I woke up one morning when I was 25 with panic in my heart.
I suddenly realized at this age, my mom had divorced my dad, moved out and had custody of a toddler. She was no longer teaching catechism at Sts. Peter and Paul because divorced women do not teach religion to Catholic children. She was working by day as a bookkeeper and at night as a bartender.
I called my mom and asked, “Were you scared?”
“All the time,” she answered
“And when you’d act like you had everything under control, were you bluffing?”
“All the time.”
This moment of empathy and understanding transformed what I’ve euphemistically described as a bumpy relationship with my mother. She was not a perfect parent — but who am I to say I’d have done any better if I was flying solo in my 20s?
Years later, in a similar moment of wanting to see the world through my parents’ eyes, I asked my dad why he hadn’t tried to get shared custody of me so he could be more a part of my life. He told me he had, but that in the ’70s, that just didn’t happen. Mothers got custody, fathers got visitation, the end.
As I grew up, I got perspective that for whatever my parents’ flaws were, they were doing their best.
My parents wouldn’t get me piano lessons, no matter how much interest I showed in learning, but my mom did sign me up for a Dr. Seuss of the month club, encouraging my love of reading, and later, paid for my subscription to MAD magazine.
My dad tried — and failed — to turn me into a jock. I mean, when you get cut in tryouts for freshman softball, that’s a clear sign of no athletic ability. But he also nurtured my interest in the news by quizzing me on current events when he’d pick me up for visits. And he was still willing to shoot baskets with me, no matter how bad I was.
My mom treated me with respect, not talking down to me but expecting me to engage on a grown up level. When I was maybe 13, she told me she’d talked to our family doctor and given him permission to prescribe birth control for me if I wanted it. She said she hoped I’d talk to her first, but that it was more important to her that I finish school and have all life’s possibilities open to me. The conversation mortified me then but now I’m blown away at the frank way she encouraged me to make responsible decisions.
My dad took me on some excellent family vacations, with me, him, his second wife and her mother. We flew to Orlando when I was in elementary school and I might have been as excited about the airplane as anything else. We of course went to Disneyworld, plus some extras like Busch Gardens and Barnum and Bailey Clown College. My dad even went with me to Wet & Wild, where I was in heaven because I love water slides, but he didn’t say a word about not liking water. I never knew.
My dad married my stepmom when I was 5 and she helped round out my life experiences. While my mom as a tomboy, Debbie was unabashedly girlie — she was my Girl Scout troop leader, enjoyed cooking lessons and took me shopping for my prom dress. She taught me about painting my nails and let me borrow her clothes.
My childhood was bumpy, in part because of the tension between my parents, but it’s clear they loved me.
Flashing forward to my 20s, I’d grown weary of shuttling between my parents on holidays, always feeling like I was letting someone down by not spending enough time. Encouraged by my then-boyfriend, I declared that no, I wouldn’t be visiting any of them on Thanksgiving. My boyfriend and I would be cooking Thanksgiving dinner at our apartment and anyone who wanted to join us was welcome.
I braced for battle — but then was pleasantly surprised when a new tradition began. My mom, my dad, my stepmother — by then divorced from my dad and remarried herself — all spent Thanksgivings together for many years, so that I could spend the day with all of them. My mom referred to it as spending Thanksgiving with her exhusband and her wife in law.
If that doesn’t prove a parent’s love, I don’t know what does.