[ You Gotta Be Tough if You’re Gonna Be Stupid ] & other shit my mom rubbed off on me

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As I sit down to write this, I know the exact expression that will come on my mother’s face when she realizes that this is a Mothers’ Day post for her. I know the look so well – not just from witnessing it for so many Mothers’ Days, but also because I now sport the same look. The expression that pulls our lips in a straight line, tugging on our chin slightly, eyelids settled comfortably between high cheekbone and furrowed brow, as our eyelashes have the fun job of holding up that heavy brow, which gives her and my eyes the depth and distinction of a creative philosopher (if I do say so, myself.)

This look. This look of modesty and gratitude with a dash of an eye-roll: this is the look on my mother’s face. A slight shake of her head, a salty chuckle that loops from the bottom of her chest and up through her nose, she’ll smile that flat-lipped, curled-corners smile that reaches the depth of her eyes, and she’ll think how absolutely ridiculous this silly holiday is, surprised at how the sentiment, nonetheless reaches that spot in the chest where it burns in a knot in her throat and prickles the space behind her eyes.

I know this, as I know all the things I do about my mother because, despite the familial mantra that I am the most oblivious human EVER, I have learned a few things over the years, including learning how to look up from my own reflection every once in a while and watch those around me.

There are two truths that have remained constant throughout our relationship: she never makes a promise she cannot keep, and she will not lie to me. Simple, yet hollow rules, right? Easy to recite, impossible to fulfill? I can only imagine the daily struggle to uphold her commitment to me through the years. Especially in sixth grade, when I asked her if I had a good singing voice after a girl in choir told me to stop singing because I was flat. (“Do you think you can sing, sweetheart?” [yes] “Well, that’s all that matters.”) Or, in third grade, when I asked if she believes in Santa Claus (“I believe in magic.”) Definitely that one time in second grade when I came home crying, asking her why I didn’t have any friends – was there something wrong with me? The harder truths to swallow, though, came later with “nobody’s going to like you if you stink,” and “you have to learn to play softball; they don’t let girls play baseball after sixth grade,” and, one of the more devastating (and common): “oh, honey, he’s gay.”

The lesson behind not making promises that cannot be kept is that a promise is intrinsically deceptive. A promise, when made, is a most sacred contract in which the inner-most hopes of a child are delicately enshrined in a gift bag of high expectations and sparkling dreams, locked upon a divine pedestal, dangerously teetering, threatening to topple over the edge, plummeting into the realm of broken hearts and binding disappointment, desecrating that cherished bond of trust.
Instead, my mother taught me to make commitments. Commitments exist within the walls of this reality, with an understanding that Life (capital-L) may interfere, at which point the terms may be renegotiated.

It was paramount that our relationship have a foundation of honesty, for, when Life (capital-L) finally happens for real, and her words are needed, she knew that only the most supportive love is cultivated through honesty, acceptance, vulnerability, and forgiveness, the sanctity of the relationship untarnished by deception. A practice I try to bring into all of my meaningful relationships.

There are all those cliché sentiments that will make their rounds today – here’s to the woman who clothes me, bathed me, fed me, loved me, who supported me through thick and thin, who was a shoulder on which to cry, an embrace in which to feel safe from all evils, a sound board, a therapist, a coach, and a best friend. Why, yes, all of those things, but so much more. So much more that the average Jane may not be able to put it into words. In fact, she’d probably say “There aren’t even words to describe how wonderful, beautiful, generous, bla blahblah my mom is,” but there are words, by George! And I’m going to finally do what my parents have been begging me to do since I first vocalized. “Use your words, Samantha.” Well, you asked for it.

I’ve been blessed with a unique gift for verbose over-explanation, one I’ve been honing since I was about six years old at camp, writing letters to my mom and dad, toying with all of the adjectives I could grasp, stringing them together in a line, stretching and twirling them, twisting them into oxymoronic pairs: “beautifully nasty,” and “awfully, terribly, disgustingly sweet.” My mom would chuckle at these, calling them quirky and charming, showing them with family and friends, sharing in the amusement.
I was mainly describing my nasty bunkmate – a girl who went out of her way to find the perfect, vicious cocktail of biting remarks to cut me deeply right where it hurt me the most, then twist. I wrote a myriad of letters describing the torturous interactions with this girl, my misery, my pain, my wounds, wanting my mom to call her names and put her in her place and make her cry, wanting to make her hurt the way she made me hurt.

It was my experience up to this point, in my eighth year of life, when sharing these types of experiences with my mom, to receive encouragement and retribution by way of satisfying generalizations like, “what a horrid thing to do!” or “girls can be so nasty,” the last word usually spit with a snarl and followed up with a gesture of comfort. But this time was different.

This time, much to my confusion, my mom asked me a slew of questions about this venomous girl. She asked me how old she is (seven years old), how long she’d been going to camp (three years), how much mail she’d get (none, I learned after a few days of investigating.)
That changed immediately. Letters addressed to her in my mom’s handwriting, stamped with our stamps, return-labeled with our return labels came almost every day, followed by care packages meticulously assembled, filled with goodies, snacks, toys, and puzzles – all catered to her!

After a few weeks of this, feeling a bit lost and neglected, I opened a letter from my mom a counselor tossed on the foot of my bed. My mom explained to me that Colleen was mean to me, not because of anything I did to her nor because of who I am, but because of parts of her life over which I had absolutely no influence or control. Colleen was a neglected child who felt desperately lonely and unloved. She was drowning in her own misery, powerless and chaotic, and she was just grasping for any semblance of control and power, and that manifested itself by preying on others’ insecurities and fears, and I noticed per my mother’s request that once my mother started taking an interest in her life through her letters, Colleen had back off antagonizing my bunkmates.

So, there I was: eight years old, sitting at the edge of my cot, staring into the space between reality and imagination – where deep thoughts and epiphanies lie – contemplating this whole Colleen situation, which lay spread open on the floor of my brain, wondering about this world and how I relate to it. I found myself facing this existential dilemma whether to continue reacting emotionally and personally, or, when confronted with this type, to reach further, look deeper, and explore the truth hiding within.

This was the earliest version of what I now know as “the two-percent truth.” My mother always says, “there is two-percent truth in absolutely everything.” My mother heard all of my horror stories about this girl, and, instead of hulking out to protect and defend her threatened cub, she recognized and addressed the aching, lonely heart that plagued my bully.

I guess a simple word for what I learned that summer at Camp Lohikan would be “compassion.” Compassion, patience, generosity, tolerance. All traits learned from both my parents. Add vulnerability and honesty into the mix, and we’ve got the secret recipe for Living Fully in Yourself. In that fabulously awkward stage of pre-pubescent-meets-adolescent, I finally found the strength within to grab a hold of my confidence and plant it firmly within me. By giving it an unwavering foundation, it was able to bloom and spread up my trunk and out through my links to my fingertips and toes. I got in touch with my inself, my outself, my higher being, and my lower self. I learned where I stood in the universe, spent time exploring my energy – what gives strengthens it, what scares it, how far it reaches, how connected it is now, and how connected it wants to be. I learned where, how, and whom I want to be within the cosmos, and, through this exploration and discovery, I gained a much greater, clearer sense of respect and love for myself. As most 14 year olds, I completely understood the universe, I understood life, and I understood what it was all about. I had all the answers. So, naturally, I wore outrageous colors, painted my nails black, dyed my hair pink with Red-Enhancing Shampoo, hooked chains around my hips, and went out for the cheerleading squad.

During this delicious phase of my life, my mom commented almost every day on how much she loves how I’m comfortable in my skin, how I stand up to bullies, speak out against injustices, speak up about what I believe in, how smart I am, how beautifully I write, how bold and strong I am. “You’re the bravest person I know,” she would say to me at least three times a week, a phrase I etched close to my heart and look at still to this day whenever I’m feeling less-than-that. These sentiments always supported with swelling pride – though she’d never use the word “pride” – gleaming usually in the quality of her voice, or the twinkle in her eye, or the way her smile would tug the outside corners of her eyebrows toward the corners of her mouth.

What fascinated me the most about this was how incredulous and awe-struck she’d be on each of these occasions. It was as if she was floored – nailed to the floor to keep herself from floating away with elated admiration. This is fascinating to me because where did she think it came from? I don’t think I ever expressed this to her in the moment, maybe because I didn’t have the capability to properly express the idea at the time, but everything I am, I learned from her. Everything I know, I know from her. I found my strength in her, my confidence. I was always watching. Sitting in the back of the car, in the next room, on the floor of her office, at the dinner table with all her friends. I listened. I listened to everything. I listened to everyone. Her music, her radio stations. I read her books, asked her questions, learned her processes, her practices, her vocabulary, her way of being in the world. Living Fully in Yourself.

She taught me how to cry, “Open your chest up toward the heavens and cry to the skies. It will be a fuller, more satisfying experience. Release yourself fully into the universe.”
She taught me how to connect to the universe, “You get back what you put out. Ask and the universe will provide. Put it out there.”
She taught me how to succeed by teaching me how to embrace failure, natural and inevitable failure.
She taught me how to be brave, “Embrace your fear. If you acknowledge your fear, listen to it, let it be heard, address it, and let it go.”
She taught me how to forgive, “How can you expect him to forgive you if you won’t forgive yourself?”
She taught me to dine with the queen and throw an elegant dinner party.
She taught me how to survive with the secrets to life: “You gotta be tough if you’re gonna be stupid,” and “It’s always easy when you know the answers,” and “this, too, shall pass.”

One thought on “[ You Gotta Be Tough if You’re Gonna Be Stupid ] & other shit my mom rubbed off on me

  1. Liz Callahan

    I’m moved and humbled and impressed and delighted and terrified. Moved by the depth of your emotions. Humbled by the enormity of the responsibility of mothering someone who paid such close attention. Impressed by your capacity for expression. Delighted to witness your journey into adulthood. And terrified by the vulnerability brought on by loving someone as much as I love you, my child. I treasure those words almost as much as I treasure you.

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