay are shmerzen.” So cosmopolitan, such elegance. Or the mother of a friend who showed up to her daughter's midday birthday party in heels, tight jeans and a low-cut blouse. She sat at the edge of our crowded party booth at the fake Chuck E. Cheese, drinking a beer and gesturing with a lit cigarette in her hand. No one was cooler. Especially, I remember my admiration of the neighbor I babysat for, with her angelic face, her patience, her kind words. I wanted her as a mother. I wanted to be her.
Because my mother was shrill. And harried. All the kids in the neighborhood were scared of her. Even after I'd graduated from college my best friend said she always wanted to hang up the phone when my mom answered, because… terrifying. The time she grounded me for a month for walking through the pile of debris she'd swept into a tidy pile in the driveway still comes up among the neighbors every time I go home for a funeral.
My mother was actually an attractive woman in her youth and throughout my childhood, small and slim with short hair and bright eyes. When she married my father in 1960 she was simply beautiful. But in the eyes of an awkward nine-year-old daughter, she’d lost the glow.
And it mostly didn't make all that much sense until I became a mother myself.
My mother, an only child and latchkey kid, left her blue collar home when she married my father. They moved to the west coast to live on an airbase, a million miles from anything familiar. I have the letters she wrote her mother daily, about Mr. Ed, her job at the library, my father's college prom, her first pregnancy. My mother's first born child failed to thrive, was later described as severely retarded. Her ignorance about how babies were supposed to be likely kept her whole as she drizzled milk into his mouth, waited for him to learn to walk, something he finally did when he was seven years old. She had no clue that living needn't be this hard. Two years after his birth she had another child. And then two years later, another. Then four years later, me. Then four years later, my younger brother.
One sibling later became deaf, then blind. Another had learning differences that were described in spectrums and abbreviations that no one understood back in the 70's. The year she showed up in that tacky Mickey Mouse shirt the doctor mistakenly removed my father's digestive system. Like, his whole digestive system. My father would be fed through a tube for the remaining eighteen years of his life.
Can you imagine?
My mother asked me to write the eulogy for my eldest brother's funeral three years ago. Amidst chuckles at the crazy antics of one devilishly adorable and defiant man-child I asked everyone to imagine the amount of fingernails and toenails she'd clipped in her lifetime, the number of times she'd blended baby food (sixty years times two) or wiped someone's butt (infinite!) Add to this the number of times she moved someone into college, medical school, law school, a convalescent home, a new apartment, a new home. How many doctor's visits, therapy appointments and hospital stays?
It is beyond imagining.
Today she wears over-sized, bedazzled snowflake sweaters and jeggings. Her legs and arms remain stick thin, although her mid-section, not so much. She has too many cats. She wheezes with asthma but never seems to have her inhaler. She cheats at Monopoly when she plays my kids and yet never misses an opportunity to mail them a card signed with an XO XO. Her favorite thing is to stand right next to me in the kitchen wiping the same square inch of the counter with a dirty sponge, over and over. She actually drives me bonkers when she comes to visit, like flat out crazy.
But the thing is, I get it now. Or at least, when I step back and look at the whole enormous picture, I get a faint glimmer of the immensity of it all.
We all just plug along each day as we mother. We take the things handed us and we nurture them in whatever way we know how. We piece them back together when they break, let them fly away if they grow wings. Mostly we simply muddle along with our wants and needs a faint hum in the background, never asking for more, hardly knowing how.
“Als ich kann,” that Austrian mother would have said. It is the best I can do. The sexy mom with the beer would have held her glass high in a toast. The kind neighbor lady would lay a gentle hand. Together, they would nod their collective heads.
This boundless love engendered in motherhood that defies explanation, this thing that pushes us stumbling forward, with no map, no real guidance, in our food-splattered shirts and grass-speckled bo-bos, carrying a forgotten lunch, a disabled child, an ailing husband, an unnumbered host of worries, it unites us.
We are all fools, survivors, incorrigible badasses, goddesses. In the end we are an infinite army of mothers, doing the best we can.