On Mother’s Day, my sister texted, “Happy UnMother’s Day!” We share a unique outlook on family-themed holidays. I’m glad other people had the Norman Rockwell or Cleaver experience, but it doesn’t portray the reality of my experience. If you ask me about my childhood, I have a stock answer.
“I had a childhood written by Stephen King and inhabited by Cruella De Ville and Captain Ahab.”
People act shocked and distressed when I say that. My family shares a morbid and grotesque sense of humor around our parents. It’s how we survived.
“It can’t have been that bad,” they say overall.
That’s just rude. So, I developed the stock answer to ward off the shock and distress of well-meaning but dismissive people who just want the response, “It was fine.” But it wasn’t, and I’m too old to go on pretending. If you pay attention, the above sentence fills in the pertinent details.
Mom was a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust. I can give her a pass. It would do a number on anyone. Dad enlisted in the Navy at sixteen after living with a father, the mean-ass Chief of Police. That must have stung. My father expected his kids to be the first mate and crew on the USS Disaster (much like his dad expected him to be part of the police force). I’m still chewing my way through that experience.
So, not a wonderful childhood, but then I did some spectacular bibliotherapy and came across the phrase, ‘They weren’t always like that or only like that.’ Approaching old age and wanting the same compassion, I would like to share something my mom did spectacularly well.
One adolescent, angst-filled day, when my hair was hormonally flat and greasy with the rancid onion smell that is a teenager’s lot, my skin stubbornly cratering, and my clothes were different (the kiss of death) from the palazzo pants and Peekaboo shirts all the cool kids wore in my school, mom took me to the mall.
This was a generous and misguided act as sometimes, lots of times, mom didn’t have money for gas or food, but that humid-heavy day, she took me to Bell Air Mall, the only mall in the area and full of things I couldn’t ask for—I learned very early that it was pointless. She grabbed my hand and pulled me past Belk’s department store with the clothes everyone was wearing, past the stores that would have fitted me with shoes that didn’t make my feet look like water skis, to Piccadilly Cafeteria.
I probably sighed and rolled my eyes. Teenagers do not want to go to old-person cafeterias! We want fast food, carbs, or a real-life restaurant. Not food out of a tin or from a place with trays. Until my brother went to high school, he thought vegetables grew in cans. I can’t imagine that life with a demanding teenager wasn’t painful for my mom—she wasn’t born bad, but had it thrust upon her.
That late afternoon, she had crammed my pudgy, perspiring body into the cafeteria line. I was immediately conscious of the roll of fat flopping over my pants waistband, a muffin top before it was even a term. I was appalled; we were spending the grocery money for the next three or four days—probably, mom stood next to a pouting, self-absorbed daughter who would rather stare at the walls than look at her.
We picked up our trays, the flatware wrapped tight in one scratchy napkin, then she said, “Let’s just get desserts.” I remember my mouth falling open, not trusting her words (she wasn’t usually trustworthy). We snaked along with the line. She gracefully placed a piece of apple and a custard tart on her tray.
She nodded and smiled like we shared a secret. (As a more generous adult, I want to believe she did this with my sister and brother.) As a still-child (teenagers are children), I was teary-eyed and hesitant in the path of her kindness.
Of course, Mom still mishandled money, and my clothes came from weird brands. Probably, we barely ate for the next couple of days, but the time with Mom was worth it. Cruella de Ville mostly, and the mother I always wanted, infrequently. But the moments kept us going as a family.
Who doesn’t deserve this compassion?
“They weren’t always like that or only like that.”