As I write this I am sitting in my doctor’s waiting room nursing something that could be strep, a common cold, or the bubonic plague. You have selflessly driven to brooklyn from Queens to watch K, even though you have to work in the afternoon and this is a giant hassle for you, and despite the fact that you have been sniffling for days and have not once vocalized your own discomfort. Before I took off for the doc, you were sitting on the floor next to K, watching her place “Princess” on the Little People potty, over and over again. There you were, asking me if I wanted to pick up the ingredients to make chicken soup and offering to whip it up for me instead of rushing back to your home the minute I return so that you could, you know, live your life.
Yesterday on Mother’s Day I gave you a beautiful card and I wrote some sweet sentiments inside. The usual. Thank you. You are the best mom. You have shown me how to be a good mom to my daughter. The card took me five minutes to write (that morning) and, though I mean everything I penned, those words neither created a warm sensation within me, nor made me pause and reflect.
And that was wrong of me. Because there are things you should really know. There are multi-layered thoughts that actually race through my mind when I think about you late at night. When I let myself go to that ugly place where I imagine your death and realize that, at 64, you could have 30 more years or five. These are the facts about you that inspire me. That make me proud. That make me feel pity for you. That break my heart:
1. You never joined the other women when they cleaned up after Christmas dinner. You, like them, are Italian American. You, like them, learned your place in this world. Yet you, unlike any of them, refused to sit at the women’s table. Refused to leave meat on on your plate. Poured a second and third glass of wine. And then sauntered off to the men’s table and, without asking, plopped down next to Uncle Nick to play cards. You assumed the role of dealer. Blue and red chips accumulated in front of you. You didn’t bother to organize them into neat piles.
2. Your parents didn’t feel college was for girls. You always believed things would have been different if you were Jewish. Jewish parents encouraged their daughters to get a college degree, or at the very least, to sit in a college classroom for two years so they could marry a more respectable man. You would have been a lawyer. You tried to go back a few years ago. You attended classes for two semesters and quit with a 4.0 GPA. Why did you really give up?
3. I’ve tortured you through the years with cutting remarks about how you were never around. Yes, it hurt me when you weren’t there. But if I focused as much on the memory I have of you making me Stelline pastina with melted cheese when I was sick, of lying next to me in bed to watch The Muppet Show, of sitting by the radiator on snowy mornings while you made us fresh juice and oatmeal, of playing beauty shop with me and letting me brush your hair (thicker than mine, oily, darker, with deep red highlights…during this game you taught me the word “auburn” and this new unusual sounding trait made me wish my hair would change into something with an exotic name, something other than “brown.”)–if I focused on these memories instead of how often you were absent I would realize your need to look for fulfillment outside of the house (because one can only play beauty parlor with a four-year-old while watching All My Children for so long) wasn’t unusual or sinful. It didn’t have anything to do with your love for me. I would realize you were there as much as you weren’t and that our ideas about people, and especially about our mothers, are 30 percent fact and 70 percent emotion and resentment. I would confront the realization that forgiveness is not my strongest quality and that I expect you to be a Madonna, while I hold no such expectations for myself.
No Mother’s Day card could hold all these thoughts. And there are more. Decades of thoughts. I’m waiting for the day when I have the courage to spill over.