Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Imperfect Mother: Is There Any Other Kind?

I won't get to see my mom on this Mother's Day because she had to travel a considerable distance, and traveling makes her tired. It seemed the best present I could give her was to allow her to rest for the remainder of the day. I'll see her tomorrow,anyway. Lest I come across as a miser, I did actually buy a present for her, which the director of my facility very kindly delivered to her hotel.

Since it is Mother's Day, I will use the opportunity to talk about my mother. This cannot be considered any part of my Mother's day gift, because my mom is never anything close to thrilled at being the subject of one of my missives. Novertheless, it's a timely topic, so here it goes.

I've been told many stories by many of my mother's siblings and siblings-in-law. If my grandparents on her side of the family were still here, they would surely have even more stories to contribute. None of these stories are the sort that a mother would choose to have her daughter hear. I won't give you a complete rundown on my mother's life of crime or near-crime -- she would want me to point out that she's never been apprehended or arrested for anything, even a speeding ticket. This does not mean in any way that my mother was a model citizen in her youth. Quite to the contrary, she was an expert at deflecting blame and generally avoiding the slightest suspicion when something sinister went down.

My mother was, if my sources are correct, as close to a "perfect chid" as one could be from about the age of three until she turned twelve. In her very early days, she was prone to throwing fits to get her way. As she aged and matured, she learned that she could get exactly what she wanted much more quickly by smiling sweetly than she could by throwing herself to the floor and screaming at the top of her lungs. Soon my mother was viewed by other teachers and parents as the child they wished other children would be, or at least imitate. For several years, my mother did exactly as she was expected and continued to be labeled with the "goody two shoes' reputation she had acquired, which made her popular with adults but not so much with her peers. Still, she continued to do the right things because they were the right things to do.

Not long before my mom turned twelve, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. My grandmother had written off her persistent cough and shortness of breath to all sorts of things and had delayed medical treatment until the cancer was really too advanced for any treatment to be effective. She lived longer than the doctors predicted, but still only lasted until shortly after my mom's thirteenth birthday.

I won't share the details of my mom's escapades, because I've shared many already, and going into many details would take longer than you have time to read or I have time to write. I'll try to summarize by saying my mother had a lot of fun, made a not insignificant amount of money through running a sports gambling ring (she was sucessful in part because she fronted her operation with money she had earned and saved from serving as her local parish organist) and selling tests. She was and still is so incredibly brilliant that how little time she spent in class didn't even matter. She still came out of high school as an early-acceptance candidate at Stanford with a full scholarship despite no perceivable connections at an institution where connections are everything.

My mom must have gotten most of the mischief out of her system by the time she reached the university. She could have graduated from Stanford in three-and-one-half years with a double major of educational psychology and music performance with emphasis in piano, but chose to stick around for one additional semester in order to attach a vocal performance emphasis degree to her other two degrees. Her voice didn't mature enough for anyone to even consider her a viable candidate for the voice program until her final undergraduate year.

My mom went on to pick up a counseling credential and a teaching credential She doesn't feel that a school psychologist or a school counselor has any credibility unless he or she has spent at least a brief interval in full-time teaching; my mom taught first grade for one year and high school math for another. (She had taken enough higher-level math courses in college to qualify for a single-subject math credential.) She obtained master's degrees along with each of these credentials. She continued graduate school while teaching, and picked up a doctorate in psychology, along with a Marriage, Family and Child Counseling certification. The degree of which she is probably most proud is her doctorate in music performance with emphasis in piano. She completed this degree while she was working as a school psychologist, and fulfilling the requirements involved a level of organization of which I cannot comprehend. The hours of practice time alone required to receive a passing score on a doctoral recital are more than most of us could devote even if we were not working full-time.

My mom is a gifted musician with an incomparable voice. She has absolute pitch, as do my father, brother, and I as well. She once stood in for her cousin, who is a founding member of a vocal group well-known in Europe, for a single benefit concert. Both the musical director and other members of the ensemble commented afterward that the cousin's absence was noticeable if only for the fact that my mom's voice is stronger that is her cousin's, which necessitated adjustments from the sound technicians.

My mother's piano playing is, in my biased opinion, unparalleled. I can always tell when it is she who is playing just by the sound of the keys striking the hammers. My mother has a unique touch, whether playing fortissimo or pianissimo, that no one else can duplicate. Two of her sisters were music majors and are highly proficient pianists as well. They can play exactly the same notes as my mother, and perhaps even with the same level of technical proficiency, but it does not sound the same as when my mother plays the notes. My mother's touch on a piano keyboard cannot be duplicated even by me, and God knows how hard I try to achieve the sound. My mom tries to console me by telling me that I play better than she did at my age. I don't know if it's the truth or if she's doing the motherly thing of trying to help me maintain some level of self-esteem. My mother also plays organ masterfully, but her first love is and always will be the piano.

I sing (my dad's a singer, so musical genes come from both sides; my brother has a better voice than I do), but my voice has not yet come close to maturity. I have occasionally sung with my mom and her sisters for special performances. I hear them commenting almost wistfully amongst themselves, "Remember when we used to sound just like that." My mom says I should appreciate it because my voice will mature and it will never possess that same dolce quality it now has. The problem is that my mother's sisters sounded when they were eleven they way I sound now. My mom was probably fourteen when her voice was as is my voice now. Will my voice ever fully mature? I'm beginning to have my doubts. Patience is a virtue, but I don't want to sound like a little girl forever. For the record, my speaking voice is equally immature as my singing voice.

In addition to losing her mom to cancer as an early teen, my mother has endured hardships as an adult that include many work-related difficulties, seriously complicated relationships with my father's side of the family, Grave's Disease, kidney stones, thyroid eye diesase, leukemia, the loss of premature twins, and the birth of living twins, one of whom [me] was undersized and needed to spend five weeks in the hospital after being born.

My appearance in the household after my mother and brother had already established a routine and had bonded thoroughly created conflict in the family dynamics of our home. This was compounded by the idea that my mother was apprehensive about caring for such a tiny and fragile baby as I was. I believe I was barely four pounds when I was released from the hospital. My father would sometimes come home from work to find my mother holding my brother. He would ask where I was, and often my mom wouldn't have an answer. (Usually I was lying or sitting [depending upon my age] in my crib waiting for someone to get me up. While I do not know what ever happened behind closed doors, nor would I ever want to know, my guess would be that most of the arguments between my parents were about me. Somehow it all worked itself out, though. I survived and have a relationship with my mother.

My mother is not without her quirks. She despises mayonnaise roughly to the degree that I despise human flesh. (Her distate for mayo may have slightly more basis in actuality than does my distaste for human flesh, as she presumably has tasted mayonnaise at some point in her life, while, as many weird things as family has tried to force me to eat, sometimes under the guise that the food they were forcing on me was something other than it actually was, I would certainly hope that human flesh is not one of the foods the family has shoved into my mouth in disguise of rare veal or pickled pigs' feet.) Anyway, if my mother notices the thinnest white ribbon of mayonnaise curving its way through the yellow mustard, her ordinarily Ghandi-like passivity vaporizes as she goes absolutely ballistic, usually at me, which is ironic in that I eat neither mayonnaise nor mustard.

This past holiday season, my mother was in near-constant pain due to what was mis-diagnosed as an ovarian cyst (and possible ovariam cancer) but what was actually acute appendicitis. In the days preceding her surgery, she tried to go about her ordinary non-school-day routines, which included, at this particular time, giving medicine to me. I had been diagnosed with croup and had to take, in addition to antibiotics and steroids, a gosh-awful concoction I call Purple Sludge but is actually called Phenergan-Codeine cough syrup. I usually complained when the Purple Sludge was given to me, but I took it despite my complaints. One particular time she was giving me my the Purple Sludge, I happened to cough just as my mom was giving me the purple sludge. This caused my mom to hit my chin with the spoon containing Purple Sludge, which sent the Purple Sludge everywhere except into my mouth. My mom reacted as though I had spat the cough syrup directly into her face. She put down the empty spoon, sat down, pulled me over her knees, and whacked my bottom as hard as she could with her hand as though I was a three-year-old. Her hands are small, and she was in a weakened state, so it didn't actually hurt. Both my brother and I had difficulty not laughing. I really didn't want to laugh because I was nervous that she might call 9-1-1 and have me taken to juvey as a "beyond control" minor just for accidentally coughing while my mother was trying to give me liquid medicine. She now knows how out-of-control she was and laughs about it along with the reast of us.

It would be laughable to pretend that my mother is either a perfect person or a perfect mother. The various jobs she's held over the years have taken a heavy toll on her patience, which means that when she walks through our door, very little of her patience remains. For some reason, I am usually in the wrong place at the wrong time when my mother finds it necessary to explode. The very best of my mother's parenting has usually gone to my brother, while what's left over goes to me. Still, I think I'd rather have the left-overs, or the worst of my mom's parenting, than the very best any other mother could have given me. She's that good.

My mom is ordinarily among the most even-tempered people on the planet. Only two things have the potential of setting her off: anything anyone has done by way of mistreating either me or my brother, and me! I have the power to bring out instant PMS rage in my mother with the slightest roll of an eye, the softest sigh at the wrong time, or the nerve to have left dishes in the sink that my brother and his friends had put there after school. My brother, as you would know if you've read many of my blogs, is a bit thick-skulled. Nonetheless, he has a GPA that's above 4.0. He CAN learn to stack dishes into the dishwasher properly. He's merely playing dumber than he is, and my mother falls hook, line, and sinker for his inept act. I'm always standing in the direct line of fire when my mom happens to be ready to blow a head gasket. Sometimes it hurts my feelings, but at other times I'm able to let it bounce off me as though I were wearing an armored suit. My mother also has, when she chooses to use it, the ability to read my mind. Her brothers and sisters say it is because she was so much like me. All I know is that she can predict my actions with better than 90% accuracy.

I could never have kept track of the number of nights my mother and my father have taken turns sitting up with me when I was sick, injured, or had endured a particularly disturbing nightmare. Regardless of how angry my mom may have been at me an hour earlier, anytime I need her, she comes running to me. I don't plan to imitate every single aspect of my mother's child-rearing practices, but my basic role model in parenting will be my own mother.


  1. Hi Alexis how are you? I haven't been here for a long time.I like the new face of your blog ,it is nice. I read all about your mother ,nicely written and your very honest feelings for your mom made your blog more interesting.
    In spite of all the difficulties in your relationship with your mom always remember that she does loves you in her own way. Loosing her own mother at such a young age played a role in her behavior later on when she became a mother herself. A lot of psychological factors interfere with many decisions we make in our lives.
    I am glad that you are accepting your mother now more than before and you have a good relationship with her.
    You will really understand her more when you become a mother yourself.
    I am sure you are going to have a good day tomorrow with mom and dad and with Jillian and Scott, your pseudo parents as you call them, you are all going to have a wonderful time.
    Say hello to every body.Take care

  2. Cathy,
    Thanks for commenting. I'm looking forward to spending time with my pseudoparents. I know what Jillian's limitations are now, and I will wait on her or let her sleep or do whatever she needs.

    i love my mom no matter how many times she's screwed up. The director of my facility told me that one of the things that parents do the best is to screw up, but that their strength as parents lies in making the best of the mistakes and learning from them.
    Thanks again for writing.

  3. I think I know something about you from your blogging, Alexis, and all of it good, I feel.

    From what you say about your mother makes me think: "Now I see where Alexis gets it from!" ;o))

    I think I'd like your parents, especially seeing what a good job they are doing bringing you up.