My mom was fanatical about keeping her age a secret. My mom was also beautiful (and vain), and put great stock in always looking sharp. She was glamorous in an old-school way, like Elizabeth Taylor, whom I always thought she resembled.
Which is why having a tomboy as her only daughter was hugely ironic. I was climbing trees as my Barbie dollhouse gathered dust, Ken having been drafted into the G.I. Joe brigade and Barbie herself hidden beneath a heap of clothes in her room. My mom wanted a girly girl, who loved clothes and hairdos and shopping.
Instead, she got me.
I either had my head buried in a book or I was outside playing rough with the other neighborhood kids. Someone would inevitably wind up with a skinned knee or a loose tooth. We played ball, collected insects, raced our bikes – all activities that did not fall into the ladylike category of behavior my mother preferred.
At one point in my grade school years, I was dragged off to ballet, one of the few physical endeavors that won my mother’s approval. For a couple of years, I learned to pirouette until I was finally skilled enough – that is, able to get across the stage without falling – to participate in the annual recital.
There is a picture of me from that day. In the picture, I am posing in my scarecrow costume, which was nothing more than a pair of tights and a black silk top with colored patches. There is a large, garish straw hat on my head. (My son rather unkindly remarked that it looked like an upside down Easter basket). My smile is pained.
After I danced in the recital, I was allowed to hang up my slippers. My mom was not finished in her quest to make me a lady, however, and I then spent time attending “charm school.” I thought it ridiculous, having to learn good manners, what fork went where, and other such nonsense. I even had to practice better posture by gliding around the house balancing a book on my head.
In the years to come, there were always differences of opinion between my mother and me. The occasionally adversarial nature of the parent/child (and specifically, the mother/daughter) relationship often blew up into a battle of wills between us. Both of us were stubborn and neither of us cared for being wrong.
I did eventually pay more attention to my appearance, which pleased her, and continued my interest in athletics, which did not. Looking back, I realize how much we confounded each other. I no more understood her obsession with appearances then she understood my glee at being named the starting point guard.
Once I married and “settled down” we got along much better. I became a mother myself and finally understood the tremendous responsibility of raising children. We came full circle when I became the primary caretaker during her final illness. She was so brave, and faced death with courage and make-up. When our family sat shiva, the Jewish rite of mourning, one of her friends told me “I can’t believe it. I saw her at the supermarket just a couple weeks ago. She looked great.”
I wouldn’t have expected anything less.
Now I choose to remember the things I neglected to appreciate during our contentious years. She was a working mom in an age when such women were few and far between. She was a tough-as-nails businesswoman, who got our family through some rough times that would’ve done in a lesser woman. I learned to tackle life head-on, to stand my ground and not run from difficult decisions.
I realize something I wished I would have known long ago: She loved me, though she didn’t understand me, and vice versa. Once I overheard a conversation she had with my mother-in-law regarding parenting. My mother said, “there were no books to tell us what to do. So we did the best we could.”
Yes, Mom, you did. And I am a better person for it.