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I Had a Mother Who Read To Me

There's a picture, somewhere in the piles of albums and photos in my parents' house, of my mother at about the age of 24 or 25, crouching down on her heels next to me, her short, early 1960's skirt tucked demurely beneath her. I am, in the fashion of two year olds everywhere, looking deep into the cold, wet heart of a storm drain, fascinated by the gurgle of the water beneath us.

My mom is doing something wonderful, and all too easy to overlook. In that picture, my mom is looking at and enjoying the world through the eyes of a child. I have a mom who can do that kind of thing.

I have a mother who read to me.

I have a mother who read to me, and took me for walks through the neighborhood, and who had the patience to read the same stories to me again and again and again, or to stop and listen to the water in the storm drain for as long as I wanted her to. I have a mother who sang me lullabies--I can still the sound if I try.

But not only that.

I had a mother who had a brain, and who was not afraid to use it.

When I was about four, after my brother was born, my mother went to work full time. Contrary to the expert opinions of my youth, I never resented this; it was so obviously a part of who she was. I was proud of my smart, pretty mother who taught school.

Oh, I would have like a few more home-made chocolate-chip cookies, I suppose. But the family dinners at our house more than made up for those. I don't know what other families talked about, but I grew up on dinner table conversations about education, about graduate school (which my mom took on while teaching full time and raising us) and behavior modification and the psychology of learning; of politics (school board, local, and national) and of the world.

I grew up hearing the Grown Ups downstairs after my bedtime playing the home version of Jeopardy, and my mom's and dad's voices getting louder and louder and louder as they strove to outdo each other, intellectually. (I come by my competitive streak honestly.) On Sunday mornings, my parents would compete with their best friends in town to see which couple could finish the New York Times crossword puzzle first.

I grew up knowing that my mom, daughter of a truck driver, was one of four children, all of whom received advanced degrees. I grew up knowing that my mom was smart, and interesting, and important, and that I could become all those things when I grew up. I never felt the fear that having a mind and a career of my own would compromise me as a wife or a mother myself. I expected all those things of myself, because I saw my mother expecting them, too.

And I grew up believing that there was no conflict between being smart and being loved, because I grew up witness to my parents now fifty-year-old romance.

I remember watching them dance together in our house each New Year's Eve, and how they taught my brother and me to dance, too in an era when such things were becoming obsolete.

And I remember watching my beautiful, young parents dressed for dates with one another: my dad casually elegant in a summer suit, and my mom simply lovely in one of the long flowing dresses of the 1970's. The lawn was so green, the trees so tall and shady, and I was proud that they were mine, those tanned, energetic parents of mine. I think of those summer afternoons, and I feel the sun on my face forever. The way they loved one another made me feel loved.

The way my mother trusted us taught me to trust myself.

When they began to leave us at home, my brother and I, for date nights or after school, we made some terrible mistakes. But that was all right. My mom knew how to give us room to grow, and many of my memories of her are of simply knowing she was there. In view or out of sight she was somehow always essentially present for me.

I remember, for instance, before I ever started school and while my brother was still a baby in his crib, how I would play outside, looking up at the undersides of leaves and listening to the sweet complaining creaking of the swing set. I rarely looked toward the kitchen window, where my mom would be. I didn't have to, because I knew so certainly that she was there for me.

As a teenager, coming home late from school, I would burst through the front door, probably not so much as grunting a hello before I bounded up the stairs two at a time, headed for the private sanctum of my room. But the smell of spaghetti sauce or beef bourguignon greeted me. I knew she was with me even when I needed to be alone. She let me--till it was time to call me down to make the salad or come and eat.

My mother taught me to trust solitude, and to welcome quiet in its time.

And she taught me to have fun.

One of my favorite memories of my mother is from a hot summer's day, back before ordinary people had such a thing as air conditioning in a car. We were in Maine, and my brother and I were in our teens. I might even have been in college. We were driving down the road, on a ninety-five degree day, when my mother spied an old-fashioned hot dog shack. Nothing would do but we should stop and get foot-long hot-dogs and ice cream cones all around. I still remember my beautiful, elegant mother, laughing as she drove along, alternating bites of a ridiculously oversized hot dog and a rapidly self-destructing ice cream cone. We were covered with ice cream, hot and gritty... and very happy.

This is my mother's day card this year. I know I can't thank her properly: no one can thank their mother properly who had a mother who loved them long and deeply and well, and I certainly can't.

But thank you anyway, Mom: thank you for eating melting ice cream in July, for overcoming your fear of chairlifts in order to ski, for the times you were right there beside me and the times you let me wander adventurously away. Thank you for being proud of me, and thank you for all the ways you shared yourself with me, so I could know you, and be proud of you, too.

Thank you for being a mom who read to me. (I love you, too.)


anj said…
What a beautiful beautiful telling. Thank you. It always amazes me that the grief of a daughter whose mom found it so difficult to love her children never goes away, but I am so glad to be able to feel and rejoice in your story of a mom who could. I so hope my sons stories will be more like yours.

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