Having been adopted as an infant, my definition of “family” is necessarily fluid. I have the parents who adopted me. The step-father who assumed the daddy role 13 years after my adoptive dad died before I reached my first birthday. The birth-mother I found at 28. The birth-father I never met but have a thick investigative file on. My ex-step-father’s current wife. Ex-step-brothers and sisters that came and went in my life. Half-brothers and sisters never met. A huge, extended adoptive family that I hardly resemble in appearance or personality but mostly love nonetheless. Friends who have carried more than their share of my pain and happiness through the years.
Out of all of this, there is one constant: my mom. The woman who adopted me and raised me and has stood solidly (some might say stubbornly) by my side since they first placed me in her arms. I have never been confused about who my “real mom” is; even when I can’t be in the same room with her, she is still my mom.
When I was a kid, my mom wasn’t like other moms. Having been widowed at 30, she was tossed back into the dating world when most other moms were settling into comfortable routines and packing on the wifely weight of their generation. Not my mom. She had waist-length dark brown hair, bright green eyes, and a tan to rival a Native American. Long red fingernails and a body that caused men in the street to whistle and turn around. A zest for life and fun that drew people to her and held them, in spite of her hair-trigger temper. She laughed loudly and often and flirted madly. Some children weren’t allowed to play at my house and some of the other moms seemed to avoid her, but she didn’t care. Fiercely independent and almost as naive, she played through life with a sweet abandon that only irritated them more, I think.
Our home wasn’t large, or fancy by any means, but it was always clean and tidy and welcoming. Rarely did I come home from school without finding one or more of her friends lounging around our octagonal, formica-topped kitchen table. There was always laughter and music; you’d hear it from the walk as you approached the house. When I came in, she always shifted her attention. I was the center of her world and she made no effort to conceal it. Later, it became a burden, but as a child, it was a warm security blanket to a child eager to please and be noticed.
When the weather was nice, all the curtains would be pulled and the windows thrown wide. Even with sweltering summers, my mom wasn’t a fan of air conditioning. The heat didn’t bother her, and besides, “Fresh air is good for you!” She tended a big vegetable garden on the side of the house — it must have been about 10′ x 20′ and produced some of the best tomatoes I’ve tasted to this day. She landscaped and cared for our yard, approximately 1/3 of an acre of grass, shrubs, flowers and trees. I have vivid memories of swinging on my swingset and watching her push the lawnmower back and forth in the summer heat and humidity, sweat dripping from her arms. Our house had a big patio for eating and relaxing, with a wooden picnic table and plastic woven lawnchairs and recliners. Almost every summer evening, we’d be on that patio…. she’d coax the tiny Hibachi charcoal grill to cook some hamburgers or hot dogs or fish. Wholesome, plain, nutritious food. I’d have lemonade and she’d have a cold beer. And, more often than not a friend or two would share the table. Dessert was fresh strawberries dipped in sugar or, her favorite, ice cream cones.
Between the yard, her part-time teaching job, and parenting me, my mom always made time for her own interests. Free from the guilt of Perfection Parenting we see now, she confidently assumed she was doing a good enough job and was entitled to time of her own, too. She played tennis well, and often. Sunday afternoons were usually passed on the tennis court, followed by long stretches of iced tea and conversation with friends in our kitchen or on our patio. She dated handsome men who arrived in fancy cars to take her out, often bringing along a small gift that I quickly realized were bribes and disdained. She loved to get dressed up, and when she did, she was positively stunning. I have a photo of her heading out in a body-hugging gold lame full-length dress, dark hair pulled up on the sides and hanging long down her back. She looked like a model, and my pale-skinned, freckly-faced self was in awe of her beauty.
Money was extraordinarily tight, but mom had grown up with less and knew how to stretch her wallet. There were periods we didn’t eat out — not even fast food — without a coupon. New clothes came from the K-Mart sales rack, or, just as often, from her sewing machine. When we wanted anything stylish, it was a trip to the fabric store, where she spent hours pouring through pattern books while I sat on the stool next to her, coloring in my coloring books. Then it was back home to spread the fabric out in the living room and carefully cut out the patterns, followed by hours in her basement laundry room, at a sewing machine tucked in the corner. Eventually, a pretty, stylish dress or pantsuit or shorts would be revealed. She relished in dressing us alike, much to my dismay as I moved through elementary school.
My mom believed, as I do, that getting to know your children’s friends is vital to staying plugged in, so my friends were always welcome at our house. Sometimes they would arrive on Friday afternoon and not leave until Sunday evening. My friends all liked her as well as feared her temper. Her outbursts would send us scurrying to my room or out to the yard, but her good humor was quickly restored and we kids learned to roll with it.
When my mom married my step-father, everything changed. They remodeled the house. Gone was the formica kitchen table and, with it, most of her friends. The sewing machine was mostly retired in favor of my step-dad’s healthy paycheck. Dinners became fancier, and less fun. Our loud, open, friendly house became quiet and proper. My parents’ marriage deteriorated almost as soon as it began, as they were simply poorly matched, but it dragged throughout my teenage years, and I watched my mom become a shadow of her former self.
Their divorce ultimately revived her inner freespirit, but it came at a cost, and our relationship was never the same. Her grief and anger at my dad caused her to lash out at those of us who were left. I tolerated it for many years, finally drawing the line when she ruined my wedding reception with a big, public tantrum. I spent 5 of 7 days of my honeymoon vomiting and suffering stomach cramps from the anxiety and humiliation. I begged her to get therapy and she resisted. We didn’t speak for over two years.
In the years since, we have mended our relationship and negotiated a healthier way of being with each other. I can see in her glimpses of the woman I knew as a child. I can focus on her strengths and appreciate her intense and pure devotion to me. She has saved me and propped me up and supported more than I’d like to admit, and I remember that when my own children are testing my limits. She taught me how to mother, how not to mother, and how to protect my own individuality, at any cost.
In the seeming randomness that is adoption, I somehow landed in the arms of this particular woman. And in the luck that is the love lottery, I won the jackpot.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.