**This is the piece I wrote for and read aloud in The Listen To Your Mother Show : Kansas City last Saturday night. Many people who weren’t able to attend have been asking to read the essays, so here’s mine. You can also hop over to the LTYM : KC blog here for a re-cap including links to other cast members’ FABULOUS essays.**
My mom’s mom, my Grandma Betty, was bipolar and incapable of being physically or emotionally there for her two daughters. She was in and out of the hospital, on and off the Lithium required to treat the manic depression that consumed her. She was arrested several times; once for stealing rakes from a gardening store, again for sneaking off with some items from Marshall Field’s, and finally for “dancing lewdly in a bar.” After some warnings from the police threatening to lock her up, she stabilized somewhat and took her meds faithfully. My mom’s father was an asshat who rarely had anything nice to say to or about her and she already lacked a stable maternal role model. I tell you all of this so you understand that my mom didn’t have a great example of how to be a mother, nor did she have the support that she needed. But she was still always there for me.
Before my first Homecoming Dance in 1991, Mom took me to Pearl’s Place, a small shop close to our house in New Orleans. It was THE place to go for dresses of all kinds–Mardi Gras balls, prom, formals, even wedding gowns and bridesmaids’ dresses. It turned out to be our one and only stop. From of all the fluffy, frou-frou, pastel, poofy-sleeved ridiculous things on the racks, she helped me choose a basic black number with black and white polka dot edging along the top of the bodice. Knee length, strapless, flattering; but not revealing. Not that I had anything to reveal, mind you. I was 15.
The week beforehand we started preparing. We bought two pairs of black pantyhose in case I got a run in the first pair. We bought my first black pumps. We bought my first strapless bra.
It was to be a week of firsts.
During those days, I noticed something wasn’t right with Mom, that she seemed off. She stayed in her room a lot and I swore I heard muffled crying. When I asked Dad about her, he didn’t say much as he put his hands on my shoulders, steering me away from the closed master bedroom door. I was sad for her, but guiltily felt giddy about my upcoming weekend.
That Saturday, the day of the dance, she trimmed, filed, and painted my nails a pretty mauve color, the little Loreal bottle as familiar to me as the smell of her Diva perfume, which she still can’t live without, but uses sparingly. She was quiet, but asked me lots of questions about the dance: where we were going to dinner first, who was going with us, was I nervous, etc. Then I took a shower, convinced this would be the best night of my life.
The skies darkened and I got nervous. I focused on curling my hair under on the ends and putting on some of Mom’s makeup. I didn’t have to open the second pack of pantyhose. We took photos. I practiced the box step with my dad, which proved to be useless at the dance. Looking back on the photos now, I look happy, but my parents look….odd. Or maybe that’s just because I know now. Dad looked stand-offish and Mom looked fake-happy. Dad kept busy snapping photos while Mom helped me get deodorant off of my dress, secure my strapless, barely A-cup bra on its tightest setting, and add blush to my pale cheeks.
I went to the dance and felt awkward. My date was just a friend I’d had a crush on. There was no goodnight kiss, but at least he slow danced with me. During the fast dances I hid in a corner trying to fade into the ugly country club wallpaper. I watched the upperclassmen having a fabulous time and envied them. I thought about Mom at home and wondered if she was okay. I wanted to take off my pantyhose. It was hot and itchy and suddenly I felt all closed in and the room seemed too small. We left soon after.
The next morning we had a family meeting.
On that cold Sunday, Mom taught me that life goes on even after your life partner walks away soon after your 20th wedding anniversary. She taught me that boxed wine and cigarettes are okay some days. especially after your husband comes out of the closet. She taught me that even moms cry when things get bad. Eventually she showed me that parents have to start dating. Although I didn’t like it, I still had to be nice. Which I wasn’t. But her patience never wavered.
Mom knew Dad was gay for that week before Homecoming, the week before he told us kids. She insisted they keep that secret for ME so they didn’t spoil my big night. That week was a nearly flawless performance, her pretending nothing was wrong when inside she was dissolving.
My mom continued to welcome Dad into our house for family dinners for OUR sake. We spent holidays and birthdays together at her insistence for OUR sake. She always put us first. She put herself after the man who left her after 20 years of marriage even though he’d known he was gay since he was 12.
My mother is maturity.
She is intelligence.
She is perseverance and strength.
My mother is grace.
She finds her way and helps me find mine. She’s a warrior, finally fighting for herself, after all these years and all she’s been through. She waited until we were all on our own before stepping aside and taking the necessary space to breathe, fight, grieve, and face everything she’d set aside for so long.
She lost her husband, her lifelong partner, while he found his freedom and his voice to become an activist. She had to watch it all. It was in her face, all of our faces. but still she stood strong. unwavering, careful to set an example for us and allow us to form our own opinions of our dad and what he was doing. She did not project; she held back, and she did it for us.
She lost her footing, the ground ripped open underneath her. She hung on and she waited after losing her husband. Sure, my dad was generous and continued to care for us all financially, but she desperately wanted independence.
And now she has it. Now she is comfortable in her feelings, allowing her anger to rise up and recede, letting the emotions roll over her in waves. and this is exactly how it should be.
She always put herself last. She still does.
Now? Being a mother myself, I understand that this is what mothers do.