There’s a Billy Joel song that I learned to sing when I was home in Sri Lanka and when I began to write this, the lyrics came back to me. It’s a song about people in relationships, I suppose, but it could be said that this quality, honesty, is what we seek from anybody we meet.
Lies are good enough, useful feeding the imagination. Santa and the Tooth Fairy are special beings in my life, pieces of magic that I hope never disappear. Still, what I value most from anybody it seems is that they tell me exactly what is on their mind. Airbrushing has never appealed to me; more than once I’ve pointed out to people who are yet to meet me that I will attempt to look like my author picture but that I’m likely to fail!
Enter Mom. I first met Mark’s mother when I was a freshman in college. When we walked in the front door at 185 West Norwalk Road, CT 06850 (funny how I’ve never forgotten that address, particularly the zip code), Mark got a real embrace and warm greetings before his mother turned around to say hello to me. I remember thinking she is more committed to making sure he knows she loves him, than she is to making me, a stranger, feel welcome. It was the first of many cultural differences that would rise up to create distance between us. (Burgers for dinner? Where was the full-out spread that one would produce for first-time guests?)
And yet, this is also what I have come to love the most about her. She is always who she is. What she says is truly what she means, and she is always right. I’ve been furious at her for asking me the difficult questions (why, instead of complaining about having to move to the middle of Maine in deference to Mark’s desire to work there, won’t I find a job I like?), but I have grown to understand the wisdom behind her words. The best piece of advice I ever received about marriage came from her. I was describing a moment during the early days of my relationship with Mark, an altercation with a student worker at the library, where I felt he had not defended me even though I was in the wrong (ish). She said, pay attention to those things for they will be the things you will come back to repeatedly over the years ahead.
Her words have reminded me also to remember myself, who I am. Upon returning from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for the first time, looking at my photographs, listening to my euphoric tales of my time there, she asked me what it was about the conference and that place that made me so utterly happy. That person you are in such a place – a place that makes you happy – is the person you are, she said, because happiness comes from being affirmed for being most truly ourselves.
I recall that during a visit from her to the apartment we shared in sin one summer while I was still in college and Mark had graduated, I happened to be reading a book that I had picked up off a bargain table titled Men Who Are Good for You and Men Who Are Bad for You: How to Tell the Difference by a Dr. Suzanna Hoffman. I kept looking for Mark among the three (yes, I think there were only three), good ones, but he wasn’t to be found. There were elements of him in each of them, but no one composite “good” label could be applied to the guy I was dating. Mom looked through the book very quickly, dog-earned one of them and handed it back to me saying she had found him. I opened the page to read about “The Secret Manipulator: The One Everybody Loves But Who Somehow Always Gets His Way.” It wasn’t so much a condemnation of the less worthy aspects of her own son, but a reminder that being less than perfect does not make us less deserving of being loved.
I am always inclined to see people as children, to identify in the faces of adults, traces of the child they once were, those qualities that remain long after we are suddenly colonized – often against our will – by the expectations of Real Life. But it stands to particular reason that over the years when we’ve gone through tough times, the person I think about most often is Mark’s mother. When he is beyond being lovable I see him through her eyes. Mom’s son, I think. How much she loves him, how much good she wishes for him, and, despite all shortcomings (all of which she recognizes and has pointed out), how much she must hope that I will be kind, forgiving, and see my way through the difficulties and back to love.
Such lessons aren’t imparted by people who are afraid of looking reality, even grim reality, head on. Sure, it might be her >180 IQ or her Mensa membership that allows her to be who she is, but I prefer to think that she is gifted with emotional intelligence, the kind that operates without filters. The only kind that allows for the filters that should be used in the aftermath: to see what is so we can figure out what can be.
Ours isn’t a rosy relationship. More than once I have got under her skin with my demands for re-arranging the seating around the Thanksgiving table, my refusal to stop talking about Palestine, or bringing completely random people to her house and expecting her to put them up, and so on. And I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over being referred to as “the tiger by the tail,” with regard to her son, or her not-so-subtle alluding to the idea that I might run off with the Latin/Ballroom dancer, or start cavorting overmuch with too many big-name male writers, but I can honestly say that I love her deeply for who she is, and that among the compliments I’ve received from her son, the one I treasure the most is that I was someone he thought his mother would really like. And the addendum: she is very smart and very hard to please, but you, unlike the other girlfriends who were intimidated by her, can stand your own ground.
Happy birthday to the long cool woman in a black dress!