Few people who read this blog know my mom as she was fifteen or more years ago. Even less know her as long as I have. In many ways she was different than the person I see existing today. Mom was much less easy going. I remember her as an engaging yet strict parent.
Her and my dad are opposites, and not in a way that lends to a quirky, unlikely compatibility for decades. They fought often, even announced their divorce a few times over the years before finally committing to it when I was just out of high school.
There were a lot of rules in the house. Most were reasonable enough, but also equally stifling from the perspective of a kid. This sort of structuring and rigidity, along with bearing the responsibility that falls on a first born child, has led me to be a cautious, people pleasing person. I almost always think before I act. I analyze in great detail the words I’ve spoken to people and the actions I did or did not take. I’ve spent years figuring out how to move about in the world without worrying what other people’s perceptions of me are. I’ve worked hard to get away from this mindset, but I’m still a work in progress.
Some of the rules Mom enforced didn’t make sense at the time, and still don’t. Several that come to mind revolve around food. No chocolate cereals were allowed to fill our spoons in the mornings, like Cocoa Puffs, which were of course a favorite I longed for. But she let us have Cinnamon Toast Crunch, little carb squares heavily dusted in sugar. Our house was dry for us kids, meaning it had beer and wine for the adults but absolutely no soda of any kind. Well, with the exception of ginger ale, as it was something she doled out freely when we were home sick. Otherwise, such fizzy extravagances were reserved for vacations and limited to one can a day. My brother, sister, and I coveted them. Cream soda was my favorite because its syrupy goodness tasted the most forbidden.
My siblings and I would chant “K-F-C! K-F-C! K-F-C!” when we passed the exit for the fast food chain. Going out to eat, anywhere, was a luxury that we were rarely afforded. Our obsession for any food that wasn’t homemade only further deepened Mom’s determination to limit our exposure to meals foreign to our own kitchen. Nearly every lunch we ate at school was lovingly packed by her, but by the time I was in junior high I notoriously and frequently traded her sandwiches for Cup O Noodles, pan dulce, cafeteria issued chocolate milk and pizza rectangles, or Doritos doused in Tapatio.
For both financial and health reasons Mom made us dinner almost every night of the year. Chicken and broccoli, turkey burgers, spaghetti, hard shelled tacos with lean meat, potato leek soup, macaroni and cheese, and of course always salad. Her pizza dough was from scratch (but don’t tell her it wasn’t her best food accomplishment, despite what she was falsely led to believe by too-kind friends). Wheat loaves and Hawaiian rolls were coaxed from her beloved bread machine. She spent hours prepping the food for Thanksgivings, layered Jello casseroles for dessert in the summertime, and forced us to sneak in Ziplock bags of homemade popcorn for the few occasions we visited the movie theater.
She has always been a health nut, but I think the restrictions she put in place made us fixate on what we couldn’t have instead of emphasize the benefits of balance and portions, or more importantly, talk about where food comes from and how it’s made.
Despite playing into their mostly stereotypical American family roles my parents have always been determined, hardworking people. Dad often spent ten, twelve, or fourteen hour days at his job, and picked up side gigs on the weekends, to provide an income for our family of five. Mom was mostly stuck to the confines of a stay-at-home parent role, but gradually picked up jobs delivering newspapers and offering customer service in wine tasting rooms when we were in grade school. She handled most of the discipline, childcare, and other household duties. If my father was involved in any disciplinary actions I knew I had reached a serious level of misbehavior. Both of them were stubborn and resourceful and handy in ways that showed me the benefits (and downfalls) of engraving those traits in myself. I attribute my work ethic and prideful independence to them both.
Mom never graduated from college but took online and night classes as an adult so she could get her AA degree. She studied coding and real estate, but neither led to a career. She tiled our backyard patio, assembled furniture, painted stenciled motifs in the kitchen and our bedrooms. For the first several Halloweens of my life she would ask what I wanted to be a few months in advance and then got to work making a costume from scratch on her sewing machine. I still have a simple bridal dress and veil hanging in my closet somewhere from one such occasion.
Always the extrovert, Mom loved going places, meeting up with friends, and coordinating play dates for my siblings and me. Every year she signed us up for various sports and activities. I’ve tried a whole spectrum of them: soccer, basketball, tennis, swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, tap dance. I enjoyed some more than others, sticking to volleyball and swimming for several years and even joining competitive year-round teams for awhile.
Being just as flawed as the rest of us, “old Mom” was as varied in character as any other human. She was as fiercely loving and supportive as she was short tempered. She’d wake up her children in the middle of a summer night so we could all lay on the lawn and watch a meteor shower, but if we accidentally disturbed her mid-afternoon nap she would scream at us through gritted teeth, spittle hitting us at close range like tangible, irrational rage.
On the short drive over to my eighth grade Valentine’s Day dance she called me a slut for wearing a fringed skirt that stopped half-way to my knees. In the same breath she shamed me for liking the class Casanova (whom had pantsed me during recess at school a few years earlier) and didn’t want him to see me in an outfit that she deemed too provocative for my gangly frame. I had my first, impossibly awkward kiss with that same boy toward the end of the dance. We knocked teeth when he quickly and unexpectedly planted his lips on me during a slow dance. In contrast, sometime during tenth grade I told her that a guy I liked had asked me to be his girlfriend, a first for me. She was so delighted that she giddily threatened to make a cake.
Then there is an instance I remember starkly, when, having come home from a school dance, I had headed to my Mom’s room to check in and say goodnight before I retired to bed. She accused me of having smoked weed because she swore she could smell smoke on my clothes and my eyes were supposedly red. The more I tried to explain why I wasn’t high, the more she didn’t believe me. I didn’t get grounded, but I knew she held her suspicion to be true. The reality was that I was still several years from dipping my toes into any type of marijuana experimentation.
Straight A’s were my only option when it came to my pre-college education. Anything less was unacceptable and warranted a long lecture, at the least. There were consequences if any of the grades were below a “B”, including being grounded and having privileges taken away. At one point when my grades were slipping my mom had me procure weekly unofficial report cards from all of my teachers, a straight forward piece of paper where they signed their name and what my current class grade was for each corresponding subject. I learned to forge some of the signatures and alter the grades. It was easy to change pluses into minuses, etc. Mom eventually found out and I was of course in big trouble.
Two years after I graduated from high school I finally took the leap and started my “freshman” year of college at a nearby four-year private university. At the time I was not on good terms with Mom. I don’t recall what the specifics of the issue between us was, but I do remember that it had something to do with her being too controlling. Things between us were heated enough that my best friend and her family helped me were the ones to move me into my dorm room.
I only completed one year at this school because I was incredibly naive about college and how it was paid for. Neither of my parents had obtained college degrees (Mom hadn’t worked for her AA at that point), and they never really sat down with me to explain that college wasn’t something they could afford to gift me. I had very ignorantly assumed, via the college themed movies I had grown up watching, that everyone’s parents paid for college. I hated the idea of being burdened with another three years of student loans so I could complete a creative writing degree, so I opted out of school.
The purpose of me sharing these few stories regarding Mom is not to shame her for her misgivings as a parent or to dwell on some of my fond memories of her. Instead it is an insufficient offering to my readers, a slightly broader picture of who I knew my mom to be pre-dementia. It is not a complete anthology of her multi-faceted character, but a biased perspective based on my own experiences. I know for a fact that everyone else who has closely known her for decades will have their own understandings of who she is, some of their truths about her overlap with my own, and others are entirely different than what I know her to be. But the point is, to me there is a clear difference between who she was and who she now is. She is a changeling, an impostor of herself.