I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the lessons my mother taught me, trying to identify the gaps in my knowledge. What did my mother not teach me? Where was she neglectful?
It’s been a difficult 24 hours since I landed on the topic of writing about what my mother taught and didn’t teach me, lessons I might not have wanted to learn but did and lessons I should have learned or wanted to learn but didn’t. I have a tendency to raise my mother on top of a white porcelain, fluted pedestal with the Corinthian column topers, the kind with the curled fern leaves that look graceful and feminine. From there, she looks perfect, no flaws. No cracks or fissures. I know they’re there. But Mom’s gone through enough. I pulled her down many painful highways worth of experiences. I don’t need to expose what she didn’t do right.
But then I’m lying to myself. I’m lying to her. She has made mistakes. I don’t know everything that, as a woman, I wish I did know. So. Here goes. Sorry Mom.
- Strawberry crepes: The last time my mother made her strawberry crepes, we were living in Washington DC. I think I was in middle school…so the memory is well over thirty years old. I remember how she drizzled the batter over a convex pan that was centered in a frying pan. I remember the steam rising from the delicate, off-white flaps of pastry (wrong word but work with me here). I remember how the time was consumed by my impatience as I floated by the stove, staring at the crepes, not certain what they were but knowing that they were special because of my mother’s tedious yet tenacious and persistent efforts. I remember the fluid cream and strawberries nestled within the folded crepe, a confection of richness and summer sunshine. I remember the dusting of powdered sugar, how powdered sugar would cling to my tongue, would float in my mouth like pillowy sweetness. I haven’t had those crepes since. I would love to have them at least once more. Maybe learn so that when my mother is unable to make them again, I can try and remember what it was to be a girl living within a tangy, sweet moment.
- How to be a woman without being a bitch: I hate that word. Just writing it makes my stomach feel like it’s filled with cement and my heart drop. My finger tips are cold and I feel disconnected with myself. As much as I use profanity in my speech, I hate writing it. It’s as if the word is more real, more permanent, more striking on my skin like a tattoo I would regret. Regardless, to be a woman means that I will be relegated at one point or another to being a bitch. Being too emotional is being a bitch. Being too cold or insensitive is being a bitch. Being angry is being a bitch. Defending myself with too much ferocity or not enough is being a bitch. I don’t know how to navigate the business or political world without being deemed or defined as a bitch. Having a strong opinion with a modicum of aggressiveness means that I am bad, I am over emotional, I am irrational, I am moody. I am PMSing. I am “on the rag.” I am a bitch. Not liking how I’m being treated means I am a bitch. Saying no. Whoa. Don’t get me started. No wait. I will. Just let me finish this first. Regardless, I wish my mother had taught me how to be a woman without being a bitch. I wish my mother had taught me how to fight for my belief without suffering the consequences of bitchdom. I wish my mother had taught me that being strong and being self assured does not make me a bitch. It makes me a person.
- How to say “No” without feeling guilty: Women are the peacemakers. Women are caring. Compassionate. Motherly. Maternal. Loving. Somehow, mixed into all of that is the idea that “No” is a bad word. That if I am asked to do someone a “favor,” the automatic and correct answer is, naturally, “yes.” No is a word laced with guilt. It is a purple bruise of a word, guaranteed to hurt and disturb and frustrate and alienate. No is a word that has spikes at the ends because there is only one answer to a yes-no-question. I wonder if men run into this problem, that when they are asked a yes-no question there is this massive weight to immediately agree, to do what the other person wants and meet their needs or expectations or wants or whatever. I have forced myself to resect other people’s no’s. Which is hypocritical of me. I wish my mother had taught me how to not be a hypocrite who wants people to act a certain way, even when I’m not doing it myself.
- Sew: I was going to take home-ec when I was in middle school. I couldn’t wait to be in a classroom where we made cupcakes. But, my mother denied that request and wrote on my course request sheet for me to be in wood shop…which was the better choice. But my skills as a basic button sewer suck. Seriously. I can barely thread a needle. I don’t understand stitches unless it’s the basic insert needle. Pull. Draw thread through. Make needle u-turn and repeat the process. My sewing is clumsy and inelegant. I can’t repair much of anything and feel completely useless when my children would present to me their torn stuffed animals, their ripped blankets, or the shredded feelings. I could apply a band aid. But I can’t sew things together.
- How to clean a house without getting grumpy: I don’t mind cleaning my house. I can actually find it cathartic. But, for no real reason, house cleaning as a tendency to pierce an emotional blister I didn’t know had formed. As I pick up discarded clothing, dirty dishes, old mail, books left on the bathroom floor, my temper begins to have a conversation with my pitiful side. Why doesn’t anyone pick up their stuff? Why am I the only one who cares? What would happen if I stopped working? If I didn’t pick up everything? Oh, the sob stories that develop in my head. The martyred mother limping around the house because she has been working so hard that her ankles are swollen and her arches have collapsed and her feet ache as though each bone is being individually hammered. My back is curled over, each vertebrae poking against my skin. My hands are dried and scaly, the cuticles ripped and bleeding. Oh. Poor. Me. Ugh. Gross. Hate that side of me. The whiney miserable self-seeking child who doesn’t mind cleaning but gets all pissy when she pulls out the vacuum cleaner and sucks up the cat litter and cat food. My mother skims the vacuum over the carpets, happily plunges her hands into the warm, soapy water to wash the dishes. She hums while she sweeps up sand or dirt or loose hairs. She seems to dance as she swipes the soft blue dusting cloths across each and every corner of each and everyone of her knick-knacks. I dust and curse the dust and then sneeze with the accumulated dust siphoning up my nose and clogging my sinuses. I snarl at the grimy gray edges of my ceiling fans because they are dirty and because I noticed that they are dirty and I’m too damn short to be able to clean them effectively. I love the clean house. I love how everything is in it’s proper place, even the books that have migrated back to the bathroom floor. I love how the windows gleam with uninterrupted, non-dusty sunlight. I hate the monster who cleans the house though.
- How to Walk Without Falling: Ice storm one month ago. My feet slid out from underneath me in the CVS parking lot and I landed on my left leg. By the time I hobbled across the parking lot to Food Lion, my ankle was swollen enough to fill my hiking boot. 100 mile Appalachian Trail hike four years ago. 3rd mile in. Left ankle rolls on a perfectly flat part of the path. As I fall, I try to catch myself on my right foot and down I go. 97 miles of limping later, I am a stronger person because of it. Except for my left ankle. Which rolled when I was walking with three bags of dog crap…and I fell…and landed on the bags which…thankfully did not open up and spill all over me. I would have walked home without my shirt regardless of my sagging, white luminescent belly with all of its cottage cheese curds. I wish my mother had imbued on to me her ability to walk without falling. She can run three miles a day without fear of falling. She hikes high mountain paths. Without falling. I’m lucky to walk around the corner and not land in the pothole that is right by the fire station and fall into it. Like I did. Last year.
I wish my mother had taught me more about patience. Financial investing. Self-discipline. I wish she had given me her ability not to get sucked into stupid phone games. I wish I had her ability to learn and retain and to hold on to things. But as I write this list, I wonder at the lessons I have failed to pass on to my own daughter and son. I wonder at the lessons I missed with my students. I wonder…