ALTERNATIVE MOTHERING

My mother hated housework. She did it only under compulsion and had a terrible attitude. She was also a dreadful cook and hostile. The kind of cook who tosses food on the table, glares at you, daring you to say anything other than “Thank you Mom” while choking on overcooked veggies and overdone meat.

I’m pretty sure she wasn’t entirely sold on the motherhood thing either. But having birthed three of us, she did the best she could. Nurturing didn’t come naturally to her, though she made an effort. Her mother hadn’t been much of a nurturer either. It was an apology in the form of a story. I understood.

On the up side, she was a fantastic mentor. She loved books, she loved learning. She an infinite curiosity about how things worked, history and art. She loved movies, laughter and trips to Manhattan, which we called The City. It was just a subway ride away.

As soon as I was old enough to have a conversation, we talked. Not like a little kid and a mom, but like friends. She told me stories. About growing up on the Lower East Side when horses and carts were common and cars were rare. How, when she was little, she lived at the library. If she stayed after dark, she’d run all the way home because she thought the moon was chasing her.

Mom grew up doing pretty much as she pleased. In turn, she let me do pretty much as I pleased. Freedom and a passion for knowledge were her gifts to me. Wonderful gifts that have lasted a lifetime.

Portrait of Annabelle

Portrait of Annabelle

Some of my happiest memories were the two of us walking through Manhattan arm-in-arm. Like pals. Buying roasted chestnuts from the vendor in front of the library. Sitting on the steps in the shadow of the lions, peeling chestnuts and talking. Going to the ballet, which was Balanchine’s company. That was one of the great things about growing up in New York — how accessible the arts were.

Our local ballet company was Balanchine. Our local opera was the Met. If we wanted to see a show, we went to Broadway. We had the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim. And back then, museums were free and the rest was easily affordable, even for a kid on a tiny allowance.

I admit I skipped school, but I spent my stolen time at the New York Public Library, deep in the stacks looking for interesting stuff about Louis XIV (I had a thing about Louis). Or I stole away to spend a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Cloisters. I never had to worry about getting nicked for playing hooky. Cops didn’t look for kids at libraries or museums.

I didn’t get a lot of hugs, but I got Annabelle for my fifth birthday, tons of books and a Steinway grand piano for my 14th birthday.

Mothering comes in many shapes and sizes. Because of her, I am me. Thanks Mom.

YeahRight! Link

37 thoughts on “ALTERNATIVE MOTHERING

    • Because those things are the unique things that are special to our relationships .. maybe that define them.My mother had an old racoon coat she wore … forever. I remember tucking my hand into her crooked elbow and how warm it was there. It was as close to a hug as she could give … It WAS her version of a hug.

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  1. I love this, Marilyn: your mother sounds fabulous, and her gifts far more profound than a tidy house, perfect meals and all that malarky. She nurtured YOU and your spirit by the sound of things. xxx

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    • Yes, I bet you would have. I would have been so happy to have a friend who appreciated it. I was in love with libraries and museums — especially museums. I think I’d have never left the Cloisters if they’d let me stay.

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  2. I’m sure each of us could write an essay or even a book about our parents. I try to remember the loving parts that shaped my personality.

    At 4’11” my mother was one of those “stay at home moms” that are rare in today’s times. She never work a paying job even though I remember her swinging a hammer and doing construction jobs that would have made a man groan. My father was a self-employed home builder and his wife and children were his unpaid laborers.

    My mom had TB when I was born so we grew up with no hugs for fear of contamination. We weren’t a “touchy feely” family. I never remember seeing my parents embracing, kissing or showing any form of personal affection. That caused problems with my interaction with my wives as an adult.

    Still, I felt loved and well taken care of as a child. I never went hungry but didn’t realize how poor we were financially until I reach my teens. I thank my parents for doing the best they could by instilling virtues like honesty, hard work & moral values. After all, aren’t those the most important things?

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    • There are lots of parenting styles. If it weren’t for TV (yes, I really do blame television for this), we wouldn’t have had so many undue expectations. “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet” made everyone feel bad because no one had a home like that, or no one I knew. Also, my mother was also first generation post Poland. Her first language was Polish, then Yiddish and she didn’t learn English until she went to school. Her mother never learned English. Her parenting style and her mother’s was very old country. It took my a long time to appreciate it … and a very long time to learn to be physically affectionate. My mother wasn’t. I had to learn. For my son.

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      • Strange as it sounds, and as horrible as your life was in one direction, you had a balance. Your mother was a rare creature, the mother who allowed you the freedom and choices so few kids really get. She may have been, consciously or not, allowing you to see the other side of a difficult life, with an escape into books and music and beauty.
        I wasnt abused physically, but verbal abuse still takes its toll. And it came from both sides, in different ways. I was an adult before I realized how dysfunctional that was. My escape was to turn off ‘me’ around them, so that the wall was up.
        What a wonderful gift she gave you. All that freedom.

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        • I wish abuse were rare. It isn’t. So many kids suffer verbal, physical and sexual abuse. I don’t think one is worse than another. Sometimes, verbal abuse is worst of all because it so underminds kids’ sense of their own value. I think my mother did balance things, whether consciously or not. She kept me whole and made me surprisingly strong.

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  3. Coming over from the YeahWrite grid—-what a great post! I loved reading about you playing hooky in libraries and museums. Everyone has such different relationships with their parents and it intrigues me to read about how other people experience parenting. Your experience was different than mine and I loved reading about it!!! Thanks for sharing!!!

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  4. Sounds like the two of you found a wonderful balance, and *that* is the ideal toward which all relationships strive in general. NYC? Yes, please! Where better to nurture your common interests and joys!

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    • I don’t miss living in New York, but I miss the things New York had to offer. Mom was raised in the city. Poor, yes, but in those does, even broadway shows had SRO tickets for a pittance, so you could always find a way to see a show or a concert. Now? Forget it. Prices through the roof, even for a museum … but then, it was an open city and a great place to hang out with friend. And Mom was not a great mother, but she was a terrific friend.

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  5. It wasn’t until lately that I learned not all moms were like mine. Really, I did live a sheltered life. My mom made cleaning/cooking/baking/laundry such a fun activity we did together, I guess that’s why I enjoy it and I passed that on to my son. We still like to categorize and organize his stuff, even at 32! And that’s what I’m doing today; I laundered and ironed the bedroom drapes, rehung them, took a little break, now I’m on to dusting the zillion seashells I have shelved around here and polishing the furniture. I save these projects when I know I’m a week away from hub coming home; making the house extra welcoming. Wait til you read the post about how I perfume and iron the sheets for his homecoming! TMI?? Well, it’s ‘cos he spends so much time surrounded by a noisy smelly diesel-y tug, he appreciates it very much. NY sounds amazing, no wonder you appreciate books and art.

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    • I have a guest room. You sure you don’t want to come live here? I could really USE your help. In fact, you may be exactly what I need. Please???? Help???? I’m drowning in dust! Perfume MY sheets. I will love you foreve!

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  6. Although I was adopted by an older couple at age six months, never legally I found out – my mother was a great nurturer. Growing up in CT, we often took the train to the City, ate at the automat and went to Radio City Musical Hall. My mother played the piano and sang in the choir, my father the french horn, my brother the piano and my sister also sang in the choir. Me, couldn’t carry a tune and took ballet. I loved listening to opera on the radio and watching the organist at church pump out such beautiful sounds.
    It wasn’t all roses, but I grew up with a great imagination and a mother who wrapped me in her love.

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    • Oh, memories of the automat! I LOVED the automat. So did Garry. We often reminisce about it. I think most kids did back then. There was something terribly cool about getting your cup custard from the Machine! My mother sang all the time but never got the words right. She played the piano a bit too, though as I got better, she more or less stopped. I think without knowing it, I over-shadowed her in that department. Back then, I played pretty well. I still love church music. Garry’s brother Anton Armstrong is the choir director at St. Olaf’s College, which is a big deal in the choral world. Every once in a while, when he is in town, we get to go to one of his concerts. And some of our local churches have pretty good choirs, too. And we are coming into the big season for choirs. Christmas is a bonanza of choral music for anyone who loves it!

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        • Yes, it’s impressive. Anton is impressive. But he’s still Garry’s little brother. That’s a very good clip. It looks like one of the Norway concerts. It’s not in the US and it looks like the traveling choir, not the full choir for local concerts.

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  7. This is a beautiful portrait of your mom and her influence on you. I felt a little jealous to read about your being surrounded by the Met and Broadway since I grew up in the suburbs. When we skipped school, we just went to Dairy Queen.

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    • I feel lucky to have grown up IN the city, too. After I started college, I was out in the suburbs and we went into the city less and less frequently. Without the convenience of the subway … and with parking becoming wildly expensive … and everything else getting so costly, it was less fun, fewer things we could do on a tight budget. But there was a time when even people of very modest means could afford a show, a concert, a ballet. Then it changed. Now, the price of an evening on the town is astronomical!

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  8. I grew up in a smaller city, and have never lived in or super-close to a big one, so I envy your adventures. I know for sure, had I grown up in a larger city, I would have skipped many a school day to wander and ponder in a large library. Great post, and what a wonderful tribute to your mom!

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    • I grew in New York, but now live in a very small town, though within driving distance (an hour and a bit) from Boston. So I guess I know both worlds. I like New England because you can live in the country but have access to a major city. School was boring, but New York was endlessly interesting. I wouldn’t want to live there now, but visiting is great! And it was a good place to be a kid, 50 years ago. I don’t know about now.

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    • The NY where I grew up was more than 50 years ago. I don’t know what it would be like today. Not the same, I suspect. It was pretty safe to be a kid and go all over the city. We rode bikes through the city, took subways everywhere. Partly it was because kids are kids and tend to be fearless where others might be more cautious … but it was safer. And things were cheaper … a LOT cheaper … and much of what costs a fair bit now was free. Museums especially, except for the Haydn Planetarium were free. You could get tickets to a show on broadway SRO for peanuts. Even the opera or the ballet, you could always get a nosebleed seat for short money … so you didn’t have to be rich to do all that stuff. Now, a pair of tickets for a show? Holy MOLY! It’s a week’s salary and that’s if you have a pretty good job. As for safety either maybe it’s better, maybe not. Maybe the same. Hard to know. It was great being a kid there in the 1960s … but it was a world ago.

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    • Parts of it were magical. My father was a child molester — I was a child. So it wasn’t entirely magic. Much of it was kind of horrible. I try to dwell in the good parts. It was a long time ago, good and bad. I’ve moved on.

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