It’s Mother’s Day…and I had a mother. A mother I shared with the hundreds of kids she taught over the years. Kids who didn’t know that she had become an expert on adverb use because it was her weakest grammar subject when she was a student and she was overcompensating. Kids who grew accustomed to her telling them to “look it up” when they asked about a word’s meaning. Kids who learned that to “forget” their homework meant an automatic ‘F’ on the assignment. And kids who came to her when their hearts were broken, when they were in trouble, when they had good news to share, and when they were scared – because their own mothers were far away. I used to resent sharing her with ‘her kids.’ “She’s MINE!” I’d think selfishly as I heard her tell my dad one night about a troubled young student who had sought her out after school one day. “I think he just needed a mom,” she had said. My own teenage self-centeredness prevented me from seeing the gift she was to this boy, as I sulked about him receiving attention that should have gone to me. I’m sheepish at the way I felt and acted then. Today, my FaceBook friends list is full of my mom’s former students, kids I grew up with on a island that seems almost magical with memories. And I realize now what a gift it was to have had a mother who I share with so many. Their memories of her join with mine to make sure she is never forgotten, and for that I will always be grateful. My mom is gone now. This is my sixth Mother’s Day without her. There are days it amazes me how much a grown woman of 47 can still need a mom (Something I rarely admit to anyone). But she is gone. And with her went the soft lap that welcomed my tears; the sharp look and silent treatment that accompanied every wrong move I ever made; the tremulous voice singing to the Blessed Mother each Sunday; the tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches that greeted on half-days from school; the iron will and unshakeable faith that buried a husband… and a daughter; the prematurely gray hair I styled into endless bouffants when she would hand me her brush and tell me I could “play beauty parlor;” the love of marshmallow Peeps and Final Four basketball; the ritual of her grandchildren sending her their report cards for approval; the scores of letters she wrote daily; and the soft soft hand , prominent with blue veins and age spots, stroking my hair and telling me it was all going to be ok – whether I was four or forty. I marvel at women who still have their mothers. I make jokes about it and brush it off. But there is an empty mom-sized hole in a corner of my heart that will never be filled again. And it presses on my chest and reminds me of what is gone.
It’s Mother’s Day…and I had a sister who was a mother. When she was expecting her first son I had just turned twenty-one and was looking forward to being at the age where my sister and I could hit the town together. She was always so glamorous to me with her violet eyes and dramatic makeup and seemed to hold the key to some magical grown-up life that was out there waiting for me and I couldn’t wait. But now in her place was this earth mother who played Whitney Houston’s ‘I believe the children are the future” on endless repeat and waxed rhapsodically about child development. Even my mother was heard to mutter wryly “apparently your sister is the first woman in all of history to give birth.” Being a mom, especially a mom of three boys, suited her perfectly. She threw herself into the world of birthday parties and cub scout meetings, once calling me in tears when she had realized she was the only cub scout mom with a job, which left her on the edges looking in at the world of stay at home moms who scheduled pack meetings for 2 in the afternoon and smirked when she asked if they could be held “after work.” My sister always wanted… to be that manicured mom who had all the time in the world, to be that creative mom with the goodie bags at class parties, to be the mom with the rolling lawns and beautifully decorated house. She never quite made it. But what she sometimes couldn’t see was that she was more than that, better than that. She was the mom with the chaos of running boys and barking dogs and a living room littered with transformers and teenage mutant ninja turtles and comic books. She was the mom who wasn’t above getting dirty playing the back yard, or staying up late to help with a class project. Oh how she loved “her handsome men,” how her face lit up when she described how smart they were. We had one brief weekend together as moms when we gathered in Maine for our mom’s 75th birthday. My daughter was two her youngest son was four. For two days we compared sippy cups and cartoons, toddler tantrums and children’s books. For two days we sat drinking wine while our children argued over who got grandma’s lap. For two days we were sisters and moms. It was the last time I saw her. Today I live through her boys on their Facebook pages, trying not to intrude or gush when I see news of new jobs, girlfriends, driver’s licenses, and triumphs. But occasionally I can’t help myself. I have to interject with a story, a word of praise or encouragement, and more than one “hey be careful!” admonishment. And if I ever miss her too much, I see her daily in my daughter – her rolling eyes, her flashes of temper, her innate ability with makeup are all so very much Marie. I had a complicated relationship with my sister but more than anything I wish we had had more time to be moms . . . together.
It’s Mother’s Day. . . and I am a mother. After fourteen years this fact still astonishes me. After years of caring for nephews I thought I’d be a natural at the whole mom thing. I was wrong. I didn’t understand the screaming angry baby I was handed. I floundered at my attempts to be a mom like all the other moms of infants and toddlers I saw. Calm, serene, joyous in the company of their children. For years I struggled to figure it out get it right. For years I failed at anything resembling cooking. (To this day I cannot remember for the life of me how or what I fed Liza for my five years of single mother hood before I married Kelly. I’m guessing it involved a lot of chicken nuggets). I had to call friends for help with class projects that involved crafts or sewing. I cried. A lot. Often each morning and each night wondering how I could get this so terribly wrong. Then something happened. Liza grew up. And as my friends were bemoaning the loss of babyhood and toddlerhood I realized I had been waiting all along for this teenager to arrive. I suddenly got it. And while my heart still aches at the loss of sister and mom, there is a newer fuller feeling that connects me to this five-foot, ten-inch young woman with the sharp wit, and the gorgeous smile. The young woman who can now match me Shakespeare quote for Shakespeare quote, show tune for show tune, and joke for joke. The young woman whose bright pink room smells of Bath and Bodyworks body mists and Suave hairspray. The young woman who reminds me that I need to buy clothes in colors other than black, and who chews her lip while she reads the same way I do. . . and the same way my sister did. Where the days used to seem endless now they fly by fully of texts and calls that all begin the same way, “mom, I have a question…” High school looms and beyond it a future so bright it dazzles me and makes me ache at the same time. My motherhood journey carries the scars of all the missteps I took and battles I fought along the way. But today I finally feel like the mother I was meant to be. In Liza I see three mothers. I see my sister’s drive and ambition, my mother’s compassion and friendliness, my open heart and sarcastic wit. I see the body type, the nearsightedness, and the thick wavy hair we all shared. I see her wit and her worries, her strengths and her weaknesses. I see my mom. I see my sister. I see myself.
Happy Mother’s Day
It was as if a sea of red had washed over my FaceBook news feed. This week as the Supreme Court of the United States took up two landmark cases critical to the fight for marriage equality, a movement began encouraging supporters to change their profile pictures to a red version of the Human Right’s Campaign’s traditional blue and yellow equal sign. As one half of a legally married gay couple who is still denied the 1, 138 rights benefits and privileges that straight married couples receive, I was anxious about these cases and hopeful that they would bring about the change that is so needed for families like mine to be treated fairly. Of course, I was eager to change my photo and update my statuses accordingly to show my personal stake in this critical issue. I frankly never expected what happened next.
Watching my newsfeed this week was somewhat akin to watching the first raindrops splatter on my back deck during a hot summer afternoon thunderstorm. A few fat drops, widely spaced with lots of dry decking in between them giving way to a shower then a downpour until the deck is completely drenched. So too did those first few red equal signs on my friends profile photos suddenly become ten, then 30 then 75, then 200, then so many I could no longer keep track of them all. I was awash in a sea of bright red support, reaching around me, embracing me and lifting me up as I watched my Twitter and FaceBook feeds anxiously for news of what transpired during the oral arguments. The creativity was astonishing. Equal signs made of hundreds of hearts, equal signs made of bacon (side note: bacon’s press agent is doing a hell of a job), equal signs made out of books on shelves, on the chest of Wonder Woman, and every possible variation one can imagine were popping up everywhere I looked. And as with every big social media movement, there was backlash.
This is ‘slactivism!’ came the cry. “Changing a profile photo is an easy way to think you’re doing something without really doing anything!” “I’m not following the crowd!” “I don’t need a red equal sign to show my support!” And the variations on the slactivism argument were as creative as the very emblems they protested. Now let me be the first to say that I am not a fan of slactivism myself. I never ever take part in the pinking of the world every October even though I lost my mother to breast cancer, and I never pass on the “share this if…” memes. It’s just not for me. But there was something different about what happened this week. And the difference was in the dialogue.
I’ve had the ubiquitous blue and yellow HRC sticker on my Jeep for years. The emblem also adorns roughly 10 baseball hats between me and Kelly, a few sweatshirts, and assorted coffee mugs and water bottles. It’s a huge part of my daily life. But this week when dozens of friends messaged me or posted on my wall to ask “what are those two lines? What does this mean?” I realized how few of my straight friends knew its’ significance. The conversations that ensued about the equality sign were wonderful, and I felt my heart grow lighter every time I saw another friend’s facebook page change to red. But it didn’t stop there. A staunchly conservative friend, (yes I do have some of those!) currently in seminary school, took up the banner of marriage equality with a passion that humbled me. Going toe to toe with scripture quoters, and taking down argument after argument against the rights of families like mine. Her fiery passion was humbling, astonishing, and frankly terribly amusing. Those marriage equality opponents didn’t know what had hit them. When she told me “your family is why I fight,” I started to cry. Friends were writing me asking, “how do I get that picture? I want to show my support too!” People sent me photos, clips, memes and messages. Some were funny, and many were touching. “I’m a coward, I didn’t change my photo, my family is too judgmental… but I’m with you,” came one message. “I didn’t want to be a part of this, I thought it was a fad, but now I need to be” came another. “Understanding your marriage changed my mind, I get it now,” came another. A creative friend photo-shopped Kelly and I onto the cover of TIME Magazine with their current headline “Gay Marriage Has Already Won.” And the messages kept coming. People asking me to explain how the laws treat my marriage differently from theirs, people asking me how they could support the HRC, people telling me that they loved me. That sea of red washed over me like the biggest wave on Ogunquit Beach, carrying me to shore and leaving me smiling and laughing in the shallows. It was a feeling so wonderful it left me no choice but run back out and let it carry me again and again.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that this year has been, to put it mildly, difficult, and my ability to keep my head above water and find a silver lining has been challenged at best. But this week, as the sun finally shone brighter outside my office window each day, as the thought of the arrival of spring seemed less and less of a pipe dream, and as that sea of wonderful, creative bright red love washed over me, I found myself smiling again, singing again, and laughing again. There is hope in this world and it showed itself in a sea of red. And for that I can only say… thank you.
It happened so fast. It happened in slow motion. As I turned my Jeep Liberty into my condominium parking lot Friday afternoon, I was thinking of all sorts of things: Finally getting back to the gym now that my strep throat was feeling better, learning those repetitive Act One lines for the show I’m rehearsing, what I would bring to dinner with our friends Saturday night. I wasn’t thinking that in a few seconds my neighbor would back out of her parking space without seeing me, and gun her car right into the driver’s side door of my Jeep.
I remember seeing the car coming at me and realizing I could not speed up nor brake enough to avoid the collision. I felt the back of her SUV collide with me, felt my front door buckle and push in against my hip, and heard the crunch of metal meeting metal. I didn’t feel my knee slam against the steering wheel column… I didn’t feel that until later when I found the big ugly red mark there. I didn’t feel my shoulders slam back into the seat after my seatbelt stopped me… I didn’t feel that til much later when I was trying to find a comfortable position for sleep. And then it was over and all I could think was, “No! Not my Jeep! Not my Liberty!”
The driver’s side door was crushed in and wouldn’t open so I climbed over the passenger seat and out to inspect the damage. MY neighbor was distraught, apologetic, worried, and solicitous. “No, no I’m not hurt.” “No, it’s ok , of course it was an accident. I know…don’t worry. Please. It’s fine.” And of course it was. There was no bodily injury, no shattered glass, just a couple of severely dented doors, and a broken mirror. Yet it wasn’t fine. I headed inside and called Kelly to come help me figure out what to do next. Snow was beginning to fall as we exchanged insurance information and called to place the claim. Why it didn’t occur to us to go inside to make the call I don’t know, but as I stood in the cold on my cell phone, staring at the crumpled doors of my Jeep, I suddenly could make no sense of what the kind Allstate agent was telling me. “I’m going to give you to my wife,” I said, “I’m a little shaken up and I am not concentrating.” Kelly took over and did what she does so well, make lists, ask questions and get things done. Me? I started to cry.
Now here is where you say “Katie, seriously. It’s just a car. You were fine, the car wasn’t totaled, and doors can be replaced, you have awesome insurance, the accident wasn’t your fault, so why the tears?”
Ah yes. Why the tears?
My bright red 2004 Jeep Liberty was the first car I ever bought by myself. Yes at the ripe old age of 38 I finally negotiated, and signed for and paid for a car all by myself. (This fact makes my wife incredulous. She, of course, bought her first car at seventeen.) It was the summer of my divorce and it was the one totally selfish thing I have ever done for myself. I remember taking Liza, only five at the time, still in a booster seat, to test drive it. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with my friend Vicki, an amazing saleswoman, while she scribbled figures on a pad of paper and helped me negotiate over the phone with the salesman. When we picked up the car Liza and I giggled as we pulled out of the lot, windows down and the feeling of freedom before us. “Momma we got a BIG Jeep with BIG wheels!” she squealed from the back seat. And we were off. For me, that Jeep Liberty symbolized MY new liberty, complete with doing scary new things like buying a car for myself for the very first time. For the next 8 ½ years that Jeep took us to work, to school, endless trips to Maine to handle my mother’s cancer care, to the beach, to Rhode Island to see my brother, to the mall, to Nashua to visit Kelly in her apartment, and hundreds of other destinations. It kept me safe in the worst of snowstorms and I always felt particularly butch every time I would pop it into four wheel drive to get up the hill to my condo. Along the way it gained a Provincetown Sticker, a gay pride sticker, an Ogunquit sticker, a Holy Cross Alumni Sticker, an Obama/Biden sticker, and an HRC sticker. A string of pride beads hung from the rear-view mirror, and the collection of cds Liza listened to during her years in the back seat went from “Blues Clues” and “Kidz Bop” to “High School Musical” to Taylor Swift, until finally they were replaced by our battling iPods when she moved up to the front seat. The Jeep bore witness to everything from the nervous tears of a five year old on her first day of kindergarten, to the exhausted snoring of a 13 year old after 3 dance classes and a tech rehearsal. It’s walls hold the confidences of our best mother daughter talks, and the echoes of my tears when I was sure I was failing completely as a mom. While I was relentless about the maintenance of the car I tended to be a bit neglectful of the interior and Kelly often commandeered the Jeep for a thorough cleaning. And through it all I never stopped getting that little thrill I felt when I would see the bright red of its paint waiting for me in the morning, after work, or even in a random parking lot. MY Red Jeep. MY Liberty.
Now I’m a big girl. I know doors can be replaced and eventually my Liberty will be back for me good as new. But the tears that I shed for those crumpled doors weren’t just for paint and metal. They were for what they represented. My new life, my new liberty. But I know it will be home soon, back with us for more adventures… and someday, hopefully, there will be another young lady behind its wheel.. getting her own little taste of liberty.
But not TOO much!