My mother celebrates her birthday today. I get the feeling she’s not so happy about that.
Whenever my mother’s within earshot, I enjoy telling people how, as a boy, I was raised by wolves. Or how my parents used to burn cigarettes into my skin. Or how they beat me with a steel boot. Or how they used to lock me in a dark closet.
Truth is, I was raised by the greatest mother on the planet. I know … I know—you probably think you were raised by the greatest mother on the planet. Well, bad news. You weren’t. My mom was there for everything. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. She hated baseball, yet attended my Little League games. She could care less about running, yet would get me in the car at 7:30 am for 8 o’clock Saturday morning races. Back when I wrote for the Mahopac High School student newspaper, The Chieftain, I’d read every single story to my mother before submitting it. That means she’d sit there are patiently listen to horribly written pre-pube hack jobs on the boys’ basketball team and the rock band’s keyboardist and the Say No to Smoking event.
The town I grew up in was small and sheltered. My mom was a probation officer in Putnam County. There were about four identifiable Jews—and we were them. Once, while the two of us were taking a walk, someone drove by and screamed, “Fuck you, Jew!” My mom, if I recall correctly, recognized the car—one of her former probationers. “Don’t worry about that,” she told me. I didn’t worry, because my mom was tough. Like, tough tough. She used to make a muscle, laugh and say it was developed carrying me around as a butterball infant. At work, the various probation officers all carried guns. Mom refused to—”I don’t need it,” she said. She didn’t mean to sound like Dirty Harry. Literally, she felt no need to have a gun. To me, however, she was a badass; one you’d be foolish to mess with. I had the toughest mom in town, and I loved that.
Yet, really, my mom wasn’t tough. She was warm and loving and nurturing and caring. Because she was in a house with all boys, Mom sorta took me on as her quasi-daughter. When she went shopping, she’d come home, try dresses and blouses on and ask my opinion. I’d sit there, offering thumbs up or thumbs down. My mom and I would take these long, meandering walks, down Emerald Lane, left on Cuddy, past the barking dogs, past Wendy Guba’s house, down by the swamp, around and around and up and left and down. Even though I was only 9 … 10 … 11 … 12 … 13 … 14, she’d talk to me like a peer. We’d discuss her situations at work; my situations at school; girls and drugs and driving and pressure. They’re some of my favorite childhood memories—me and my mom, walking.
When my mom used to drive my brother and I places, she wouldn’t listen to old, crappy radio. She’d turn on Michael Jackson and Madonna and Hall & Oates, and let us develop our ears. I’m not sure whether this was deliberate. But I loved it.
My mom could be incredibly chill. We lived up the street from a family that, right or wrong, greeted a curse from their kids with a bar of soap to the mouth. I liked to curse, and experimented with it from a relatively young age. There was no soap. Instead, there was a discussion—right time vs. wrong time. You slam your finger in the door of a car—right time. You’re with grandma—wrong time. Once, my brother—a senior in high school at the time—called from the Caldor’s Christmas party, a little tipsy and in need of a ride. My dad went to pick him up, and Mom was simply thrilled he called and, truth be told, thrilled he had a good time. When David walked in, we all chuckled. And that was the end of that.
Another time, when I was a junior in high school, my parents went out and I drank three or four of their wine coolers. I had never been intoxicated before, and I felt the urge. The buzz was unremarkable, but the guilt weighed heavy. The next morning I told my mom what I’d done. “I’m not upset,” she told me. “I understand your age. There’s a smart way to do something, and a dumb way. This wasn’t dumb …”
My mom has taught me more lessons than I can count. How to save your money. How to spend wisely. Picking your fights. Being strong. Standing up for yourself when you’ve been wronged. Turning the other cheek. Taking responsibility, even when it’s not particularly fun. Not letting fleeting sparks of emotional charge influence a decision. Help people when they need help.
My mom and I speak, oh, six days a week, and it’s not one of those, “Oh, I feel guilty, so I need to call.” My mom is (along with my dad and my wife) my best friend.