The kitchen is spotless except for a few toast crumbs scattered across the granite countertop, and in my haste to clean it up I grab the washcloth in the sink, not realizing it’s sopping wet. A stream of soapy water splashes across the counter, onto the front of my shirt, and all over the floor. Once again my mother has kindly cleaned up the breakfast dishes for me, but because of her arthritic hands, she’s no longer able to squeeze all of the excess water out of the washcloth.
A picture of a younger version of my mother flashes into my mind—she is standing at this very sink in a red apron, her tanned and freckled hands expertly twisting a wet rag into a taut rope as the soapy water trickles down the drain.
“Jess, Darling,” she would say, “How many times do I have to tell you? You must squeeze all of the water out of the washcloth before laying it out—otherwise it won’t dry thoroughly and it will start to smell sour.”
Ah, my mother and her rules. As a kid, I was always breaking one or another of them:
Don’t leave the icebox door open, you’ll let the cold air out! (To this day she refers to the refrigerator as an “ice box” and aluminum foil as “tin foil”)
No riding double on a bicycle—you’ll get hurt. (This I now agree with, but as a child, it ticked me off to no end.)
Take a sweater with you—you might get chilly. (I am fifty years old and she still says this to me as I go out the front door.)
No taking a sip of liquid with your mouth full of food (even if your tongue is blistering) because it’s unbecoming. (This one goes along with no elbows on the table and not clicking the fork on one’s teeth while eating.)
Always look both ways before crossing the street, and then look one more time. (I now see that this is a vital one and have instilled in it my own kids.)
I’ve lived with my mother for practically my entire life, and by now, I’m used to her rules. After twenty-five years of marriage and four children, I no longer feel compelled to follow them unless I wish to, but they are so ingrained in my psyche that I still feel guilty standing in front of the “ice box” allowing the cold air to escape.
It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit to others that I still live with my mother, so I usually phrase it “my mother lives with me.” I’m hoping to be perceived by the general public as a responsible grown-up. And it’s true; my mother does technically live with me, as my husband and I bought my childhood home from her in a very advantageous transaction except for the little clause that included her in the deal.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore my mother, but she is indisputably eccentric. I became aware of this fact early in life when I decided it was best not to invite my friends over on one particular Saturday afternoon because my mother was out gardening in the backyard wearing only a leopard print bikini bottom and a silk scarf tied around her breasts to minimize her tan lines. Her ridiculous outfit included a pair of lace up Dr. Scholl orthopedic shoes, white athletic socks and dirt-caked gardening gloves.
“Moooommm,” I whined, cringing at the sight of her. “Why are you so weird? Why can’t you act like other mothers?”
“Because weird is more interesting, that’s why,” she replied, going back to her begonias and fuchsias that could have won first prize ribbons.
Now at age seventy six, my mother had traded begonias for breeding Dalmatian puppies, which has opened up another whole can of crazy in our household. That, along with enough dog hair to stuff a mattress.
Peculiarities aside, my mother is the most non-judgmental person I know, and has the ability to accept everyone, warts and all. In her role as my greatest fan, she has always taken my side (even when I’m wrong) and has continuously encouraged me in my endeavors, musical and otherwise. Her openness has taught me that it’s best to speak your own truth— and that holding on to the excess will do nothing but leave a sour taste in your mouth.
One of the very best things about my mother is that she even loves me when I’m unkind to her. The other day I told her that her barbershop haircut made her look like a man—I even (jokingly) referred to her as “Grandpa.” Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt her feelings—she laughed as hard as I did at my snide remark.
One of my closest girlfriends recently lost her mother. In our tight-knit group of ten junior high school friends, none of us has lost a mother until now. It scared me. It suddenly occurred to me that my mother will not be here forever, and that someday my much-needed source of unconditional love will be gone. What will I do then? Who will tell me I’m perfect?
I think about this as I lean over the sink, twisting the washcloth as my mother taught me so long ago. I wipe up the mess I’ve made and vow to be kinder to my mother. She is older now, and no longer has the strength to squeeze out the excess water, but I do.
Today I will make it one of my rules to tell her how much she means to me. And because her devotion to me includes reading every single word I write, I’ll tell her right now.
Mom and me, circa 1972
Thank you, Mom—for being you. I love you.
The two of us today