‘Diamonds on the Inside’

My mother is one of the least superficial people I know.  While she could well afford to buy elegantly glass bottled fragrances from Bloomingdale’s she prefers the spray mist from Bath and Body Works.  She could surely swing it in her budget to do her clothes shopping at Chico’s or J. Jill, but she prefers to buy her cotton t-shirts and capri pants at K-Mart.  She could trade in or trade up luxury cars every few years if she wanted to, but instead treasures her 16-year-old VW Beetle and her ten-year-old Jeep.  This kind of practicality from a woman who, while she and my Dad were building their last house, bought every single handmade vintage iron hinge, door knob, and decorative lock box (some with the original skeleton keys) from a man she found on the internet who did architectural salvage and restorations, and spent more money per door than some people spend for hardware for an entire house!!!  She cares far more about the character and civility of a person than how they appear, or what qualities they project.  My mom is far more impressed by your moral compass than the GPS in your Mercedes, if you get what I mean.  She has known for all of her life that what we see on the outside and perceive to be true, is not necessarily relevant or reflective of what is on the inside.  As a young person, this seemed meaningless to me, but now that I am grown and she is growing old, I understand how incredibly important it is to recognize the difference.

My mom is one of those women who, as Ben Harper says, has ‘diamonds on the inside.’  When I was a young teenager and began to notice things like the size of women’s engagement rings, or the way some of my friend’s mother’s expressed themselves with their clothes or handbags, or the way some women chose to show what they valued or how they chose to demonstrate it,  I made a comment one day to my mother, as she was sitting at the desk in her bedroom, about how tiny her ring was…she looked down at her hand, and without missing a beat said,  “there is more love behind this little ring than most women will ever know.”  Boom.  That’s my mom.

She’s the best wife I ever had,” is how my dad describes her, as he grins adoringly at her and continues to see with his loving eyes the woman he fell in love with fifty years ago.  Love like theirs, and a lifetime of working together as true partners with a common goal and shared values is something I will never know.  Today is her birthday and she is one of those women who needs nothing and wants nothing.  What makes her the happiest is to know that her loved ones are happy.  So my gift today for her is to let her know that I am very happy with much of my life, and the parts that need improvement, well, I am really working hard to improve them.  It’s the only gift I can give her that won’t cost me a penny.

I have rolled my eyes at things she has said, and she has sighed with annoyance at things I have said, for decades.  We seldom agree on much, but the funny thing is, the older I get, the less I seem to roll my eyes and the less she seems to sigh.  Things she did or said or found to be important and valuable, that used to make me feel frustrated with her, are now things that I find, at this stage of my own “mid-life,” enviable.  As a young person I made great efforts to convince myself I was nothing like her, but I see more clearly now that to have been more like her would have been smart.  I’m growing older and she is growing old, and while we still disagree mightily on many matters, the things that really matter, I finally have begun to understand.

How to Save a Life

I know a number of women who have “bad mom” stories.  I know a number of women who have “no mom” stories.  I know a number of women who have both stories. I am not one of those women.  My mother is one of those women who steps up, no matter what, regardless of the circumstance or event, whether or not the situation appears to be difficult or may cause unease, every single time…From the morning of my dreadfully complicated birth, causing her great pain and needless suffering, and numerous complications, because she did not have insurance and therefore what should have been, even back THEN, a Cesarian session, was instead a spinal-block and an otherwise natural birth, that could have left both of us dead, she has been there for me.

In my years on this planet I have done things, said things, initiated things, participated in things, denied things, and started things that she neither liked nor approved, and while she has been very disappointed in these said things I did, she was not disappointed in ‘me,’ in the person that is who I am.   You see, the characteristic that seems to me most special about her is her ability to separate the behavior from the person.  I see these contemporary “yuppie” or “millennial” parenting books, that espouse these new and latest ways of discipline, that the child should not be disciplined, but the behavior that was bad or wrong is what should be punished, making sure the child’s sense of self is left unharmed, or lessons of that nature, and I have to write, in all honesty that she did this, long before it was such a “hip” way to parent.  She has been very upset, and truth be told, rightly so, over things I have done, choices I have made, and decisions I insisted were right, that were in retrospect, very wrong for me, or just in general very poor judgments, but she never denied me her love or care or shoulder to cry on when I “came to” and accepted the errors of my ways.  I have been disappointed and let down by people time after time in my adult life, but never by my mother.

When I found out that I was too far pregnant to get made un-pregnant at the clinic, and begged that my little sister tell my mother, because I was too ashamed, on my sister’s 15th birthday no less, my mother was so sad and so mad, but she never ever said bad things to me or against me.  She never said mean things about what a mess I had made of my life, of which 17 of them she had been so diligent to make “good” years.  AND most significant, to me at least, was that she never once said, “how could you do this to me?” or acted embarrassed or ashamed over what was happening to her daughter, me, in her world.   She never once made her upset and worry seem somehow more valid than my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad situation, and for that, I am so very thankful.

The first time I left my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad marriage, was eight months after my wedding day, and she and my Dad and my sister came to my cold, sparse, paneled, island house and started packing and moving what little I had into my Dad’s work truck, but I was inexplicably not ready to give up, and did not want to move back home.  I reluctantly went with them.  WHY?  Why I did not want to be in my family’s beautiful home with people who loved me and treated me well is still a great one of life’s mysteries, but I really did not want to be there, and so after only six months with them I moved back out, this time to a tiny apartment with intermittent heat, very little food, no car, no phone, and a bike to ride myself to and from work, and a not very nice man who I called my husband, and it was, as I should have expected a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad situation and again my mother did not judge me harshly, never kept her love from me or from my child, and I suppose just waited as best she could for me to come to my senses.  In June of 1987 I did just that, from the pay phone at 7-11 while my baby lie asleep in her crib a couple blocks away, called one of my two best friends and said, “I need you, please come” And she did.  And she drove me and my things back to my parent’s house and my mother accepted me with open arms.  When my chin starts to quiver and my eyes begin to well up, no matter what has led me to that point, my mother’s first inclination is to open her arms as wide as she can.

My mother and I, as all, or I suppose most daughter/mother relationships go, have had our share of spats and upsets, slammed doors, stomping up the stairs, rolled eyes, exasperated sighs, and raised voices.  I always apologize if I lose my cool and when she has blurted things that she wishes she could take back, she too has always apologized…I am a huge fan of knowing when to say sorry and knowing when to forgive and moving on.  My mother tells me that when I was only about four years-old I stopped letting her hold or cuddle me or hug me…I have no memory of this of course, but it must have made her feel bad.  I can list many things that I did as a daughter that were not nice, and I can list a few things that she did as a mother that were not nice, but always being able to say “I’m sorry,” and meaning it, and saying “I forgive you, forget it,” and meaning it, really matters in relationships.

Yesterday afternoon I talked to my mother about some things that have been weighing heavily on my spirit, things that have been keeping me from sleeping soundly, and things that keep me overstuffed with many emotions, none of them peaceful, and in mid conversation my chin began to quiver, and my eyes began to well, and I really REALLY hate to cry…I’ve always felt like it made me seem weak and needy, and have spent many, many moments of my life fighting the action, but yesterday, before I could hold back the deluge of tears and that heavy first breath that comes with the immediate release of deeply buried feelings, her arms were open and wide and extended to me before I could gather my strength of will to hold back or compose myself, and again without a word, she opened her loving arms, and I felt that she knows how to save me, even when I can’t figure out how to save myself…


Block Island

In July of 1994 I packed up my car with a six pack of Tab, a pack of Carlton’s, my eight-year-old, and two cds, Pearl Jam’s second album, and Stone Temple Pilot’s Core, and off I went, north on I95 to have an adventure.  I had a friend at the time who had recently suffered an unimaginable loss; two weeks before her due date, her unborn baby did a somersault in her uterus and knotted his own umbilical cord, and arrived on this planet already dead…her sadness was too great, being at the supermarket and having women notice her flat belly and two older daughters in the shopping cart and ask, where was the baby?  did you have the baby? what did you have? etc., so she told her husband he needed to find a job someplace else, away, and they rented out their house and went north to heal their hearts and their young family and asked me to visit, and so I did.

I was working a full-time job that I loved, but that did not afford me the luxury of living “well,” and I was going to college full-time, both at night after work and on my days off, and that summer, although I was young, and although I did not then know what I know now, that life would become much, much harder and that I was then perhaps living the best life I would know, I was sad that summer…not boo-hoo sad, but wondering where my life was going, what I was doing, what was I working for, was what I was doing worthwhile, was I a good enough mother, was I good enough human, would I ever meet a man to share my life with?  I had that winter gone on six blind dates.  Back in those days when we had new computers and very limited understanding of this gigantic “thing” called the internet, we still had dating classifieds in the back of the Asbury Park Press, and because I had no interest in meeting a man who thought bars were a worthwhile way, or place, to spend one’s time, and because I had only met one man, in all those years of college that I thought good enough to date (full disclosure: I thought he was, but he turned out to be a person who lied to my face, and cheated on me with some girl who worked at a Dunkin Donuts and then got her pregnant while he was my boyfriend, so to write that I was feeling confused is no exaggeration) I tried the dating pages of the paper…where else was I ever going to meet somebody?  Well, I discovered it was not in fact the dating pages of the newspaper.  Back in those days you wrote a little blurb about yourself, and read little blurbs others wrote about themselves, and then you dialed a number and used your personal code to listen to the messages left in response to your blurb and then called back, or didn’t.  Six times I went out on a date with a person who called my ‘number’ and who I liked talking to, and seemed to enjoy getting to know, and six times, as soon as I walked in the door of the place we were meeting, said that I was sorry, that my child was home sick with a sitter and I would be able to stay no more than one hour, but did not want to cancel on such short notice.  Six times I just knew that it was not a good fit for me and I was not going to be interested in dating this person.  I admit it may have been horrifically superficial but if I did not feel a spark or an immediate tingle in my belly upon locking eyes with the person, or if I just did not like his face, I knew it would not work for me, no matter what…I needed the jolt, the zing, the spark of chemistry…and years later I would understand how that karmically works out in the universe, but then, it was simply how things were, and my “sick baby” excuse, seemed to be the best way to handle a less than desirable situation.

So…by that summer, after a lonely winter of trying and wishing to meet somebody, and by springtime having accepted that perhaps I was simply meant to be alone, I was feeling terribly confused…Most nights, after putting my book down and turning off my light, I fell asleep with the same questions swirling and turning in my head, how can it be so hard to meet people?  who would not want a girl like me who works so hard and goes to school and gets good grades, and likes to cook and clean?  when will I finally meet somebody to share my time and space with?  So when my friend asked me to come up to Rhode Island for a few days and to bring my daughter, and she could stay with them for a week and then I could go back to get her, and it would do me good…I thought, “um, yes.  Yes it will do me good.”

When I got to Rhode Island we did not talk about my friend’s sadness, loss, or move, we just hung out and ate good food, listened to good music, watched three little girls play…and then the morning before I was leaving to go back to New Jersey she told me we were going to Block Island.  Her husband was in charge of three little girls and we were off…we took a ferry, which at first for me was challenging, as I need Dramamine to be on any sort of vessel, but my enthusiasm for an adventure and my ability to keep my eyes on the horizon line, kept me from feeling ill for the entire hour…I loved the rocks and the buildings as we neared the dock and I loved the vibe from the moment we disembarked.  We wandered around a bit; first I found a coffee shop and then a lady who sold handmade batik fabrics, and I bought a dress…dark blue/black and covered in white stars, moons, suns, and galaxies, and I put it on right over top of my tank top and shorts, and felt immediately, well “open” is the only word I can think of all these years later, I felt open…and then we rented bikes…

I had not ridden on a bike since I was a teenager, or maybe an adolescent, to be honest, thinking back to then, and remembering now, I don’t know how long it had been, but it had been a L O N G time since I had been on a bicycle and I wondered, those first few tentative pedalings, “can one forget how to ride a bike?”  …and then something wonderful happened…we started pedaling and we did not know where we were going, but we just started riding and we were hot and sweaty within moments and we just explored this island, this place with rough craggy edges and magnificent buildings and we went around a curve and suddenly, unexpectedly, the whole world dropped away…growing up at the Jersey shore in what can easily be described as the flattest place on earth, one does not expect to go around a curve and suddenly find the road dropping…dropping many feet per second, or so it felt like, and finding oneself on a hill, which to me felt like a mountain, on a bike going so fast, SO SO So fast…and noticing as the land becomes flatter, that the road before us becomes less straight, not only is it less straight, it’s a curve, kind of a sharp curve, and I am now not peddaling, and I am now kind of terrified of braking, having gone over my handlebars as a kid in a situation with far less altitude, and I am doing what feels like much more than coasting…I am soaring, I am free, I am sweating in my new batik celestial dress and it is flowing and my hair is flying and I am absolutely terrified that if I don’t turn the handlebars “just so” as the curve nears at the bottom of the hill, that I will just catapult myself over the rocks and into the ocean and likely will die…but I did not die and I did navigate the curve just so, and when we got onto some straight paved road, I felt a sense of peace that I don’t know I had ever felt before, and thinking back, I don’t know if I have felt since…The exhilaration and excitement was so fulfilling and breathtaking that I felt everything, and nothing, at the exact same time…

Is it silly, to be almost 50 years old and to think of that day as being one of the most fun days, one of the very best days, of my adult life?

I didn’t think about boys, or men, or wishing I had one, or more,  for the rest of that summer…I felt like me, and I felt like “me” will be okay if she is alone for the rest of her life, or she will someday find somebody who fills her up, like that sensation that day on Block Island, or maybe she will never feel that complete or peaceful again…it wasn’t that I didn’t care, but I guess I stopped caring so much…

I want to feel that peace and that excitement and that sensation of bewilderment, and I don’t know how to do it…“Things were different then.  All is different now” as Eddie Vedder so often sings into my soul…That friend and I parted ways four years ago after almost 20 years of friendship…and I missed her for a long time, and then I just accepted that she was done with our friendship and I healed from that loss, just like we all heal from all losses.  I think about that day on Block Island every now and then, and I learned recently that she’s left her husband, and bought an RV and is going to California…I suspect she is going to have an adventure…and I wonder, if after all these years, she too thinks about that day, and remembers how it felt, on those rented bikes with the breeze blowing our hair and the sweat stinging our eyes, how free and easy life felt, seemed…godspeed my old friend…