Why is it that as adolescents we often rail against our mom — and then, as adult women, we become her? There are so many stories of the many quirky and sometimes poignant ways we channel our mothers as we make our way through life.
Danny Brassell of Redondo Beach, California, has a mom who is a persistent talker. “She never received a piece of mail that she did not feel compelled to read aloud to anyone in the room,” Brassell told me for my book “At My Pace: Lessons from Our Mothers.” This man’s mom would pose a question to the entire family — and then answer it herself. She was married to a soft-spoken librarian — so the match worked well.
The funny part? Danny Brassell, who as a boy had no choice but to hear incessant and sometimes irritating chatter from his mom, grew up to become a motivational speaker. As Brassell said, “As often as I can, I call her up to hear her talk.”
Tamar Fox of Philadelphia is a young mother in her 30s. Her grandfather, when he was very young, was rescued by the Kindertransport when England opened its doors to Jewish children who were fleeing Nazi Germany. As adults, Tamar’s parents paid forward that kindness by opening their doors to many people in need as well — immigrants, itinerants, lost souls.
Fox told me their open doors also meant she never knew who might be at their dinner table each night. Her mother has since died, but Fox has taken and adapted their “open door” lesson to heart, as she and her husband are now foster parents. While she is committed to “open doors,” Fox has also mused, “My mother never mentioned how difficult it can be, and I wonder often if it just came naturally to her, or if she also sometimes felt overwhelmed and not good enough.” No matter: Tamar stands strong in her convictions and her way of life.
Marsha Katz Slotnick of Newton, Massachusetts, “became” her mother in the silliest of ways. She is a dedicated wearer of lipstick. Slotnick, always elegantly dressed and well-coiffed, told this story: Anne Katz was widowed in her mid-40s with four children to raise. The family was poor and Anne Katz suffered bouts of anxiety. Still, this mother always took exceptional pride in her appearance, never forgetting to put on her lipstick — and she counseled her daughters to do the same.
Why the lipstick? Even on the last evening of her life, as Anne Katz was being ushered from a Passover seder at her daughter’s home to return to her nursing facility, she had to stop in the bathroom to check her lipstick. Marsha Slotnick noted that her mother’s lifelong focus on a perfect appearance was not about finding a spouse or a job, but about “projecting the image of order and being on top of things.” It helped her feel good about herself. One look at Marsha Slotnick — and it is apparent the lesson was successfully passed along.
And here is another story shared with me by a woman named Laurel Lloyd of Fremon, New Hampshire, about how she “became” her mother in the most unexpected of ways:
“About two decades into what seemed to be a mostly idyllic life, my family experienced what my mom would later call a ‘rough patch.’ But it was more than that. At the end of it, my parents would divorce after 23 years of marriage. My father had fallen in love with another woman — someone who, ironically, had been part of the company of actors that very first summer my parents had met. There was an awkward phase of my mother being called by my stepmother’s name and of my mother bumping into her replacement at the post office. She felt rejected and alone. But, at age 50, she picked herself up and moved forward.”
She continued: “Two decades into my own marriage, I experienced a ‘rough patch’ of different circumstances that culminated in a divorce. Like my own mom’s, the separation occurred after 23 years of marriage, and, like her, I was starting over at age 50. It seemed to be more than a coincidence that my divorce went through on the day of her wedding anniversary. My daughter was seven at the time. Living in a small town in New Hampshire all of my married life, I experienced the same awkwardness as my mother after her breakup.”
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And she added: “My friends have told me how, when seeing my ex, his wife, and me interact at social gatherings involving our daughter, they feel we’ve set an example for others with our amicable relationship. One even friend stifled a gasp when I told her I’d be having Thanksgiving dinner with my ex and his wife. But isn’t that how it should be — letting go of the adversity in our lives, appreciating the good in what was, and moving on? In the end, it’s the children who win. That’s the lesson my mother taught me with the grace and kindness she showered on those in her life — a gift that I’ll be sure to pass onto my own daughter.”
My book, “At My Pace: Lessons from Our Mothers,” was born out of love for my mother. When my mom, Rosyne, a Denver, Colorado, resident, was in her 91st year of “living,” her mind was sharp but her body was failing, along with her mood. I wanted to engage her, so I wrote what was essentially a love letter about one lesson that she gave to me — then I proceeded to build a book from there.
Her lesson to me was about the importance of lifelong learning. My mom was widowed at 57, and besides being a mom, she mostly knew two things: how to run a kosher grocery store, and how to play piano. Her protective children wouldn’t let her remain a store owner, so she went on to attend vocational school and became an office manager.
Decades later, at the ripe age of 80, she enrolled in a Jewish studies program while still doing her day job. Her much younger classmates must have appreciated her as we did — one day they presented her with a rolling backpack to lug her heavy books.
The rolling backpack is my lesson. My mom seized every opportunity to learn at every stage of life. Sometimes it was comical: “I need an iPad so I can finally understand why the Shah of Iran fell,” she told us once.
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While we had explained that moment of history and how to use an iPad many times, it appeared she wanted more. Her curiosity was immense and explains the “Curious George” in me — her daughter. How appropriate that in my mom’s last year of life, we could explore the mother-daughter relationship (just as she and my brother explored their mother-son relationship) as we digested each completed piece.
Working on my book reminded me of something I think I always knew: the importance of gratitude. For better or worse, most of us become our mom. It can be funny or irritating, but mostly it is real, and maybe even endearing. Thank you, Mom!
Jill Ebstein is the editor of “At My Pace: Lessons from Our Mothers” (November 2016) and “At My Pace: Ordinary Women Tell Extraordinary Stories” (2015). She lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her family.