I always wanted one of those chatty, gabby mothers, the ones who set out the warm cookies and milk after school, eagerly hovering on both elbows to hear all about the day’s crushes, heartbreak and gossip. I coveted the moms who begged to do their daughters make-up, twisted tresses into French braids and got excited about the latest elephant bell hip hugger jeans and platform shoes.
My mother was the exact opposite. Our after school snacks were carrot sticks and celery. Cranberry juice stood in for soda and there were no weekends spent trolling the mall for the latest shade of frosted pink lipstick. My mom’s idea of a good time, her reward for a day of chores and household maintenance, was to curl up every afternoon with a book.
My mother is a smarty-pants. An intellectual. Her idea of a challenge was reading Will and Ariel Durant’s classic “A Story of Civilization.” All eleven volumes. I kid you not. I proudly told friends in our upstate New York suburb that she had a master’s degree. Take that, all you girls who’s Moms got the Mary Tyler Moore flip curl and culottes! Her currency was never the latest hairstyle, although she did get a cropped “Beatles “ cut before I was born. She wasn’t the interior decorating type, a serious cook or gardener. She was bookish. And she reinforced the importance of that by example, taking us to the library from a very early age.
When we were old enough to ride our bikes alone, I loved the grown up feeling of consulting with the librarians, having my own library card (so COOL!) and then placing the books in my bike basket for transport home. I can’t quite articulate the feeling I still get walking into a library or a bookstore today. It’s a sense of endless possibilities and want. Entering a fashion boutique on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue will never carry the same thrill. Books are a different form of acquisition, more lasting and fulfilling. My mother taught me that.
I picture my mother now, absorbed in her book; feet propped to rest her “throbbing veins,” (GROSS! we’d mouth to each other) as the late afternoon sunlight knifed through the living room window onto the mustard colored rug (yes, it was the 70’s.) The table was set for dinner; the roast was roasting, the vacuuming and dusting completed for the day.
Only now do I understand how reading buttressed her sense of individualism during the years when tending to our repetitive needs must have strip-mined her intellectual life. Books nurtured her own flame, especially as she navigated through three daughters’ teen years (oy vey), bubbling with hormones, churlishness and delayed gratification. It is in hindsight that I see how reading legitimized her presence among us. Books were her “cover” as she stationed herself in the living room chair, her antennae alert without meddling; such an under-rated attribute in today’s world of micro-managed parenting and helicopter hovering.
I don’t ever recall her telling me what to wear, criticizing a friend or offering up opinions about the boys who cycled in and out of our hearts (especially the one with the red Camaro who reeked of Marlboros.) Adolescence is a desert landscape of shifting sands and petty hurts. She was smart enough to recognize that the girl who excluded you from her birthday party one day is back as your bestie the next. My mother taught me how to be the bobber on the fishing line, not the hook with the bait.
You absorb things as a kid—even when you are trying not to. You tell yourself that when it’s your turn you will be a slightly different parent. You will edit, accept and reject. You will change things from the way you were raised, do it your own way. And sometimes you do. But I understand now what she was up to, each afternoon as we walked in the door from school. She was hanging back, holding her counsel and her tongue, being my parent, not my BFF. She was mothering—not smothering—and she gave me the space to learn for myself, to make my own decisions, choices and mistakes.
Now that I am a parent, working to instill a sense of well being and independence in frustrated by her occasional maternal indifference, I see that her approach required far more restraint than the dishy, tell-me-all tact. Those afternoons she spent at home, quietly reading, were a gift. They were an act of love equally as important as the love of reading.