Last week my mother turned 85. Not bad for a woman who thinks a balanced meal is a Little Debbie in each hand.
She’s been in a nursing home for three years now. Some days she likes it, other days she doesn’t. On the latter days, staffers deliver her meals and meds and beat feet ASAP. Mom’s body is old, but her mind and tongue are sharp as a stinging nettle. Do not, whatever you do, ask her opinion of Obamacare.
Her nursing home is a great facility, with kind employees and lots of activities. The last time I visited, a nurse’s aide was smoothing lotion on Mom’s body, softly singing “O Happy Day.”
She’s actually kind of a big deal there. When she sweeps down the hall in her wheelchair, everybody talks to her. She smiles and waves like a beauty queen on a float.
Like many mothers and daughters, ours is a fraught relationship. Sometimes she finishes my sentences, and I realize she knows me better than anyone else. Other times, I’ve been moved to tears by her generosity to strangers. She is also the funniest person I’ve ever met.
Then there are the days she criticizes my hair and clothes and choices and speech, until I ponder setting my own self on fire. Since she would consider that impolite, I just laugh instead.
There are two things my mother told me that I’ve never forgotten.
When I was 15, she looked at me and said, “Dear, you’re fat.” I was 5 feet tall and weighed almost 114 pounds. None of it was muscle; I was a Flabby Abby.
“People will say you’re chubby and it’s cute. It’s not,” advised the woman who weighed every morsel she ate on a Weight Watchers’ scale. “Knock off 10 pounds now, while it’s easy, and keep it off.”
It never occurred to me to tell her she was damaging my self-esteem. I obediently knocked it off and have kept it (mostly) off for 30-plus years. Mission accomplished, Mom.
The other thing she drummed into my head was: “Get an education and make your own money. Never depend on a man to support you.” At 25 she was divorced with two small children, no money and no job skills.
“Don’t make my mistakes,” she said.
I started working at 14, got educated and supported myself quite nicely, thank you. She was proud of her daughter the journalist, but disapproved of almost everything else, including my choice in husbands and addiction to exercise.
“Women aren’t supposed to move vigorously. It damages the female organs,” she’d say, with a straight face. “And by the way, I can’t stand your husband.”
(True to form, the night I called to tell her divorce was imminent, she said, very quietly, “He was good to you.”)
I have tried hard not to inherit her acerbic tongue, but wish I had her green thumb, and her zeal for cleaning. She mopped and vacuumed and dusted and scrubbed every single day, and sang while she worked. At suppertime, however, she said “Ugh,” and opened soup for her spawn. In the summer she’d spread newspapers on the kitchen table, hack open a watermelon and shout, “Dinner!”
Our arguments aside—and to be fair, I’ve not been a model daughter—Mom is the strongest soul I know. She fears nothing on earth, and taught me to get up when life deals a sucker punch. Anything I’ve accomplished, I owe to her.
So I spoiled her on her birthday, with flowers and a big card. And a carton of Little Debbies.
Julie R. Smith, whose mom starts every phone call with “Hello. This is your mother,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.