It's Mother's Day. Today I'm reminded of Billy Collins's poem "The Lanyard." Go on, click play and listen. I'll wait right here for you:
I had the pleasure of hearing him read this live a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how funny and how heartbreaking the poem was. Collins calls it an "archaic truth: that we can never repay our mothers." All right, it may be archaic - but it's still the truth.
I mention my mom so often that when she said, "Well, are you writing a post about me for Mother's Day?" I sputtered, "Mo-om! I have to work hard not to quote you every other sentence."
But she's right, as usual. There are still some things to say.
|If you ever see her with this look, then you |
might as well just go home. (This picture was
staged, yet it still makes me feel uncomfortably
like I'm in big trouble for something.)
When I think of what it means to be a woman, you are the person I picture. I have watched and listened to you for my whole life. Here are a few things I know about you.
You are brave. You left behind a person who would have destroyed you, and then you made a life with a better man. Then, years later, after my dad told you he had accidentally turned and introduced himself to the other man at a recent conference, instead of slinking away in fear you arranged to meet with the man and offered him forgiveness. You work at healing yourself.
You figured out how to be a mother, even though it didn't initially come naturally. It took you a month to begin to like me - until I got sick - but you did. Later, you memorized the recipe for curing a sick kid: prop her up with pillows in your own bed, and feed her nonstop Sprite, cottage cheese, and Campbell's chicken noodle. You also developed a fool-proof test if you suspected her sickness was feigned: announce to said kid, "Okay, but if you stay home today, we're gonna talk about sex," and then smile at her spontaneous recovery.
You bore and tolerated a gaggle of small people who followed you around asking questions and making loud declarations in grocery stores and other public places (like "You a dummy, lady. Lady, you a dummy," and "No, we can't buy the bubble bath! It'll make your ba-gina itch!") or worse, we wandered off and ate Easter egg coloring tablets or lawn fertilizer, burned our fingers on the car's cigarette lighter, used up your good perfumes and toiletries (or all the expensive spices in the cabinet) to make potions, wrote all over the retaining wall with persimmon pulp, stood up on top of the little Holly Hobbie table in our room and hollered "SHIT!!" for no reason, and threatened every other day to run away. (And wisely, when you'd had enough, you called our bluff by saying, "Okay, the next time you say that, I'm going to make you run away.")
You live and love completely. You own up to your limitations, and then you chip away at them.
No one can resist the urge to tell you their secrets and their stories, even reluctant confiders. You yourself are the only person I know who, when asked, "How are you?" will bluntly tell the person how you're actually doing. If it's been a really bad day and you started bawling in the lightbulb aisle at Walmart because they were playing holiday music and your daughter died the day after Christmas, you will say all of that outright. The sadistic part of me loves that you sometimes make insincere people squirm because they expected you to respond, "Oh, I'm fine."
At the same time, you protect me - even sometimes from yourself. You say to me: "Don't let me put you on the hook and make you feel guilty. Take that hook out of your chest and tell me where to go!"
When I was young, you divided dilemmas simply into "moral issues" and "everything else." Lying, playing you and Dad against each other, cheating, being cruel: moral issues. Everything else: eh, whatever.
On a given Saturday afternoon, a visitor to our house might find me riding a big wheel that was way too small for me, Rhea "digging for the bloody devil" in the side yard, and Jeff in his whitey-tighties, peeing on the Jefferson Oaks Drive sign at the corner of our front yard. Not a big deal. We were just kids, and you let us be that.
Or take another example: clothes. You didn't mind if I changed outfits three or four times a day, as long as I put my clothes away each time. You allowed me to leave the house and walk up the street to Lauren's house to play Barbies dressed in my Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem nightgown, Dad's enormous weightlifting belt, and high heels that were several sizes too big, and carrying my suitcase full of dolls. You never blushed or acted embarrassed at me (though you did humiliate the teenage me plenty of times with your exuberance, even while my friends thought you were the coolest mom ever.) When I was in high school and my chemistry teacher asked you, at Parent-Teacher night, whether there was any sinister significance to the fact that many of my clothes were held together with safety pins, you just laughed and said no. You let me wear the following items to school: the same purple corduroy harem pants every day for several months, the wool blazer Dad wore at your wedding, a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth as a skirt, the inside-out lining of a winter coat, a tri-corner hat from Colonial Williamsburg with fake flowers pinned to the crown, and sawed-off combat boots.
You surprised me with "Me and Mom" days in elementary school, showing up after my Friday morning spelling test and taking me out of school so that we could have lunch and go shopping - but more importantly, so that you could talk to me one-on-one and stay acquainted with who I was becoming.
When I had my first period, you laughed at my panic - not enough to make me feel stupid, but just enough that I wasn't so freaked-out anymore about the whole idea.
You forced me to try new foods, warning me, "You'll be ignorant if you don't." Ironically, I had no idea what ignorance was, but if it was something bad, I sure didn't want to be it. So I tried things. You even made me try blue cheese, when you didn't like it yourself, damn it. But now I love it, so thank you.
Every time you come to visit me, whether I want you to or not, you clean my house.
You "go stick your head in the flame chair" in the living room and pray hard, whenever you're up against something beyond you, and you gather strength to face it.
You ride a lawn mower and wield a leaf-blower like a very banshee.
You have young eyes, despite everything you've been through.
There's more, of course, and these are not the last words I have to say to you. The truth is, I hope to spend many more years knowing you. But I'm also content in the knowledge that even if one of us died tomorrow, there's nothing I would regret not having told you. Not one thing I've written here is going to surprise you.
And finally: Rhea wasn't the only one who can claim the words of this song. I can, too. And I'm giving you a new version.
I love you, Mom-friend.
Since I'm not actually spending Mother's Day with my mom in person, I'm giving her another kind of flower - a cauliflower. I was always that weird kid who liked that vegetable, but you know, I was lucky enough to have a mom who let me be who I was - not a liar and not ignorant, but definitely a kooky little gal, just like she was.
I make this as often as I can get away with it. The stuff is delicious, and it will convert even the most fervent cauliflower-hater - it did D.
from her website, 101 Cookbooks
Simply click the link above to get there.
The only thing I change about this recipe: I substitute about half the olive oil with unsalted butter. Sometimes I melt in an additional, final pat at the end, just before tossing in the chives, lemon zest, and Parmesan. It makes the whole thing very rich and awesome.
P.S. The color on the cauliflower is very important: that's why I've included a photo of what it should look like. The browning is what truly makes this dish special and very different from the versions of the veggie that you've eaten before.