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The Things Mama Didn't Say

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My mom is strong and vibrant, fun and funny, petite in stature but big in personality. My mother, as I like to say, is a 5-foot-tall Sicilian hurricane. She is kind, and compassionate, and adorable, and she has an opinion and she’s not afraid to voice it. So if you know me... blame her.

What most astounds me about my mother, then, are the instances in which she opted to stay silent, knowing instinctively that to speak up could mean a rift in our relationship. She walked the line, watching and waiting for opportunities to connect in ways that didn’t require words.

When I was 19 and home from college for the summer, I took a job as an escort truck driver – not an escort, people, an escort driver. That’s the pickup truck with the big sign on top that reads “WIDE LOAD AHEAD” and leads, in that particular case, mobile home frames from manufacturer to vendor. I was the only woman at the company, aside from the receptionist, and on the road, I had my share of attention. One particular young forklift driver took an interest in me, and asked for my number. When he came to pick me up for our first and only date, he roared up in a cherry-red sports car with T-tops and rang the doorbell in a purple button-down shirt open to the middle of his chest. True to form, he then proceeded to drive too fast and drink two pitchers of beer at dinner. Mom never said a word at the time, but to this day I still get ribbing about the guy in the purple shirt who screamed disaster with one glance.

Ten years later, I married my live-in of 6 years in a sumptuous southern affair, complete with magnolias in bloom and a Gothic home south of Atlanta. I wore a cream, bejeweled-bodice strapless dress with a tiara and veil, and long white gloves. My princess moment. The groom was slightly uncomfortable in a black tuxedo and a five o’clock shadow. My mother smiled and held the hand of my new mother-in-law and danced all evening with our extended family.

Returning home to Indiana, my mother confided to one of her best friends that she was sure the marriage was not going to last. But she never told me that, because she knew that I was stubborn and fiercely independent and probably not only wouldn’t listen, but might alienate her to side with my new husband. She had, unfortunately, seen it happen that way to friends of hers with their own children.

Instead, she took my calls and didn’t ask questions when I cried into the phone, and she didn’t judge when I came home six weeks after the wedding, when he told me for the first time – but not the last – that marrying me was a mistake.

When he left for good, she and my father picked me back up, without judgment and with all of the love in their hearts. My mother let me fall. Then she helped me find my feet again.

It is when I went through my divorce that I saw my mother’s gossamer fragility and steely strength, hand in hand. She was devastated that I was in pain, and she listened to me beg for strength on the other end of the phone, dissolved by tears, hundreds of miles away. Yet she set her jaw and promised me that I would survive this. She reminded me to remember the happy things in my life. She swore under her breath and called my soon-to-be ex-husband every bad name in the book in both English and Italian.

And later still, when I remarried and had a child of my own, I realized that I had started bossing my mother around as though I was smarter than she is. I suffered from postpartum anxiety, and while fighting my way back, I forgot that my mother raised two daughters already, and quite well, thank you. And yet, nothing she did seemed to be right when it came to my son.

“Why are you holding him like that? He doesn’t like that.”

“Please keep your eye on him.”

“Swaddle him like this, not like that.”

I’m not sure why I believed that I was God’s gift to mothering and that she didn’t have any idea what she was doing.

My mother and I took a drive to run some errands while we were visiting my parents in Florida last year. I was once again telling her what to do and how to do it, and suddenly I stopped. I put my hand on hers as she drove and I said, “Why do I do that?”

“Do what?” she asked.

“Tell you what to do as if you are a child,” I said, sheepishly.

She opened her mouth and burst into a peal of laughter.

“I did the same to my mother, too,” she said.

When I am with her, I am still sometimes teenager-like in my rebellion against her advice. She often sees my cranky side. I read once that a child is generally the most abrasive around her mother, because she knows that no matter what, mom loves her. And she always forgives me. What Would Mom Do? I think to myself more often than I ever thought I’d admit. And I hope I do half the job she has.

Thank you, Mom, for loving me and knowing me well enough to know when to talk… and when to listen. Happy Mother's Day.

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