Friday, May 6, 2011

My Own Private Insulin

In many respects I have had many mommies.

I only have one mother of course and I love her dearly although our relationship was tumultuous to say the least.  I was the youngest of 3 children that was born into a marriage that was at the best of times, past its prime and at its worst was a battleground for two very unhappy people, who were not able to move past and let go of their own difficult childhoods.  While I am confident in the love of both my parents and I am old enough and wise enough now to understand and accept both their love and their flaws.  Many people close to me have commented at one time or another that I had a rough childhood.  I am not sure that is true.  Yes, there were difficult times, yes there was uncertainty and more but I spent years making the worst of it -- making self destructive decisions out of fear.  I feel very lucky that I was finally able to look at my childhood at a distance and was able to come to a place where I can remember the difficulties but also appreciate the good things as well.

Still, there are many other women out there who have, particularly when I was growing up gave me lots of love, acceptance and happiness.  I am not saying I didn't have these things with my own mother but I think it was difficult for my mother to show these things to me.  My mother was not one to show a lot of affection or unabashed joy.  I have a lot of good memories with her but she wasn't the most demonstrative woman.  As a young girl, the youngest child and only daughter, who was shy, awkward, insecure and didn't make friends easily I craved affection with open abandon in the same way a diabetic craves sweets.  My mom was not able to give those things to me, but there were many women who did that were part of my life at different times and my love for them is as strong as the day is long and since mother's day is nearly here I thought it might be fitting and rewarding to pay tribute to two of these women who loved, inspired and cared for me so well.  There are others, but in the interest of getting to bed at a decent hour, I limit myself to two.  Another day I will  post about some of my other heroes.

Linda is my mom's first cousin and they were very close growing up.  My mom was several years older than Linda and I always had the feeling that Linda kind of idolized my mom a little.  In the period when I was close to Linda she was young, married and the mother of two young boys.  She lived in Squirrel Hill, the part of Pittsburgh where as a young adult I lived and spent many years.  Her husband at the time was a Pharmaceutical Sales Rep and he worked a lot.  I was always a little bit shy in front of him.  He was nice but he was just kind of scary.  Not really, but in that way that all dad's were scary when you were 7 because they didn't say much and had their head in a newspaper or peeled to the tv and talking or playing when they were trying to read or watch tv was frowned upon. When he was home you had to be guarded and quiet and I used to be so happy in the mornings when he would leave for work because that meant I could spend the whole day singing and laughing and having fun with Linda.   I spent many weekends at Linda's and in the summer I also spent a week or two at a time (those were the best).  Her two boys, Matt and Jonathan then were babies and she used to let me help get them dressed, help feed them and help give them baths.  I used to love to be her little helper and I loved those two boys so much.  I could kiss and hug them to my heart's content and I loved playing with them.  But the best times were with Linda.  She was the most beautiful woman I can remember from that time in my life, she smiled easily, was always quick to reassure me in everything and just was the most beautiful, carefree woman I had ever seen.  Her voice was soft and I don't ever remember her being angry or in a bad mood.  We would spend hours in front of the bathroom mirror, she would brush my hair and always talk about how beautiful my curls were (in typical girl style I wanted straight hair).  My mom brushed my hair too but there was something always kind of utilitarian about the way she did it. My mom was very practical so most days my long, curly hair was put back in a ponytail.  With Linda she often let me wear it down or just pulled up on the sides.  She, in keeping with the style of the early 1970's wore her dark hair in a beautiful bun piled high on the top of her head and often wore beautiful barrettes or ribbons and I can still remember my asking her to do my hair in the same way as hers which she did and she put a big ribbon around it.  It was the first time I ever thought that I might be pretty, my wearing my hair the same as Linda and she did my hair like that for the rest of the visit.  When my parents came to pick me up I remember telling my mom that I wanted her to put my hair in a bun and she did for a few days, but when school started again she said it just wasn't practical and so I went back to my usual ponytail, no ribbon.

In Linda's bathroom she would let me try her makeup and perfume and wear her jewelry and she would put it on too.  My mom also let me play with her things but then I played alone.  It was so much more fun doing that with Linda.  I would pick out a dress or a bracelet and Linda would tell me what she got it for and if it was for a party or some other fun event she would tell me all about it.  Linda was kind of like a younger, happier version of my mom.  Although I didn't understand it at the time my mom had difficulty being joyful and Linda was just so easy and happy around me, always making me feel important and wanted.  In 1975 we moved to Miami on account of my dad's job and I was sorry that Linda would be far away from me. Linda's parents, my great aunt and uncle moved to Miami a few years before we did and although Linda visited,  I missed her terribly.  I was ecstatic when Linda decided to move to Florida with her sons a couple of years after we did.  Her first marriage was ending so it was a very sad time for her and she wasn't quite her happy, airy self but she was still wonderful and I was so happy that she would again be within weekend visiting distance.  For a while she lived with her parents so they were only 10 minutes away but eventually she moved about an hour north to Boca, but still that wasn't far.  I can still remember visiting Linda in Boca, she lived in a small apartment but was looking to buy condo for her and her two boys and I was so excited to be with her when we found the condo she eventually bought.  I imagined spending lots of time there, playing on the patio, swimming in the pool and preening in her bathroom mirror once again hearing about dresses, shoes, jewelry and makeup.  It didn't really materialize though.  I spent a couple of weekends there but when Linda moved to Florida my parents' marriage was in a very bad state and my mom was really also going through a hard time.  Although they never talked about it to me I think that Linda and my mom grew apart in that period.  Shortly thereafter my own parents' separated and although my mom wanted to stay in Miami, we did go back to Pennsylvania so that I wouldn't be so far from my dad.  Linda stayed in Boca and when I visited my mom I did see her but it was much fewer and far between.  My mom, during and after the divorce started to sever her own ties with her cousins with whom she had always been pretty close.  My mom quickly remarried after the divorce and my stepfather, a man 18 years younger than my mom.  Although they included her in family gatherings and tried to welcome him into the family, he was not so keen or mature enough to handle his inlaws as a part of his daily life.  He was a very young man very much in love with my mother and just didn't want to share her.  Therefore my mom stopped going around the family.  So when I visited her the only way I would really see her family is when I initiated it. I used to beg my mom to call and arrange it for me but she always told me to do it. I think she was afraid to come under scrutiny for not coming around or perhaps even more terrified that they wouldn't ask after her.   In my teenage years I was also reeling, totally insecure and petrified of rejection.  My mom told me that the family wasn't really interested in her so I was really afraid that extended to me as well and even if they did invite me, I was worried it was a pity invite.   It would take me a week to work up the courage to call up my great aunt or one of my mom's cousins and of course they always welcomed me with open arms.  But it wasn't the same, because my mom withdrew I stupidly convinced myself that they didn't really want me around either, so my time with them was part sadness and part envy that I wasn't a closer part of their extended family.  As for Linda, she was a young, vital, intelligent, beautiful woman and she made a nice life for herself in Boca, eventually finding love again and remarrying.  I was very happy for her but soon after her marriage she had more children and my insecurities coupled with my mom's telling me she was too busy to see me.  So I stopped calling and because she was busy raising her 5 children she didn't often come down to Miami so the distance between us grew very far and few.  I have always been sorry that we didn't remain close because I think it was my own and my mothers barriers which put the distance there and in hindsight it was all perceived and insecure.  Even so, Linda was, is and forever will be for me the youngest, most beautiful mother who just lit up my life whenever I was in her presence.  I can still see my reflection in the mirror, that shy girl afraid to look herself in the eye, peering with my peripheral vision at the bun Linda made of my hair and the beautiful pink ribbon she tied around it.  Sometimes if I catch Maya's face in the right light, I see that same girl looking back at me.

Karen my aunt Patty's girlfriend in the 1970's - quite controversial to be living an openly gay lifestyle then for sure.  Although I didn't even know what that meant in the time when Karen came running into my life.  Romantic relationships were not even in my sphere of consciousness.  Aunt Patty lived in York, which was about 3 hours away from us.  I remember her as a young child but I don't think we saw each other that often, at least until Karen came on the scene.  I remember them visiting us several times in Washington, PA where we lived.  My Aunt Patty was always sweet and silly but Karen was something else.  She was uproariously funny and she is one of these people who just genuinely love being around kids.  At any given time there were at least 10 kids running in and out of her house.  She always was full of jokes and really funny stories, stories so funny that milkshakes come flying out your nose, I cannot tell you the number of times I almost choked to death in Karen's presence from exploding in laughter whenever I ate or drank something.  It's hard for me to explain but Karen just emulated this sense that she was in your corner no matter what.  If she loved you, you were in for a life sentence of her love, whether you wanted it or not.  Karen came into our lives at a time when my dad was completely preoccupied with finishing his Ph.D. and finding work as a college professor and although I loved my dad more than anything in those years he just wasn't around very often.  Therefore Karen's injection into my life filled a hole.  She and my mom were also very close too. Karen was (and is), funny and easy to be around and there is absolutely nothing she wouldn't do for the people she loves.  Eventually I learned that she had 3 kids and was divorced and I remember going to York for the first time to visit them and meet Karen's 3 kids.  They were a lot of fun.  They lived in a neighborhood just full of genuine, hard working people of good Pennsylvania Dutch stock.  At the time everyone ended their sentences with the phrase 'ya know it' and while I very much made fun of that when I was in York, secretly when I returned to Western PA I ended my sentences with 'ya know it' too.  I grew especially close to Karen's daughter TJ, we took turns having fun, idolizing each other and fighting, but always came together.  Karen's oldest son Steve was my first official boyfriend when I was 11.  I think our relationship lasted a whole 3 days, maybe even a week.  Before we were 'involved' we fought like cats and dogs all the time, arguing, teasing and outdoing one another at every turn.  When he became my boyfriend we were too embarrassed to even look at each other and our big relationship pretty much consisted of us avoiding looking at each other all day while we played outside, or while we went to the pool or out for ice cream.  In the evening we kissed goodnight and that was it.  Soon it fizzled out, I was secretly miserable about it even though I broke it off and if I remember correctly he rebounded to the girl that lived across the street.   Karen struggled financially back then, she was putting herself through college, was divorced and had 3 kids.  They ate a lot of spaghetti and something called chipped beef which I had never heard of.  Even though they didn't have a lot but it was a lot happier and funner than my materially comfortable house.  During the day they took us swimming or to the park or we played lots of games.  At night we went in the basement where it was cooler, watched movies and ate popcorn, often beaming it at one another.  I remember one evening when Karen's kids went to visit their dad, she took me out to dinner and we went to a pretty fancy place and had surf 'n turf.  My first lobster ever (and I was forever a convert).  When we moved to Miami they visited us there and in the summers or on Christmas break from school I often went to York.  When my parents separated we originally went to York.  My mom who was pretty lost at the time let me choose the place and the thought of being around Karen and her kids seemed like the best possibility.  It was always so much fun there I thought I could be there with them and not be sad at all.  So we moved to York but my fantasy didn't really pan out.  We ended up living on the other side of York, renting part of a house from one of Karen's friends and she was a nice woman but it was pretty isolating where she lived.  My mom had to go back to work to help support us as my dad was giving her a difficult time financially and she found a nursing job but had to mostly work evenings from 3-11.  At first I thought I could spend the time she was working at Karen's but that didn't' work out most of the time.  My mom was depressed and not up for much, so in the hours she wasn't working she slept late and by the time she got up it was too late to go over to Karen's as she had to get ready for work.  So I only saw them twice a week.  Going through my own pain and missing my dad, I was not really up for venturing out myself and trying to make friends in the neighborhood.  I spent most of my time alone in the house we rented, watching tv or sitting outside and waiting for my mom to get home.  The woman whose house it was was very nice but she had her own life so I was alone a lot of the time.  After about 2 months I was completely miserable and told my dad I wanted to go be near him and he convinced my mom to move with me.  After that I didn't have a lot of contact with Karen. There was a lot of change in my life and by the time I really could have forged my own contact with Karen she and my aunt had broken up so I felt awkward about contacting her.  It wasn't until almost 30 years later that we did enter each other's lives again.  When my mom retired she decided to leave Miami again and move to York to be close to her brother and sister (and her other brother who also lived in FL made plans to move as well).  I visited my mom many times in York and the first thing I thought of each time was to call Karen but at the time my mom moved there she told me  Karen was fighting breast cancer so I didn't feel it was the right time.  It wasn't until a year and a half later that I just picked up the phone and called her, it was when my own mom was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and given only weeks to live.  I decided right then and there that life was too short and I was just going to call her.  I got her voicemail and left a message, in about a half hour she called me back and that was all she wrote.  Although I was a kid and she was younger than I was at the time we last saw each other, not a second had passed.  She was the same easy, fun, funny, generous, fantastic woman that I remembered.  Although my mom died only about 6 weeks after I made that call Karen spent time with my mom and not a second had passed between them either.  My mom was so grateful for Karen's presence in her life those last weeks.  When my mom was diagnosed my brothers and I went to be with her but she insisted that we visit for a few days and leave and not come back.  She told me secretly that she thought she wouldn't be able to die if she felt she was leaving us and that she wanted to go peacefully.  I didn't fully get her thinking but my brothers and I decided to respect her wishes.  Her husband was caring well for her and she was under hospice care at home as well.  In the few good weeks she had after I left her we spoke every day (as we had since the time I was pregnant with Maya) and she told me many times how she looked forward to Karen's visits the most.  Since her death Karen has again taken me in her arms both literally and figuratively.  She counts me as one of her kids and is a force of love and support for Maya.  Although she has not said it to me I think she feels that since my mom, for whom Maya was a constant source of joy in her often joyless life, feels the need to carry that torch for my mom and be there for Maya.  She has been a source of unwavering support for me and my role as a parent, never judging, always encouraging and telling me not to be too hard on myself.  Karen understood my mom better than most people and although we don't specifically talk about it, I often feel like Karen tells me the things that my mom wished she could have.  My mom had enormous problems just letting loose and being demonstrative, Karen has that in droves.  It's no accident.

I am not a big proponent of self help books but in my 30's when I had finished numbing my way through the insecurities of my 20's by partying too much and trying to self medicate and pretend my insecurities didn't exist.  I read a book by an author called Iyanla Vanzant, an author and inspirational speaker.  One thing I read in one of her books just spoke to me.  She said that if you didn't get the unconditional love and acceptance you had every right to as a child, you just have to let it go and give it to yourself.  She said you had to give yourself what you didn't get from your parents.  Something about that just spoke to me and it changed my whole perspective on my childhood. I was really able to look at things from a distance and understand but also embrace my parents, faults and all and love them unconditionally but still accept that they had their limitations.  Learning that lesson was so freeing to me, it turned me from someone who spent her life reacting, to proactively living my life and letting in forgiveness and compassion and most important of all, the lesson that your life is not merely lived but it is chosen by each of us.

Give yourself what you didn't get.

I did that, but there are also others, like these two amazing women (and many more) that gave me a lot too.

Happy Mother's Day.

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