I recognized early on that I have a spunky mom.
For starters, she’s probably the most well-read person on the planet, and she used that as a super power on us kids. When we’d mouth off, she’d respond in some fancy prose that completely shut us up, mostly because it sounded like a foreign language to our underdeveloped minds. As we got older, we realized her gift of sarcasm flavored with wit, and we marveled over her ability to snub a target without them realizing what she did. She spontaneously broke into song when a given phrase inspired her. "The Guiding Light" was an hour not to be disturbed and began with a firm, “Go play,” as the opening credits ran. And the dinner menu was nonnegotiable, unless you were willing to be your own chef.
But it wasn’t until I was 12 when I witnessed just how much spunk Mom had.
Even with all her tongue-in-cheek, there was a deeper side to her, wrestling to burst from the carpools and laundry that accosted her days. And so it should have been no surprise that when I, the caboose of five children, started seventh grade, Mom got going. While I learned to diagram sentences, Mom at 50, started earning a Master’s Degree.
At the time, I found this incredibly inconvenient. Dinners were simplified. Mom had new friends, who occasionally spilled over into my time. And she just seemed busy, but she had always been busy. Only now, she was busy with her own life. My dad and I were left a little jaw-dropped as Mom reinvented herself all the way to a new hairstyle, leaving her signature throwback sixties ‘do behind.
Recently, I was asked an interesting question: “When did you peak?”
After a good chew on it, I answered that it must have been in eighth grade, when I was 13 going on 14. Back then, I embraced everything about that scrappy girl who knew what she wanted and paid no concern to the reactions of others. That was before high school, before I was exposed to the money and choices outside of my secluded suburbia that would make me question my own worth. Thirteen marked the height of my muchness, just before I caved to peer pressure and self-doubt. The downward spiral began after that. From the lunch table to the sorority house to playgroups, it seemed that I would have bouts where my value stemmed from others.
It seems like just when we hit our groove, we start to slide, because at every pinnacle, there is a way down. While at the peak, looking out, we can hardly catch our breath at our own moxie. We’re in awe at the power of our accomplishment. Only a stronger force can knock us back. And it does. All those tiny insecurities make us stumble down the jagged slopes until deep in the valley of our own making we look up to what we once were, shielding our eyes from our fading sunlight. We’re in a valley of discouragement.
But it’s in discouragement that we meet again our greatest match – ourselves. Discouragement is just that: the absence of courage. Only then can we discover what we’re really made of. The peak is just the after party. Getting there is the real thrill. That’s when we finally learn that there’s a difference between giving and giving in. Mom gave to her husband and her children with grace, until it masked that she had given in to the idea that she’d never have an identity outside of us. As with a teenager, the opinions of others had made Mom valid until she decided to climb.
Looking back, as Mom was nearing her summit, I was beginning my first descent. But I didn’t realize that in her boldness what Mom was really doing was reclaiming herself. She wasn’t reinventing. She was giving herself back to her. It would be her greatest example for me — one that I cling to now that I’m a mom.
Six years later, after splitting her studies with family, Mom completed her degree and worked as a counselor at St. Gerard Majella, an alternative high school for expectant mothers. Nowadays, her “girls” are well beyond the doubt and discouragement with which they wrestled when they first sat in Mom’s office. They have degrees and careers of their own, much in thanks to a spunky Mom, who herself, was alternative.
I know enough to know that we don’t peak once. Like Mom, we teeter on intimidating cliffs. The future hangs in the consequence of our next move. Staying put is even more terrifying. It means we never meet the older version of that scrappy girl from the first time we peaked. She has it all. I’m not sure how old Mom was at her first peak, but I’m pretty sure that when she put on her cap and gown at 56 and looked in the mirror, she welcomed her back.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.