One of my first memories is of hiding from my mother.
I was seven or eight. My brother, Brandon, and I were crouched behind the living room sofa just steps from the kitchen where we had snitched cookie dough from the refrigerator. We huddled behind a wall of yellow fabric, fortified with foam and springs, unsure that our crime wouldn’t be detected. A great gob of salty-sweet viscous in my mouth as I frantically chewed the evidence, jaw racing to the beat of my pounding heart. Cold chocolate chips in dough like rocks in mud, crushed and swallowed quickly; there was no time for savoring, no time for the beauty of semi-sweet cocoa melting luxuriously on the tip of my tongue. Instead, we listened for footsteps heading to the kitchen or, worse, across the wooden floor of the living room to peer over the broad back of the couch. We weren’t supposed to eat cookie dough.
In the exam room of our pediatrician’s office was a poster listing 101 ways to enjoy life. Toward the end of the brightly-colored list, between “walk barefoot in the grass” and some other simple pleasure, were the words “eat cookie dough” in bold blue crayon font. I asked my mom about it; she said it didn’t mean anything. “It’s not safe to eat cookie dough because it has raw eggs,” she said, “You could get sick and die.”
After my check up with the new, younger pediatrician, he asked if I had any questions. I paused for a moment, and looked at my mom smiling on the swivel stool beside the exam table, her hand resting just inches from my dangling leg. Then, in an instant of ten-year-old fearlessness, I sucked in my breath, looked back at the doctor, and asked him about the poster, “Can you eat raw cookie dough? That says you can.” Without skipping a beat, he said it was fine.
“Really? You won’t die?”
“I let my kids eat cookie dough. Salmonella is very rare.”
I don’t remember what my mother said or did, but I remember having latched onto the fact that a doctor had said it was okay. That a doctor said my mom was wrong. I’m sure I reminded her of it for months.
I had a rough childhood. To say my teenage years were a nightmare would be an understatement. Many, maybe even most, of my memories from growing up are not happy ones. “Growing pains” doesn’t cover it; I was a train-wreck of emotions, hormones, and opinions from fourth or fifth grade on, and I constantly butted heads with my mother. It wasn’t until I went to college and had a semblance of life on my own that I finally started to put our relationship into perspective. It wasn’t until I got married and moved halfway across the country that I realized I needed her. And it wasn’t until I had Nora that I began to understand her.
One of the greatest gifts Nora has given me is a deeper love for and understanding of my mother. For a while, I’ve had adult perspective on things like the (once exciting) giant Sam’s Club bottles of ketchup my grandparents bought when they visited from Kansas City. But now, I also understand loving someone so much it hurts.
I know now how incredibly painful it must have been for her to fold three sets of shirts, shorts and socks every-other week into backpacks for weekends away. How it must have felt for her to have two nights in an empty house and two days with no one to call her mommy. I understand wanting to protect from harm and hurt so much that you’d consider permanently strapping on a bicycle helmet. Now I understand that sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can’t get everything right; that being a parent doesn’t mean you have all the answers. That sometimes you just have to make arbitrary rules for your own sanity, and that loving someone doesn’t mean you can’t get frustrated with them.
It’s true that until you have children, you have no idea how much your parents love you. I understand more of her intentions and that she, like everyone, was just doing the best that she could. But what I most understand is how much so many things that I did growing up must have hurt her. And how amazing she is for loving me anyway.When I called my mother today to wish her happy Mother’s Day, she said, “You, too.” We laughed for a moment about how funny that is before moving on to everyday things and forgetting Mother’s Day altogether. It was a short conversation; she was out shopping with her mother.
I spent much of the day reflecting on the kind of mother I want to be. The past few weeks have had a lot of ups and downs, a few of which have been more than apparent to Nora. There are parenting practices I want to take from my mother and some that I don’t. There are memories from my childhood that I hope to replicate for Nora and there are some that I hope she never has. But above all, I hope that she will know how much I love her just as my mother loves me.