My mother is extraordinary. Smart, beautiful, charming. And a survivor. The Depression, dysfunction, discrimination, me. She lived through it all and came up smiling.
It’s taken me 10 years and $10,000 worth of therapy to say that. It’s how I see her now. But that wasn’t always the case.
It’s hard to pick one quality, out of 149, that, pre-couch, annoyed me most about my mother. Was it her belief that the old Burger King jingle, “Have it your way, have it your way,” applied to more than cheeseburgers in her case? Was it that subtle way she had of cutting me off at the knees as I raced out the door to an important event? “Did the bulb burn out in your lamp while you were dressing?” she’d chirp. Or perhaps it was her unpredictable, and sometimes harsh, temper. One time she threatened me with adoption for spilling a box of Rice Krispies, but not a word was said when I accidentally set the kitchen curtains on fire. There were days when adoption looked good.
No, out of a pretty sizable catalog of human flaws I’d have to say that the most frustrating to me was Mom’s uncanny ability to ignore any unpleasant reality, large or small. I called it “denial” back then and spent hours telling my therapist, Dr. Do Little, that it was really she who needed the next appointment. At $120 an hour he was happy to hear about it ad nauseam.
Today, post-couch, I call this amusing behavior a survival technique and say that it should be in the Boy Scouts’ Handbook right next to “Beehive – Friend or Foe?” My mother was the original “spin doctor.” She was not unaware of a problem; she just chose to ignore it until she was able to turn it into something acceptable, maybe even attractive.
When she found cigarettes in my coat pocket, she decided that I was not smoking them, I was just carrying them around so I could look grown-up. I was 35.
When I told her that I was getting divorced the first time she said, “Sit still. I’ll put the water on for spaghetti.” I was dumbfounded until I realized that, in her mind, if we sat down to a meal like on any other visit this wouldn’t be happening. She used spaghetti like some people use Valium. Years later she would say that, even though my ex-husband had gone on to acquire great wealth, he’d lost his looks along with his hair. I was much better off without a shriveled, bald millionaire.
By the time I got around to my second divorce she’d mellowed. We didn’t have to eat and she deadpanned, “It will make for a page-turning autobiography, dear.”
I’ve got kids of my own now. I’ve chosen to take the opposite tack with them. I see problems where there aren’t any just so I can be sure that I’m not missing anything. I insist on straight talk with my teenagers. Often. Will there be a responsible adult at the party? Are you sniffing the cooking spray? Do you know that oral sex is still sex, no matter what President Clintons said? I drive them crazy.
I don’t know which technique is best. Shelving disasters for another day, a la Scarlet O’Hara, or looking for them relentlessly, a la Woody Allen.
I only know that my kids have a list of 149 about me that irritate them. I’m okay with that, sort of. In fact, I’ve told them to forget saving for a car and start saving for a good psychiatrist. I just hope that one day, they will come to appreciate their quirky old mom like I do mine