Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Growing up, one friend’s mother wasn’t like the others.
The other mothers sold brownies and muffins at bake sales or worked the hamburger booth at the school fair. They attended student Masses on Tuesdays and took turns as school nurse in the office even though none of them had a nursing degree. They knew our names and where we should be and shouldn’t be, and we knew to which kid they belonged. “That’s Jenny’s Mom, Ms. Tricia,” we’d say--always, always preceded by Ms. or Mrs. Anything too informal would be like blasphemy and earn us a death stare.
But my friend’s mom didn’t bake, she was absent from the fair, and we never saw her jabbering with the school secretary when we hobbled into the office from recess with a skinned knee. When she did show up for Mass or performances, she sat in the back and didn’t talk to anyone. She was younger, much younger than the rest. She smoked, which wasn’t all that special back then. It was the 80s. But this mom chain-smoked. Once when I was at her house, she made us grilled cheese sandwiches and I watched as an ash fell into the pan. Plus, she made us call her Frances instead of Mrs. Rafferty because Mrs. Rafferty was her ex-mother-in-law, and since my friend’s dad divorced her, she wasn’t about to associate herself with his name any more than she had to. She wasn’t Ms. Frances either. She said that that made her sound old. She had a point. She was barely 30 then.
Mostly, though, she just wasn’t a very good mother--not in the traditional sense. She did the bare minimum--enough to get by. It reminded me of my homework. I never embraced the concept of homework. Who did? I didn’t elaborate on anything and completed the bare minimum so I could go play. To Frances, her daughter might as well have been English homework. She didn’t neglect my friend, but she certainly didn’t nurture her. She fed her, albeit without much effort, she clothed her, and she got her to school on time, but there was a disconnect. There were no “I love you’s” in her house, boo-boos kissed, or bedtime stories. That’s what my friend’s dad was for, and thank God he had a heart because Frances just didn’t seem capable.
Don’t get me wrong. Back then none of the moms engaged in the ridiculous helicoptering, treat-your-kid-like-your-best-friend, and precious childhood extravaganzas moms give into nowadays. Generally speaking, all of our moms ignored us. We did our thing, like play outside, so they could do theirs, which we all assumed was watching soap operas and talking on the phone. They stayed out of our way and we theirs, but we always knew our mothers loved us. We always knew there would be a warm supper and clean sheets when we came home after the street lights turned on, and if we were worried about something, Mom always had the answer.
At least not when we were kids.
Frances died when we were 30, which made Frances somewhere close to 50 at the time of her death. When we were kids, she worked at the bank as a teller. When she died, she was the bank manager. When we were kids, she scared us with her coldness. When we were older, she made us laugh with her bluntness. When we were kids, she was unapproachable. When she died, we mourned that we could no longer sit on her porch and listen to her stories--sometimes irreverent, sometimes charming, but always genuine in their delivery. The only thing that ever seemed genuine about her when we were kids was her need for us to leave her alone. But all that eventually changed. By the time we were in college, Frances flipped the switch. Suddenly, she was everything she never was--talkative, affectionate, and interested. She still smoked like a chimney and she never was a great cook, but she finally gave a damn about her daughter and even us.
At Frances’s funeral, my friend, standing despondently beside her mother’s coffin, said as the rest of us hovered nearby, “She just wasn’t equipped. And when she finally was, it was too late.”
I miss Frances. In junior high, I’d never imagined I’d say those words. But I honestly do miss her cool, confident nature. I think back to her when we were young and remember how broken she seemed compared to the other mothers--divorced, a single mom, choosing to distance herself from everyone. Knowing how much she would eventually mean to me, I want to go back and hug the younger Frances and tell her that one day she’d change and get things right. But the crazy thing is, as I tucked her funeral program into the box where all my funeral programs and prayer cards eventually go, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Frances hadn’t changed after all.
The forty-something woman who cracked open beers and made fun of men with us when we were in our twenties was the same woman in the 80s. We were just too young for her sense of humor. Sure, she had a better income and time had distanced her from divorce and the stresses of young motherhood by the time we were older, but had she changed? We were the ones who changed. We grew up and maybe all along that’s what Frances needed in order to be a good mother. What she lacked in instinct and compassion--all the natural qualities that we associate with mommies--she made up for when we were older: Frances didn’t judge because she had been the subject of scrutiny, and although she listened to our problems, her habit of straight talk made it so that she was the one to tell us what we needed to hear.
Maybe my friend was right? Frances was unequipped. She didn’t have what she needed to be a child’s mother, but she was a fine mother to an adult.
Like all of us, Frances was the result of choices. At a certain age, we begin the process of building an existence we can celebrate and reflect on proudly, giving our all to embrace this one life we’ve got. We think we’re choosing the right thing, and yet, sometimes we still come up short. We’re broken--like Frances. We have the product of our choices--whatever they may be--vying for our attention and we don’t know how to make our broken selves fit into the life our choices created. In those periods of loss, regret, confusion, and disappointment--the shattered offspring of our choices--it’s easy to think that’s all it’ll ever be.
One day, about four years ago, I was sitting in the playroom at home with the aftermath of my kids all around me. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and I was still in my pajamas without the energy or desire to get dressed. It had been like that for some time. It wasn’t enough anymore--the playdates, Mommy and Me, the homemade playdough, and cheese cut into star shapes. I’d stopped coming up with new ideas with which to fill our days. I was moody and lethargic--more than just in a rut. Whatever it was, I dragged my kids there with me. I loved them, but they were defining everything so that I’d forgotten everything that came before them. I thought about Frances and the ashes in the fry pan. I took a shower, got dressed, and started writing again for the first time in ten years.
I know enough to know that we may be the result of our choices but our true power lies in character built as a result of our choices. I was lucky in that when I was a struggling young mother, I knew I deserved to be happy and no amount of mom guilt could convince me that my happiness wasn’t mine to discover and claim. I guess I was equipped to know my worth right when I needed it. How much better could Frances have done when we were kids when what she needed was something no one could shake her into understanding but herself? Whether she was equipped or not to be a good mother, Frances was the last one to know that she was always just as equipped as anyone to square off a life worthy of herself. Frances eventually got it right because she finally believed that it could be better, that she deserved to be as happy as the moms at the bake sales. She just had to define her happiness, and when she did, she was able to love others in a way she never had before because she finally loved herself.
Apparently, there had been no apologies in her final days--no dramatic “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better mother” bedside talk. She just held onto my friend, both of them in complete understanding that at that moment in time, they cared, they loved, and they thanked God for the gift of the other. Maybe that’s the ultimate takeaway from Frances’s story.
What we need more than guilt trips, rehashings of the past, and endless apologies is to know that we matter to someone else, to the bigger picture, to ourselves, and that above all we are worthy of love.