For so many years, I’ve sulked on Mother’s Day and watched, yearningly, as bouquets of flowers and warm, squishy hugs were exchanged, brunches were savored, and moms and daughters in flowing sundresses got pedicures together. I can’t bring myself to get pedicures on Mother’s Day, in fact. The nail salons are just too crowded. I can get flower painted on my toe any other day of the year. But I want this year to be different. I want to honor my mom in a way I never have before, to spend the day thinking about what a radiant light she was, how hilarious, kind, loving, and supportive she was, and most of all, how grateful I am to have had such a remarkable woman for a mother. So, I shall share a couple of chapters from our story, from the carefree days before the sickness and suffering set in, from the happiest of the 21 years we walked together on this planet. She lived for her kids…we were the beat of her heart and the song of her soul, and we miss her profoundly each and every day.
Tell my daughter to lose weight again. I dare you.
I’m not sure if child molestation was extra popular in the 80’s, or if it was just extra popular in my mom’s imagination, but in her world, everyone was a potential pedophile (not just priests)… trusted teachers, uncles, neighbors, coaches, and even Mr. Rogers had devious behavior lurking under the surface. This is why, five nights a week, three hours per night, for five years straight, my mom watched my gymnastics practice. Sure, other parents did the same thing. But they were only there to criticize their children and yell at them when they fell off the balance beam. My mom could care less if I fell off the balance beam. For her, this was an important life lesson – that’s what happens when you hurl your body through the air over a 4-inch-wide beam. Now get back up and try again.
She sat on the cold, hard bleachers in the parent’s section, happy as can be, reading her romance novels, making friends with the coaches, telling jokes…always able to make even the meanest coach of them all, Dennis, crack a smile. Dennis had a reputation for having a fiery temper, and he’d been known to throw chairs at little girls for not sticking their landings after a vault. But he was never mean to me, because my mom watched him like a hawk. One night, Dennis herded my team into a corner of the gym and spread us out on mats to practice all three splits. From where my mom was perched, she couldn’t see what was happening. But there was a scale in that corner, and one by one, we were told to step onto the scale as Dennis arbitrarily decided how much weight each of us needed to lose.
I was 10 years old and weighed 62 lbs. I was a tight, tiny bundle of skin, bone, and solid muscle. But Dennis said I had a “bubble butt,” and he commanded me to lose 1 lb., immediately. I was shocked, not only because I was the smallest kid at school but also because even at that tender young age, thanks to my mom, I had a positive self body image. On the drive home from the gym that night, my mom sensed something was bothering me, but I refused to tell her what had happened. She began to notice, though, over the next few days, that I wasn’t eating a whole lot, and she demanded to know what was going on. “You either tell me, or I’m taking you to Dr. Wong.” That did it. Our pediatrician made it a habit to do a rectal exam every single time we went to see him. Sinus infection? Finger in the butt. Broken ankle? Finger in the butt. Spider bite? Finger in the butt.
“Dennis told me I have to lose one pound!!” I blurted out, as I started to cry. And then I watched as my normally calm, sunny mother turned from mama to mama bear, as she reached into the refrigerator and grabbed a package of steak, picked up her car keys and her purse, and ordered me into the car. Now. I’d never seen her so infuriated, and I was frankly a little scared. I didn’t utter a single word on the way to the gym, and I was convinced my gymnastics career was over, because she was going to hit that coach over the head with a side of beef.
She unwrapped the meat in the car and marched me straight into Dennis’ office, slammed the bloody chunk of raw steak down on his desk, and in that quiet, don’t-you-dare-fuck-with-me scream that can really only come from a mother, said “Do you know what this is?” The color drained from Dennis’ face. “This is a pound, you asshole! If you ever tell my 10-year-old daughter to lose weight again, my dad will break your kneecaps. Am I clear?” Dennis stammered an insincere apology as my mom took me by the hand and spat “You make me sick,” on our way out of his office, and I wondered how my sweet, old, Italian grandpa knew how to break a kneecap.
But my mom didn’t stop there. She drove me straight to Dr. Wong’s for a weight assessment, in case she hadn’t yet convinced me that my body was perfectly healthy. I was, in fact, underweight. So from there we went to my favorite restaurant, Tom’s Place, where she ordered me my most beloved meal – the one usually reserved for birthdays and mediocre report cards – a strawberry milkshake and French fries. “Eat up, honey. We’re not about to let some asshole give you an eating disorder.”
Half-up Side Pony, please.
When we were little and my mom would tire of her three rambunctious children running around the house like wild banshees, she’d claw her head with both hands and yell, “Enough!! Get out of my hair!” And we’d glance at that mess of curls on her head and immediately look away, embarrassed, wondering how anything could find its way out of that thick, frizzy, Italian nest.
My brother, Ryan, inherited those thick brown curls, and on him, they had this ethereal quality that made him look like a sweet, little angel. My mom cherished his hair so much that she refused to cut it, even when it grew bushy and tangled and always smelled of milk, and even when it became so long that strangers would comment to my mom, “What a beautiful little girl she is!” It didn’t help that he let me paint his fingernails bright pink and dress him in tutus.
I was born with stick straight, shiny brown hair, and I loved it. It always did whatever was asked of it when I was a child, and I used to toss it over my shoulder and flaunt it on the playground every chance I got. And then puberty set in. Have you ever seen that movie, Teen Wolf? Much like Michael J. Fox, my metamorphosis also seemed to emerge overnight. I’d watch that movie over and over again, feeling a special connection with that dorky, awkward teenager who had no control over what was happening to his body. When I received the gift of teenage-onset thick, curly hair, this was, I thought, the worst thing that could happen to me…worse than wearing braces, worse than full face acne, and still worse than getting good grades.
This is why, every single morning from ages 12 – 16, my mom got up an hour earlier than she needed to in order to style my hair for school. She used to tell me, “You have to suffer to be beautiful, honey.” This, as she yanked and tugged and combed out those messy curls, miraculously coercing them into something I was only somewhat embarrassed of. “How do you want your hair today, sweetie?” She always asked in her cheerful way, even though we both knew the answer. “Half-up side pony, please, mom.” It didn’t help that this was in the eighties. You couldn’t just tie your hair up into a messy bun and get on with your day. You had to style your hair, tease your bangs, spray it stiff with White Rain Extra Hold hairspray, and put a matching scrunchie in it. Sometimes two.
My mom never once complained about the sacrifices she made for her children, including waking up an hour early every day to do her teenage daughter’s hair. I took this seemingly small act for granted, and when she got sick when I was 14 years old, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation, and I found myself wondering if she’d still be able to do my hair every morning. Of course she did. And what I realize now is that she wasn’t just sculpting my hair. She was gently shaping my self-esteem. This was one of the most valuable gifts she gave me. Every morning, she’d tell me how much I’d appreciate this thick head of wild curls when I got older (I do), how lucky I was to be different from all the other kids (I was), and how the only thing that really, truly, mattered was the beauty that shined from within me. Though I wish I could’ve learned this last lesson a little differently, my mom courageously showed me what this meant when she got sick and lost all of her hair, yet somehow remained as beautiful, if not more so, than ever before.
She never ever faltered as a mom. No matter how awful she felt or how terrified she was of dying, even on her worst days, she was a strong, selfless mom through and through. She stood by me, she stood up for me, she gave me everything she had, and she loved me fiercely. I’ll never forget the last conversation I had with her. She held my hand in hers, as tears spilled from her big, brown eyes, and she said, “Five more years. I just want five more years with you. I want to watch you dance and be there for you when you get your heart broken. I want to cry happy tears for you at your wedding and hold your babies in my arms.” And though I was in far too much pain to articulate what I was feeling, I looked into those beautiful eyes one last time, hugged her so hard I could feel our hearts beating together, and whispered, “Mom, we could never ever have enough time together.”