This post is also available for listening in the 2023 Listen to Your Mother multi-media collection.
My mother made up a lot of rules for us. And these were in addition to the many she already followed.
She married late for her generation, and I suspect she made a deal with the Infinite
Matchmaker to introduce her to a husband -- in exchange for changing her religion.
It worked. In her thirties and one year after she converted from Episcopal to Catholic, she married Dad and left her hometown.
Soon after, while she was pregnant with me, her own mother died. I imagine she felt anxious: She was the youngest of nine, alone in a new city, away from her family for the first time in her life, and this along with being first-generation of Italian descent, a new Catholic, and a new mom, may explain all the rules.
As her firstborn, and for several years before my sister came along, I had little choice other than to Listen to My Mother. One hot summer day Mom introduced me to the simple pleasure of a backyard sprinkler, and all she brought to that.
Her Rule #1 was to ensure that no one got hurt. As a corollary to Rule #1, Mom didn't like us going barefoot, and this was probably the earliest enforcement of that. With her Depression-era upbringing, Mom could easily think “outside of the box,” meaning whatever was handy became whatever she wanted. So she carefully bubble-wrapped me: with rubbers meant for rain on my feet and a shower cap meant for showering.
It looks like at some point her objective changed from protecting me, to protecting me from the sprinkler. Not sure if I had fun, but at least she had succeeded in maintaining Rule #1.
Now, as a mother, I get it that she was just trying to protect my younger sister Anita, and me, though perhaps overly so.
Mom was also against pierced ears for us. Her ears weren't pierced, and she told us they were for “European” women.
Yet somehow, at 13, either Anita received special piercing dispensation, or her pierced ears somehow escaped Mom's detection.
Or maybe by then Mom had evolved to picking her spots.
Meanwhile, I was living on my own in my twenties before I finally decided that like it or not, I already looked Italian, and pierced ears couldn’t make it much worse.
Growing up, my friends, and often their parents as well, thought my parents were
“strict.” Honestly, with so much that I wasn’t allowed to do, eventually my world narrowed to a handful of close friends, and mainly studying.
And an overthinker was born, with the reward, or perhaps curse, of being the Valedictorian of my high school class.
As we got older, the stakes for protecting us increased. Our suburban tract was off a country road which Mom sternly warned us never to go near. Of course, it never occurred to me to question this. So, I was surprised when, as adults recalling this rule, Anita waved her hand nonchalantly while admitting that she had crossed that “busy road” often to go to her friend’s house, saying:
“Those who follow all the rules miss all the fun.”
So it's no surprise that Fear Of Missing Out has been my frequent companion.
One day, Anita asked to borrow Mom’s car and Mom said no, fumbling for a reason.
Side note: The five years between my sister and me made it hard to be close, but possibly the most significant thing we shared was our alliance against perceived parental atrocities.
And Mom’s reason just about sent both of us over the edge:
She actually suggested that my sister shouldn’t drive because it was “that time of the month” for her.
Anita lost it and went into a theatrical spiel:
Then why didn’t drivers’ licenses have monthly restrictions for females? Well maybe they should, and how could this have been overlooked by the fine gentlemen governing the Department of Motor Vehicles? In fact, maybe our mom should ring them up and notify them of a pending infraction by a Menstrual Motorist.
Better yet, she suggested she’d tie a red scarf around the car antenna: an attention-getting visual warning other motorists that the woman behind this wheel was likely on the verge of hormonally-induced insanity, and that the movements of this car could not be held to any rules of the road.
The hysteria in our house went over the top as my sister escalated into a full-blown illustration of the ridiculousness of my mother’s suggestion, with me egging her on:
“Look out! RED RAG MAMA coming at’cha!” she screamed, whirling through the house demonstrating the warped driving maneuvers of The Menstrual Motorist with her hair messily tied in a red rag to make her point.
“Traffic lights? Not for me! I can’t think straight or make good decisions because it’s just ‘that time of the month’ fellas!”
“Lane Designations? I’m in a mood so I drive wherever I want — changing lanes on a whim and going this way and that! See the red scarf? That’s your one-and- only warning! Now outta’ my way!”
“Parking? Wherever I stop, that’s my spot!”
Mom, Anita, and I were three very different types, but a dose of comic relief could easily hurtle over whatever walls we’d raised between us. Our mom loved humor: I think it’s one of the most valuable traits we inherited from her.
Even though we were laughing at her unbelievable insinuation, Mom just couldn’t resist a good laugh, and once she joined in with us she relented, and handed my sister the keys.
Many years later, as a Nana, my mom’s perspective had changed with grandchildren.
We were on a boat ride with our kids tubing, and my daughter wanted to bring her baby brother on the tube.
I was nervous about allowing it, so we turned to my mom, as the family’s Rule Matriarch, for her opinion.
I was sure she’d back me up.
But she surprised us when she said: “Oh, I think he’ll be fine…”
And then pointing at me: “But you probably won’t be!”
Everyone laughed, and of course I relented.
This time it was Mom’s in-the-moment humor that made the truth so much easier to see.