I had plenty of friends growing up.
But I only had one mom.
That distinction was made early on in my tenth year when I sat across from her at the kitchen table, trying to sip my tea in the same polite and ladylike fashion.
I smiled and asked her, “Did you ever smoke cigarettes when you were a kid?”
My mother makes the worst faces. She can convey a variety of emotions with just her eyes and mouth. She claims she doesn’t know that she’s making them and says they don’t always mean something bad.
She can tell me or my siblings that she’s angry, sad, disgusted, or nauseated with just a few muscle twitches and a sigh.
That morning when I inquired about her youth and whether she had tried something “bad,” she made a face that said I’d overstepped my bounds. This wasn’t the first time I’d hear her immortal words,
“That’s none of your business, young lady.”
My mother often used this line with me because I often wanted to know about her past. I often want to know about everyone’s past. It’s how I show an interest.
“Why can’t we just talk, woman to woman?” I’d ask with a straight face.
I wanted us to be pals. This yearning for a cool mom would occupy my thoughts a great deal from youth to teenage years. As I got older, plenty of my friends had cool moms. They taught me how to cheat at poker, apply eye liner, make margaritas, and keep one foot on the floor when falling asleep afterwards to stop the room from spinning.
Lots of moms were cool. Mine was not.
But back in my childhood kitchen, with me in the fourth grade and my mom approaching thirty-five, I fancied us equals.
“Can’t we be buddies?” I asked, still trying to get the sipping thing down.
“No,” she said. “I’m not your friend or your buddy or your pal. I’m your mother.”
Throughout the years, when she would tell me to stay away from drugs or lecture me on how special it was to wait until marriage before having sex, I wanted to know what she’d done because I thought it hypocritical for her to tell me not to do something that she herself might have tried.
I don’t know what made me think my mom, a Eucharistic minister and practically a saint, had tried anything. I was young and had one hell of an imagination.
“How can you say not to smoke cigarettes if you’ve tried them? Have you tried them?”
“What I may or may not have done is irrelevant.”
I tapped my nails on the table. “How can you say that?”
My mother gradually broke into a gentle smile.
“I’m pretty sure I attempted to touch a hot stove when I was a child,” she said. “Is it hypocritical of me to stop you from doing it?”
She should have been a lawyer instead of a nurse.
I remember that conversation often as my children get older and prepare to go through their own phase of questioning both family and society’s rules of proper behavior. Both boys have recently expressed a desire for their Daddy and Mommy to be their friends. Like so many other times in the last ten years, I once again find myself quoting my mother.
“No babe, you’ve got plenty of friends. We’re your parents.”
When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke back in the 1990s, I was mortified to learn that she gave that notorious blue dress to her mother for safe-keeping. If I ever had to admit to my mother that I’d carried on an affair with a famous married man, she’d have ordered me to visit the nearest dry cleaner and keep the entire event to myself.
No interviews. No displays. No nonsense.
Mom’s disapproval didn’t stop me from doing everything, but it did stop me from doing everything. Through love and consistency, she cultivated respect and I wanted hers in return, even if we didn’t always agree.
When she got to her sixties and I arrived at my forties, we were finally friends. Still polar opposites, we nevertheless found a great deal to like about each other.
Jacob and Zachary told me quite often that I wasn’t like other moms. I didn’t let them watch PG-13 or R-rated movies when they were too young, I would never let them eat sugar-coated cereals, and always made them put the napkin on their laps during dinner.
Their daddy wouldn’t let them curse or chew bubblegum. He waited until they were older to tell them dirty jokes.
We drilled them regularly about current events and instilled values that would shape them for the rest of their lives.
“You guys aren’t cool,” Zach would say, with a smile.
I’ve never been happier.