Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

I know you thought you might be exempt from receiving a letter of your own, but no such luck, Mom! Like I said to Dad earlier, seeing him sick really shook me up. It seemed the most appropriate time to share some wonderful memories with him so that he knows he is very much loved and appreciated. I want you to know the same, too. So here goes.

When I was home recently, you and Dad said something that I had never thought about or considered. Both of you said you never worried about me, or felt the need to put any pressure on me, or discipline me, or motivate me in any way. I did all of those things myself already, so you left me to it. It was weird to hear you say that. How I interpreted it even more was what that meant your relationship was like with my siblings… which is that it wasn’t like that.

I definitely flew under the radar from the very beginning. Being five and seven years younger than my siblings, I witnessed them as teenagers getting caught doing some crazy shit and remember the battles that ensued after as a result. I have always been the peacemaker of our family and I’m pretty confident it was molded then.

Regardless of whether it’s true or not, while I was flying under the radar and entertaining myself, I felt that you and Susie were always much closer than you and me. I didn’t think of it in those terms as a kid, as I was too busy pedaling all over the neighborhood on my purple bike. Susie has always been (and still is) much more sophisticated than me. Susie, at an early age, could always apply her make-up expertly; dress impeccably and stylishly when called for; she was incredibly smart and made excellent grades; and she pursued philosophy and art, where she wasn’t just a student of these things, but a producer as well. Later on (and still to this day), she threw fabulous dinner parties where she would make a starter of vichyssoise, followed by an entrée equally fabulous. I thought vichyssoise was a kind of dog. That in itself should make our differences pretty clear. In short, I felt that you had a lot in common with Susie. You were both sophisticated and worldly, while I was off to the side, freestyling, usually with no shoes on.

One of the first things you did, for all of your children, was sign us up for swimming. I can’t speak of my siblings as to the order of their swimming careers, but mine started at Acacia, a swim club on the side of a highway. I’m pretty sure you were thinking the same thing as Michael Phelps’ mom, “This will keep them busy (aka out of trouble) and tire them out (bonus, all of them at the same time).” Pretty ingenious, Mom, even if it never resulted in a handful of Olympic medals (like Phelps). You bought me my first required racing suit, a blue Speedo. These days Speedo is synonymous with being a man’s “banana hammock,” but back then, if you were a serious swimmer, you wore a Speedo, and had one for training and one for competing. I had just the one suit for everything and we called it “the blue bullet.” I was really proud of that suit. I don’t remember a single thing about my racing days, just that I was a member of a team, and that meant we all wore the same exact suit.

We spent a lot of summers there. When we weren’t swimming the required laps first thing in the morning, we would spend the rest of the day throwing pennies across the pool and then diving in to find them, just so we could do it all over, again and again. When we tired of that, we would see how many somersaults, forward or backwards, we could do before coming up for air. You were right. It tired us out by the end of the day.

One memory that really stands out is “graduation day” from Acacia, which was really just the last day of the summer swim program. I’m going to guess this was my first or second year swimming there, so I would have been four or five. Our graduation “gift” (I read it as more of a test) was to go down the slide. It was the only slide at Acacia. Nothing fancy as I recall, just a straight shot into the pool. Except I didn’t want to do it. The coach, a short and sturdy man with a mustache, probably in his late twenties, became exasperated as I crossed my arms and refused. He threatened that I could not graduate from swim class unless I did it. I crossed my arms even tighter and stuck my chin out, jaw clenched. Little did he know, this was an idle threat.

This standoff went on for a while. The other kids who went down the slide and were waiting, treading water, started to get out of the pool as even they could see this was going to take a while. So Coach called in the big guns—you. Over you came, with your purse slung over your shoulder, dressed for an activity or occasion other than swimming. All you really wanted to do was pick your damn kid up so you could get on with the rest of your day. Now I had two exasperated people threatening me with all kinds of consequences. Let’s just say the story ends with two pissed off people getting into the car and leaving. Spoiler: I never went down that damn slide.

That was the first time we butted heads, but it wouldn’t be the last. How about that time I didn’t feel well in elementary school and they sent me to the nurse’s office. She wanted to take my temp, but I wouldn’t open my mouth. I’m talking lips pursed, not happening. Oh boy, you sure were a hornet’s nest when you showed up. To this day I can’t tell you why I refused. Maybe I didn’t like her, I don’t know. One thing was clear though. I might have been the born peacemaker of our family, but I was a stubborn little shit. Still am. I know (now) it drove you nuts. What do you do with a sweet child who is also a borderline irascible pain in the ass?

But as a mom, you did your due diligence, and kept trying to instill values and courtesy (and dare I say, curtsy?) into your last born child. You signed me up for Brownies. Brownies was the gateway to the Girl Scouts, which was a big deal in those parts of rural New Jersey back then. Wearing the sash with all of the well-earned patches was a rite of passage. I, too, wanted to wear that sash. I figured I had already been an Indian Princess, so my odds of success were pretty good. I was halfway there, really. Then one day, early into my stint as a Brownie, the activity of the day was to collect leaves so we could iron them between two pieces of wax paper. Seriously Mom, WTF was that? I came home pissed off and tore my Brownie sash off, stomping it into the floor. I didn’t even have it long enough to earn one single patch. I didn’t care. I was completely incensed that I had wasted my time doing such a ridiculous activity (I remember thinking, do I look like a moron to you people?!). And just like that, my hopes and dreams about the Girl Scouts ended.

However, fate intervened around the same time, and one of our neighbors decided to have a two-week program for the neighborhood girls she accurately called “finishing school.” Yep, you signed me up for that too. This neighbor was a good friend of yours and had spent some time modeling in her youth.  Probably ten or fifteen years older than you, she still exuded all of that—a perfectly slim figure, perfect hair and make-up, with a grace about her that few possess. We did important things like learning to walk with books on our heads, and about which side of the plate the fork belonged, and how to sit “like a lady.” Our big swan song was modeling clothes “on the catwalk” for a local children’s clothing store. This “graduation” I did not refuse to participate in because we got to keep the clothes we modeled. I was all in and I think you had a sliver of hope that you had finally softened some of my rough edges.

However, later that summer, I got dropped off at this same sophisticated neighbor’s house for an afternoon. This was highly unusual. Normally, I pedaled my bike to any number of neighbor’s houses with kids my age and disappeared until I got hungry, which often coincided with dinner. But here I was, dumped at Bev’s, whose kids had long ago left the nest. This glamorous woman did her best to entertain her good friend’s child with lemonade and cookies, and free access to the candy dish. What you and Bev really tried to seal the deal with was the pool in Bev’s backyard. There were only two families in our entire neighborhood who had pools, so this was a big deal. The other pool belonged to the family directly across the street from our house, but they never invited us over. They liked to stand at the end of their driveway with wet hair and a towel around their neck, remarking how refreshed they felt, as they dabbed at the droplets on their faces. Naturally, I hated them.

You and Bev played your cards well. The pool sealed the deal. I should add to anyone reading this that my mother never fails to remind me of this story, even now, as if this explains everything anyone needs to know about me. Bev went inside her house momentarily, and when she came back out, I called her name very sweetly from the side of the pool area. Dutifully, with all of her natural-born grace, Bev glided right over to see what I needed. She barely got “Yes, dear?” out of her mouth before I promptly sprayed her from head to toe with the garden hose. Apparently I was laughing my ass off the whole time, completely tickled with my trickster ingenuity. In my defense, I thought this signaled that we were friends, and that I liked her, because this is what friends do to each other (right?). Needless to say, she handled it gracefully (after she caught her breath from the sheer coldness of the well water), and of course, she looked like she was in some sort of sleek commercial for sun screen, not the brunt of some kid’s poor joke. I’m going to guess, Mom, this is the moment you conceded there was little hope of turning me into a “little lady,” and that you had wasted a lot of money along the way trying to do so.

Things have a way of working themselves out, and it wasn’t long after that I started making an impromptu stop when biking around the hood, at one of the three neighbors who had a horse. Except this neighbor, who I didn’t know, had horses. This was very intriguing to me. I’d drop my bike in the grass and stand on the bottom board of the fence, elbows locked down on the top board, stretching as far forward as I could, trying to catch a glimpse of any one of them. Little did I know, that small barn was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Inside, there was a Shetland pony who had commandeered several children into the world of horses, but they were all grown-up and gone now. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that one pony who needs a kid plus one kid who needs a pony equals a match made in Heaven. Domino was chocolate brown, covered in vanilla spots with a matching bushy mane and tail. I think, Mom, this is when you decided the refining of your youngest daughter was best left to a sneaky little pony. As it turns out, you did get the last laugh, because he was as stubborn as me, and he did teach me a lot, usually the hard way. That karmic trip was a short one thanks to the cute little devil.

So the horses tamed me a bit and gave me good direction. Confession: I think they actually saved me, but that’s a different conversation. You supported this endeavor wholeheartedly. Because of you, I got my first horse. First, because before we actually moved to Texas, Dad spouted off how much I was going to love it because “everyone had a horse in their backyard.” What he was implying, and how I read it, was that I too, would have a horse in the backyard. But when we got to Texas, all of the yards were the size of postage stamps (everything’s bigger in Texas my ass). I didn’t exactly feel lied to, but bypassed that directly and went straight into solution mode. How am I going to make this work?

Dad did try and renege on his promise, but you stood in the kitchen of our new house in Texas, where this conversation took place between the three of us, and shook a long wooden spoon menacingly in Dad’s face as you were making dinner and sneered, “You promised your daughter that you’d buy her a horse, so you’re gonna buy her that goddamn horse, end of story.” Also miraculous, you knew someone, who knew someone, who had a horse for sale (it was like it was the only horse in all of Texas for sale). We went and looked at him, an Arab doing western pleasure, and deemed he was the perfect fit for a kid just learning to jump and do the hunter/jumpers. Disclosure: I knew I was on thin ice with this whole deal, so I was happy with whatever I could get, and took it, happily and gratefully.

 I’m sure you didn’t think at the time it would turn into a full-blown addiction/profession, but it was you who handed me the first brick, on my way to paving this very important road in my life. Not only that, when Gar needed attention from the vet, you were the one who showed up to meet them and handle it. The first time that happened, the vet finally felt sorry for you and put Gar’s halter on for you after several failed attempts. Listen, I’m not making fun of you at all for this. Before Rubik’s Cubes, there were horse halters, and even worse, bridles. I’m only pointing out that horses were completely foreign to you, yet you showed up and did the best you could because I needed you to. Thank you for showing up. I know Gar nipped you once (he wasn’t as forgiving of the halter debacle) and I’m sorry about that. I’m sure he is now too, up in Heaven.

I’ve had a lot of great and fun experiences because of you, Mom. Why? Because you were always driving us everywhere, all of the time. You made it happen. Your niece and nephew, Carrie and Chal, spent a summer with us, which I loved, because you made it happen. I was a pretty good swimmer because you got me there and back again. I learned to ride because you schlepped me up to Porter and back again for lessons. I got my own dog, because like my first horse, you talked Dad into it. There were a lot of hamsters and guinea pigs, too. I have no doubt that any gap in care of the above mentioned animals fell to you. I hope I did a pretty good job in that regard. I definitely never lost interest in any of them. I loved them to the very end. Thank you for fostering those experiences. They’re priceless, really.

However, what might really surprise you to know is one of my most treasured, favorite memories is with Evelyn. You were, and still are, the consummate civic-community-cheerleader-activist. In my eyes, taking care of others (and that means anyone in need, friend or stranger) is your favorite activity and one that you’re very good at. You signed the two of us up to volunteer at a senior living facility. Basically we “adopted” a senior who maybe didn’t have a lot of family, or family who, at the very least, didn’t visit. Evelyn was our person. Sometimes we’d spend time with her at the assisted living facility. Other times we’d pick her up and take her to Friendly’s for lunch. (Yes, back then, they’d let you pick up someone who was not a relative and drive away with them in your car). This outing always culminated in having a sundae for dessert. It was a good perk, but it wasn’t my favorite part. My favorite part was Evelyn. I know it was a big deal for her. She would put on a dress and lipstick. In my own weird way, Mom, I’ve always loved older people. I’m very drawn to them. In some ways, I feel like it’s having a real, live talking encyclopedia right in front of you. I want to know what they know and hear what they’ve experienced and where they’ve been, what their life has been like. Older people are walking books, walking full-blown stories, waiting to be told to the right person. I want to be that person. I want to hear what they have to say. Every single geriatrician is like an oracle to me, waiting to be discovered. This, spending time with Evelyn, is one of my most favorite memories/experiences of my youth. I can but hope that we made a few of her days a little brighter. She did that for me, but it was because of you. You made a lot of things happen for your kids. Sometimes it takes a while to appreciate the effort and sacrifice your parents make for you. Sometimes you have to be an adult, maybe with your own kids, to fully realize it. Thank you, Mom, for helping me to become the person I am today. And don’t worry, I’m only giving you credit for the good parts. The bad parts are all mine. I’m sorry to say, but at this point, there’s no amount of finishing school that’s going to help with that!

With love and respect,

Your youngest daughter,

JCS

 

 

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