Although I’m named after a character from my mother’s favorite Hemingway novel, I’ve never been a big fan of his. I never liked how punctuated his sentences were… or his thoughts for that matter. My mom, however, believes that everyone, writers and readers alike, could take a lesson from the old boy. So it’s no wonder that, last month, when she called to give me advice, her speech went something like this, “Look, we both know that I hate doing these things and that the whole ‘pep-talk’ part of parenting was really your father’s domain, but since he’s dead… I guess I have to do it.” To which I could only reply, “For future reference, when you say, ‘I guess I have to do it’ because ‘your dad is dead,’ it isn’t really a pep-talk.”
You cannot wonder how I became this person…
But I digress, the point is that her honesty, though brutal, was well-warranted, well-timed and well-received. You see my mother is a big fan of stimulus-response. In fact, I cannot think of a time when she did not allow the natural consequences of my actions to occur – good and bad. Nor can I muster a single memory where that woman let me off the hook – big or small.
Please allow me to elucidate….
I was a good kid. I got good grades. I didn’t party. I was responsible. I was… a nerd. But even nerds go rogue every now-and-then, including yours truly, and one time, I skipped school. Unfortunately, the Principal called her office and that night, at dinner, my mom asked how school was. Thinking I’d gotten away with it, I lied and said, “It was fine.” To which she immediately replied, “Really… because they said you weren’t there today. Don’t worry. I told them you wouldn’t be there tomorrow either.”
Now… I don’t always read facial cues and for about three seconds I truly didn’t know whether to be scared shitless or tickled pink. Lucky for me, she clarified, and the next morning, when our long-time family friend/nanny/cleaning person/caregiver showed up for work, she said, “Your mom is paying me to watch you do my job. Here’s your list. Get started.” In a ten-thousand square-foot home, I scrubbed every floor, cleaned every bathroom, washed every dish, did every piece of laundry, and weeded EVERY.SINGLE.FLOWER.BED.IN.A.FOUR.ACRE.YARD.
To this day, I’m convinced it’s the reason that I hate gardening… viscerally.
At any rate, that night, my mom came home from work and asked me if I wanted to skip school again. Without an iota of dignity or pause I said, “No, no I don’t. Please let me go to school!” At that moment, she looked me in the face and said, “Child, if you think an education isn’t important, you can spend every day of your life doing exactly what you did today.” For the record, it worked. I never skipped school again… not even in college… not even when I was sick... and last month, as I was sobbing to my mother about how complicated my life has been for the last four months and how exhausted and depleted I am because of it, she finally told me about the fight she had with my father to discipline me that day. According to her, he said, “That’s pretty harsh. She’s a good kid. She just made a mistake. She doesn’t deserve to be treated like an indentured servant because of it.”
But that’s not the important part, my mother’s reply to him is. Though they rarely fought, she told him, “I’m doing this because she’s a good kid. She is better than she is behaving. And if I let her off the hook, it tells her that I do not expect excellence from her because either I don’t see it in her or I believe she can’t deliver it… and we both know that child has it in her to make the right choice each and every time she has a choice to make. Besides… no one ever grew up to say ‘WOW I hate my parents for making me a successful human being.”
Well, at forty-one, I finally understand why, shortly after that event, she gave my grandmother’s book of poetry to me. In a beautifully bound anthology of published prose, there is also a hand-written poem that her mother copied as a girl, and the poet she quoted is the one writer whom my mother and I love equally… Rudyard Kipling. The poem is If, and on the off-chance that you haven’t read it, you should. Not just because it’s well written but because it’s just good advice. And mother, because you’re reading this, I am so grateful that you made those words mean something to me just like grandma made them mean something to you.
Also, for the record, you’re right. I can force my heart and nerve and sinew to do their jobs, no matter how broken, frayed and exhausted they are. And I know how to hold on in a storm when there is absolutely nothing in me except the will-power to do it. What's more, I can fill that God-forsaken, unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of pure distance run. I can - and not because dad coddled me - but because you didn’t. So thank you.
By the way, at the risk of sounding like Nietzsche's Guide to Grief, you’re also right about Hemingway. He did say, “The world breaks everyone. Those that will not break… it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave… and it kills them impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” It's sad but it's true. That said, it's equally true that whether or not you stay broken is completely within your control.
OK, I’m off to Steamboat for a desperately needed reality break. I mean seriously… how bad could it be?