A few weeks ago I posted this picture of myself to social media:
This wasn’t taken from a trip to the zoo or even some elaborate birthday party that featured an exotic animal demonstration. This was my pet snake. Her name was Jackie and she was a docile ball python that I received one year for Christmas. Yes, I was the type of weird child that asked for a pet snake. And behind every weird child is a parent that is enabling that weirdness because it’s unique and precious in its own, well, weird way.
My mom, Kathy, is that mom. She unwaveringly supported my sister and I in whatever interests we had so long as they weren’t illegal or endangering our lives or anyone else’s. Even if this whole-hearted support meant going to a reptile expo to do research on the best breeds of snakes and then heading to the pet store to purchase a snake to make one of the most memorable Christmases I ever had. Lest she deal with the wrath of uneven Christmas gift distribution, I should also note that my sister got a Porsche Power Wheels that year and we would tear up the driveway going a wicked 5 MPH. So yeah, it was a really good Christmas.
The snake thing was not a flight of fancy. It was a years-long obsession that featured a “snake journal” wherein I would write down as many species of snake I could remember off the top of my head. I’m not sure what she said about this obsession behind my back, but I got the sense that she delighted in the fact that it was so different.
Not only did we have her full support, she was a rare mom in the fact that she never steered us in the direction of any particular thing. A quality that I myself don’t possess as I signed my 3-year old up for pre-K soccer in the fall with the hopes of turning him into the next Landon Donovan. Kathy never said a word about anything. No sports, no dance, no acting, no nothing. The less we did the less she had to drive us around to do. The only thing she was adamant about was ensuring we developed a love of reading. Kathy is an avid reader and growing up we made weekly trips to our local library with the occasional trip to the BIG library downtown on the weekends. A trip that always had me feeling a lot like Belle when the Beast reveals his mega-library to her in Beauty and the Beast. I have many memories growing up with the two of us curled up on opposite couches with our respective books getting lost in fictional worlds.
Perhaps this love of reading led to my equally long lasting love of writing. A love I had even from a young age. My early stories were mostly focused on the horror genre, which shouldn’t be surprising given the fact that I had a pet snake. In 5th grade I penned a tale about a human baby that fell into a tiger exhibit at a zoo. No one could find her and it turns out that she survived the fall and was raised by said tigers. It wasn’t until years later when the parents were visiting the zoo that they caught a glimpse of something that wasn’t a tiger roaming around the tiger pen and realized that this was their long-lost daughter. Did I mention that this little Pulitzer-worthy gem was illustrated? There are an extraordinary amount of holes in this very thin plot, so much so that I don’t even think Lifetime would turn this into a trashy Sunday afternoon movie. Kathy, however, didn’t bat an eye at this shocking tale. Me? I don’t think I would handle either one of my children authoring that disturbing tale with the sort of supportive grace that my mother mustered. I would have been calling the pediatrician first thing asking whether we needed to conduct a full psych evaluation.
My crowning authorial achievement came at age 11 or 12 when I penned a “novel” that I’m pretty sure was a ripoff of a Christopher Pike young adult novel that I had read. I was convinced that this was literary gold. Gold that needed to be published for others to read. In reality, it was hot garbage that needed spellcheck and probably another psych eval. My mom, however, never once discouraged me from submitting it (even though she had read it) and paid to make copies of this travesty while we researched publishing firms to send them off to. I will also say that she never encouraged it in the sense where I had a false sense of ego or ability. She never professed a love for my work, she simply admired the passion I had and the naïveté that made a 12-year old think Random House was going to send this to the printers. Somehow I received a letter back from one of the many places I mailed my “manuscript” to and they informed me that I had to get a literary agent first. Once again, my mom was there to help me research agents from a book we checked out at the library as I began putting together more letters and making more copies to send out in the world. Had social media existed then I am convinced that someone would have posted excerpts of it for the whole internet to laugh and mock. It was bad. Make your eyes bleed bad.
The point of this story isn’t to hammer home the fact that I was beyond a reasonable doubt a very odd child. It’s that my mom did something that I think is so rare in parenting these days: she supported me without feeding me misguided bullshit that I was the next literary great. Never once did she become indignant on my behalf or whisper in my ear about what fools these publishers were for overlooking my undiscovered talent. This was no parent espousing their child’s greatness. This was simply her walking down a path with me that I was so determined to walk regardless of any potential barriers. She was there to hold my hand and use her office printer to make some copies, nothing more.
Conversely to her nurturing side, Kathy has always been about a hard reality check when needed. It’s kept us grounded. It kept us humble. Like when I got into a fist fight during a soccer game in 11th grade. After being read the riot act by her, I timidly asked my mom if I won the fight. Without skipping a beat she patted my head and said “Oh no, Sweet Pea. You got your ass kicked.” Or when I made up a hypothetical scenario and asked my mom what she would do if I ever killed someone and she replied in all seriousness “I brought you into this world and I would take you out.” Kathy was clearly not going to be one of these moms you see on Law & Order SUV that pay exorbitant legal fees to defend her guilty baby. Nope, not only would she not pay for my defense, she would more than likely take me out Old Yeller style in our backyard.
She was a loving mom and I remember many times I laid my head in her lap (even as a teenager) to have her stroke my hair, but she wasn’t an easy mom. Let’s be clear about that. Just ask anyone I went to high school with about the time I got GROUNDED. It is legendary and all caps are needed. She was strict and while we didn’t want for much, we also didn’t really get much. And then there was the cleaning she made us do. The endless and thorough cleaning. At one point I told my mom that I think the only reason she had kids was so someone was there to do the cleaning. A point that I’m not sure she entirely refuted.
It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I was able to fully appreciate my mother and the breadth of what she did for my sister and I. My mother was and is a mother that so clearly loves her children. Whether that meant buying her weird little daughter a snake or letting her slather her room Matt Damon pictures desperately cut from a Tiger Beat magazine. She taught me the importance a firm handshake and treating people with respect, that “feelings aren’t right or wrong, they’re just feelings.” She showed me the world of books and gave me the support and confidence to know that I could leave the comforts of Ohio and live elsewhere, even if it broke her heart a little to know that I would never be back again to call it “home”.
I hope that as I continue down the path of motherhood that I can channel some of her parenting style. That I can tame my Type A control freak and let my children develop their own passions and interests, even if they vary wildly from my own. That I can keep my obsession with them closeted enough that they don’t grow up to be entitled jerk-faces that expect the world to kiss their ass. While I can’t spend this Mother’s Day with my mom, I will absolutely be thinking of her. Not only because she is a wonderful mother and I’m so lucky to have been raised by her, but because I sound exactly like her when I yell at the kids. Happy Mother’s Day, Ma! We love you!