Monthly Archives: August 2013

My Mother’s Daughter

My daughter and I were out shopping for school supplies last weekend. We went to Target because they send me coupons, even though it typically turns out that we can’t use said coupons because we aren’t buying $20 worth of Crayola products or she doesn’t need to save $2 on a new backpack because she doesn’t need a new backpack. But there we were, standing in front of a monstrous display of folders that was one step away from avalanche proportions, when two older women (okay, older than I am anyway), turned into the aisle where we were. Despite their capri pants and T-shirts, I immediately knew that they were nuns.

I can spot a nun at 30 paces. Maybe it’s due to my years in Catholic elementary school and a Catholic college (the former a choice that was made for me, the latter a choice that was made by circumstances and finances). Somehow women who are nuns just always look happier and more peaceful than everybody else. At least they do to me.

There have been moments in my life when something in the universe tells me to talk to a certain stranger. Something told me to say hello to these women, so I did. They said hello back. Then I asked if they were teachers.

“Yes,” one said, and mentioned she teaches at a local Catholic high school. The other woman said she taught at a local Catholic college, which so happens to be my alma mater. They were at Target to “fill” four backpacks with school supplies as part of a back-to-school program for disadvantaged children.

“I’m an alumna,” I said. “And my mother used to manage the bookstore there.” My mother’s employment was the reason I transferred to that college in my sophomore year and the only reason I was able to afford to complete my bachelor’s degree without putting myself further into ridiculous debt. My mom was a single parent by the time I was ready for college. As the last in a large family, there was nothing resembling a college fund for me. She didn’t have the finances to give me money for college. Instead, she gave me support, encouragement, unconditional love, and a safe place to live as long as I needed it. And through her job, she gave me a bachelor’s degree.

When I told this woman, this religious woman who has devoted her life to teaching and serving others, who my mother was, her expression turned wistful.

“Your mother was so generous…” she began.

You know how when someone says something nice about something dear to you, your mind gets all fluttery with happiness and gratitude until you can no longer hear their actual words, just the emotion behind them? No? Maybe it’s just me. When I had my first short story accepted, the editor called me up me and I’m not sure I remember what she said after “Your story is beautiful.” I just knew they loved it. And that’s what happened here. This woman said something lovely about my mother, and my mind went all to mush.

I only had a few dollars in cash on me, but I pulled my money out of my pocket and said, “Can I make a small donation to school supply fund?”

Both women looked at me and said, “You’re just like your mother.”

My mom died 11 years ago. My daughter is the only one of her grandchildren she never got to meet. I talk to my child about her grandmother, but I know that there’s a level of displacement there. Pictures and stories can’t replace the flesh.

My role now is The Mom. At her school, I’m “E’s Mom.” In a store or restaurant or park or anywhere, I’m the mom with the cute little girl. With my own mom having been gone so long, it’s a rare moment when I have the opportunity to think of myself as a daughter. When these two kind women said I was just like my mother, I admit I melted a little bit, turned all to mush. Because you know what? Even after 11 years, I still miss my something awful. There are days when I have questions about being a parent or questions that I can’t seem to answer on my own or days when I just wish I could be someone’s child again.

After we chatted for a few minutes, the kindly nuns and I parted ways. As they turned the aisle, one of them said, “It was an honor to celebrate your mother.”

Indeed it was.


The Most Rewarding Convo I’ve Ever Had with a Child

The kid and I went to the public swimming pool late this afternoon. After an overcast, unseasonably cool August day, the sun had come and things had warmed up to a balmy 68 degrees (or thereabouts). We were in the car, driving down the street to do some errands, when the warmth of the sun got to me.

“Wanna go to the pool instead?”

She thought as we drove by three houses.


I made a U-turn, we went home, quickly changed and grabbed towels, and headed for the pool. Our town has two pools–a big one and a little one. We much prefer the little one. It just has a friendlier, more laid-back vibe. We know all the lifeguards and they know my kid. Every day at 3:00, when the lifeguards take a 15-minute break and everyone has to clear the pool, the ice cream truck pulls into the parking lot and rakes in the cash. The small pool never draws the crowds that the bigger one does, and every year, the city threatens to close it, but it keeps plugging away. I guess because of people like us.

It was cool today. Scratch that. It was cold. When we arrived at the pool, we were the only ones there except for a bunch of bored lifeguards. The female guards had resorted to doing each others hair while the guy guards hung out and talked and bounced a basketball around. Once we showed up, they sprang into action. One of the guards was up on the chair, the mushroom sprinkler was on, and the water slide flowing before I even had my sandals off.

The water was cold. Bracing. And we loved it. I swam a few laps and felt my body fighting against the cold, felt myself warming up in spite of it. But when I saw the kid was shivering, it was time to go.

We went home the long way, via the frozen custard stand and a quick trip to the grocery store. Hours later, I realized the kid was still wearing her bathing suit under her clothes. As she changed, we had The Most Rewarding Conversation I’ve Ever Had with a Child.

Me: I’m glad we went swimming today.

Child: Me too. (Who doesn’t love an agreeable kid?)

Me: Even though it was cold.

Child: It was like a hot tub only the opposite. And I don’t have any body fat to keep warm. (Indication that she actually occasionally listens and retains information from Mommy.)

Me: Not like Mommy. (Said as I picked her up and started doing bicep curls with her. She is small enough that you can do that.)

Child: Yep, you’re fatter than I am. (She is bravely honest.)

Me: Thanks.

Child: You’re not fat. You look just like a teenager, only not as dumb. (There are no words. Only gratitude.)

Little Kids Are Weird and We Like Them That Way

Art Linkletter made a career pointing out that kids say the darnedest things. And they do. There’s something about that semi-conscious/semi-dream state known as childhood that makes it a filterless existence. Kids may use the words “Please” and “Thank you” but that’s often the limit of their social mastery. Everything else is pure, unfiltered, unedited opinion and immediate action for instant gratification. Little kids are like the raw materials for human beings. You want to see what happens? Try it.

When my daughter was a toddler, she’d do things like…

Chew on sticks photo anarchyinthewoods.jpg

Tape up the butt of a toy sheep

And put stickers all over my rear end while I was doing the dishes. photo stickerbutt.jpg

As she’s gotten older, the goofiness has become more verbal in nature (although the fascination with rear ends, tape and stickers has continued. It appears the stick chewing was an outlier.). I was in the kitchen the other day and she walked in and asked, “Can I use a pair of my underwear for an art project?”

What can you say to such a request except: “Sure. Just make sure they’re clean.”

“Duh…” she said as she went back to her room.

I love seeing what she thinks of next.

We’re All Faking It

I dropped the kid off at a friend’s house yesterday and stayed a few minutes to chat with the mom, my friend L. It’s one of those fortunate instances where the mom and I became friends when our daughters were about 10 months old  but our children actually grew up to like each other. Granted, we threw them together on a regular basis so we could hang out and they had no choice in the matter, but giving toddlers narrow choices is part of the fun of parenthood. The girls parallel played for a few years and then discovered they enjoyed playing together. They’re both quieter, thoughtful kids who like a lot of the same things, so it’s not surprising they’ve chosen to be friends, but it’s nice all the same.

While L. and I stood on her driveway chatting, a couple of the neighbor kids came over and said hello before all of the kids–mine, hers, the neighbors–went off to play together. Just for an instant, I had this sudden flash of seeing myself as these kids must see me: as somebody’s mom, as just another adult.

A grown-up.

After the kids had all gone off, leaving the two mothers alone on the driveway, I said to L. “They think we’re grown-ups.”

“I know. I feel like I’m pretending,” she replied.

“Me too. All the time.”

I’ve had similar conversations with other friends at various times (those moments when you think, “We’re sitting around talking about mortgages and our dental health while our kids play–has it really come to this?”). Most of the parents–heck, most of the chronological adults I know–have had similar moments of feeling that they’re totally faking this whole responsible adult thing. I remember my mom visiting with the mom of the kids who lived behind us (they really would chat over the back fence). They seemed so together, so responsible, and so comfortable with themselves as, well, grown-ups. It astonishes me that I might possibly come off the same way to my kid and her friends.

But I guess I do.

I”m a grownup. I’m still the mom who jumps in the pool along with the kids, climbs the monkey bars, and stood on her head at a Girl Scout meeting. It’s a different take on adulthood than my mom had, but it seems to be working. Maybe this is what adulthood is supposed to feel like:  You feel the same as you did when you were younger only with an overlay of shock that a bank would loan you enough money to buy a house or people at the grocery store call you “Ma’am.”  We’re faking it, but we’re making it.

–by Susan Petrone