REALITY CHECK: Recovering from advice my mother gave me isn’t easy
No Irish kid ever loved his mother more than I did. But through most of my childhood and all my teen years I pushed her, I’m sure, toward thoughts of suicide. Or possibly homicide.
To her credit, she never killed either herself or me. That level of restraint couldn’t have been easy to maintain.
Before the Alzheimer’s stole most of her marbles, my mom was a smart, savvy cookie, especially for a woman who came of age during the myopically misogynistic 1940s and ‘50s. Despite giving birth to her first child (me!) while still in her teens — as well as to the four siblings who followed — she still managed to get some college under her belt and help my old man run his restaurants. (And when I say “help,” I mean she did everything that required math skills, managerial talent or book smarts.)
She was a strong, intelligent woman, which is probably why I’m attracted to strong, intelligent women to this day. But I don’t want to get all Freudian here, or Oedipusilian (which is a word I just extracted from the epic tragedy by Sophocles; let’s see if we can’t get it in the next edition, Mr. Webster).
Despite her strength and intelligence, my mother was still very much a woman of her time and as such, she had a store of “wisdom” — passed down from mother to daughter, I assume — that would have sounded more at home coming from the mouth of Golde, Tevye’s provincial wife from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” She had a rich store of sayings, proverbs, maxims, and curses that addressed, though sometimes only elliptically, most any situation.
By the time I was a young adult, I had learned to tune my parents out and replace whatever they were saying with the lyrics from Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare” LP. But earlier on, when I was just a kid, I, like most kids, thought everything my mother said was the unadulterated, unfiltered truth.
I was a “believing kid,” as my grandmother used to say. If my mother made a statement, I believed it, regardless of how implausible or irrational that statement might be. You’d think this would have prepared me for a life of watching Fox news, but nope. Eventually, I got smarter.
That’s another story. The point is, I believed whatever tidbits my mother dragged from her maternal lore repository.
One of my favorites was, “If you keep making that face it’ll freeze that way!”
Now, I was 8, and when mom said this, I took her at her word. Since I was a huge fan of horror movies, horror magazines and all things horror, I practiced for hours in front of the mirror, trying to get my face to fold into a reasonable facsimile of Lon Cheney’s werewolf, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, or the gill-necked Creature from the Black Lagoon. I figured if I could get my face to freeze in some monstrous sneer or snarl, I would be able to keep girls and their cooties away from me for life!
As it turns out, I was able to keep girls away even without making gruesome expressions, a talent I maintain to this very day. My face never did freeze, however.
“I hope your kids turn out just like you!” This one was usually delivered to my receding back as I stormed from the house following a heated mother-son quarrel. It didn’t bother me at the time because at age 13 the notion of having kids of my own seemed as remote as the rings around Saturn.
Later in life, though, when I was married and planning a family, my mother’s curse echoed across the years and filled me with dread. I remembered all too well the grief I had brought into her life and feared her long-ago curse might still have enough Mojo to put the whammy on my own parenting experience.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried; my own kids, when they came along, were wonderful and gave me almost no trouble from birth right through to the day they left the nest to pursue their own dreams. Years later I learned my daughter was up to all sorts of crazy, dangerous hijinks during her teen years, but she was smart enough not to let me find out about her nefarious activity. So I was able to go through parenthood blissfully unaware of any wrongdoing.
By the time she ‘fussed up to such things as sneaking out of the house at night to take part in “train dodging,” she was an adult and the statute of limitations had run out. So I lucked out there.
My mom also assured me that: a) The Beatles were a “fad” and not as good as The Monkeys anyway, b) it is impossible to have a physical relationship with a nice, Catholic girl until after a big, church wedding, and c) eating meatloaf will “build character.”
She was wrong on all counts. And yet, all these years later, I still find myself attracted to nice Catholic girls with lousy taste in music who know how to make meatloaf.
It’s probably best I don’t know what Freud and Sophocles have to say on the subject.