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Reflections on Not Having A Mom for Half of My Life

A crazy little milestone happened recently that will never come around again. I have lived half my life without my mom. She died of metastatic lung cancer when I was nineteen years old. Now, I am rounding the corner to having gone through both my twenties and thirties without her. It goes without saying, but she’s missed out on a lot.

And now that I’m on the cusp of my forties, I’ve come to realize just how young she was when she died. I mean, I knew that fifty-two was too young to die, but now I have friends and family of my generation who are her age and/or older, and I don’t consider any of these people old, not by a long shot. I mean, I could’ve met my mother now and considered her a friend, an equal.

But I’m not throwing some pity party here. In fact, I’ve come to realize that her death, in a lot of ways, probably shaped my life for the better as it has forced me to reflect on what it has meant to have her as a mother. Sure, that might sound all sorts of fucked up to say for some. But, I’m not saying I actually am glad my mom died; I’m saying that I’m doing well with the cards I’ve been dealt. It’s useless to see it any other way. I’d like to think she’d agree wholeheartedly if she could read this.

There’s no doubt I love(d) my mom. She was incomparable. I could go on and on about all the great things she’s done and how she was a unique bird, but that’s not what I’m doing here. This writing is going to be about me coming to terms with a post-mom world.

I’ve seen a lot of people die. I’ve lost both parents. My wife lost both of her parents. I’ve lost a great friend. But I’ve also held a lot of strangers hands as they passed away. Working in ICU, ER, and hospice will grant these opportunities regularly. My mom was the first person I actually saw die. I stood at her bedside next to my dad and sister as she left this plane of existence, and there was no mistaking the moment. After all the sobbing and awfulness immediately following her death, I went home. And I picked up my guitar and wrote a song for her in one of those magic songwriting moments when the whole thing just tumbles out in one sitting.

It’s still one of the best songs I’ve ever written, and that song is arguably the best thing I’ve ever done artistically. I have recordings of it, but none will ever recreate or match when I performed it at her funeral. I’ve performed in front of a lot of people over the years, but I’ve never had an experience like that, of course. But what stands out to me about that time I sang and played was that I truly reached inward and pulled out the emotion that was there.

I wasn’t doing it for anyone else, not even her. I didn’t even feel nervous. I just waited my turn, walked up, and laid bare my soul in that moment of her funeral. I tucked my scribbled lyrics into her hands and she was buried with them. I barely remember anything before or after. I don’t even necessarily remember playing the song. But I remember the feeling of being up there. In a strange sense of the word, it was perfect.

That song is called “I Hope You Are Still Listening,” and the lyrics are as follows:

This won't change, but it changes everything
I feel like I left you, but I know you're the one who's gone
I miss you
We all miss you
I saw you leave right before my eyes
What finally pulled you toward the sky?
Of this pain, you are undeserving
I never felt it but I could see it in your eyes
It's so hard to let you go 
I am who I am all because of you
I hope you are still listening
I saw you leave right before my eyes
What finally pulled you toward the sky?
I love you as my mother 
I need you as my friend
I will forever hold you
This will not be the end
I'll tell my kids about you
If you watch them, you will find
I'll love them as you loved me
This is not our last goodbye

Not bad for a nineteen year-old kid who literally just lost his mom, right?

And what’s more amazing to me is the fact that, double the lifetime later, the lyrics still hold up. I’m a dad now. I have two glorious little children and I am giving them the love and care that I was raised with. Honestly, I’m doing better than my mom did for me. Don’t worry; she’d agree with that statement. No need to go into details; all of our parents fuck up, and my mom was perhaps too eager to point out her own faults.

I remember doing the calculation, mostly because I was curious. I’m turning forty soon, and so I knew the “Half-My-Life-Without-A-Mom-iversary” was coming up soon, and my math brain wanted an exact date. So, I visited one of the many websites that is willing to calculate years on the calendar for you, and voila! I got my date.

Now, I’m not openly stating that date for two reasons. First, simply, that would tie up enough information to calculate my birthday, which isn’t the wisest thing to post all over the internet. It’s not the end of the world, but still, best not to put that all over the place. Second, and more importantly, as soon as I got the exact date, I gave it a good old shrug of the shoulders, because the date doesn’t mean shit. It really doesn’t.

Grieving sucks. It just sucks. We like to compartmentalize it into stages for the sake of comfort, but really the stages of grief are just a way of saying, “What you’re going through is okay.” And while that sounds like a good plan, it’s not, really. Validation of self-destructive actions while grieving is just awful and disrespectful of the person lost, and validation comes in many forms. In America, validation of poor behavior in the name of grief typically comes in the form of “Let’s just not talk about it and see what happens.” Grief easily turns the corner to self-destruction if not checked by those who are still alive and love the person grieving. That includes self-love. Everyone is responsible.

And that’s why it sucks so goddamn much that Americans are so uncomfortable talking about death. Luckily, and strangely, and much to the chagrin of the easily horrified nearby, by sister and I share a great love for gallows humor. One of our favorite back and forth jokes (that I started, being the bastard little brother I am), is to comment on any social media post that mentions something emotional regarding the death of our mother (or father, for that matter). My favorite thing to do is to wait until a few friends of my sister have commented with the typical “Hugs” or “Thinking about you,” and then disrupt the entire thing with a resounding, “WAIT, MOM’S DEAD?!”

While this might sound to be a joke in poor taste (because it is), I find it to be one of the more important parts of actual grieving. You see, my mom had a sharp sense of humor and she would make people laugh left and right. When she died, I felt enormously alone and lost. I used her death and my grief to do a lot of shit I really shouldn’t have done, like fail out of college and establish a regular drinking habit, both of which she would never have wanted to see me suffer through.

If she was/is able to watch me, as implied by the lyrics of my song, then she would have been so sad and disappointed. However, I know she would’ve cackled at the “Wait, mom’s dead” joke, because she was unrestricted in her humor, and she wanted her kids to be happy, no matter what. It was beyond her. That’s what both she and dad told us over and over. “We don’t care if you kids turn out to be gas station attendants, just as long as you’re happy.”

And man, I wasn’t happy in my twenties. Not to say that I didn’t do a lot of great things and experience a lot of happiness, but I just missed the mark too often because I wasn’t focusing my aim. I was ignoring the shit I needed to deal with. I could easily file my actions into a stage of grief, feel justified, and continue to ignore it all. But I was mostly miserable.

But then, with the careful aid of a happy marriage to a truly wonderful woman and a lot of the foundational tools given to me by both of my parents, I set to work. I used my brain, heart, and soul to start pulling myself up. I took responsibility and no longer wallowed. In fact, I thrived. And really, most of this good work finally started happening in the last seven years after my wife became pregnant with our daughter.

In my early twenties, I’d shrug off marriage and parenthood, claiming that it wasn’t particularly essential. But honestly, I was shrugging it off because I didn’t think I’d be very good at either. My relationship with my wife went through a lot of ups and downs during our long dating phase. But we stuck with things, rolled with the punches, got back up when we were knocked flat, and truly enjoyed and worked at the love underlying everything in our relationship, both good and bad.

Going through all the tough conversations with her in order to bring our relationship to the strong point it now enjoys was essential to my perspective as a father and as a human being. It’s not the easy street that makes life enjoyable. It’s carving through all the tough parts to sculpt something worthwhile—something you can’t experience without work. And man, that’s definitely a large part of parenthood. If you’re expecting anything less than one of the hardest things you’ve ever been through, then you’re not thinking about the fact that you’re going to be raising human beings and giving a great part of yourself to them always.

It’s no mistake that I’m becoming a better person because I’m a dad. I give fatherhood the appropriate credit for my best shifts in perspective. If you’re doing it right, parenthood is a systemic dose of empathy and celebration of others. I mean, you get to help little humans get up on their own feet, both literally and figuratively. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Parenthood is an amazing and awe-inspiring opportunity and honor.

And reflecting on this is what makes it such an awkward shock that I haven’t had my mom around for half my life. But what’s amazing about this is that her lessons and life are still with me. They’ve come through in my parenting to this day. My mom hasn’t really died as a mother; that’s something that has definitely lived on in both her children. It would have been damned fine to have her meet her grandchildren, though. But as the song she requested to be played at her funeral goes, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

…but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”

It’s that second line that brings it home. Easily one of my favorite songs of all time, and it’s thanks to my mom’s (perhaps morbid to some) request. I remember not listening to the Rolling Stones much and avoiding the song entirely when she mentioned the request. But I vividly recall driving around alone the day after her death and putting that song on.

As soon as the choir started singing in the song’s opening, I wept. I ugly sobbed, somehow still controlling the car. Then I breathed. I even smiled. Then, by the fourth time the chorus rolled around I was belting the lyrics out right along with Mick Jagger. I was suddenly thankful to have had the mom I did, even though it was for such a short time. I lost that feeling somewhere in my twenties but I did get it back, and it has stayed with me. I’ll never let it go again.

Celebrating my mom is essential. Grieving the morbid anniversaries is not. I don’t feel particularly grief-stricken each year when the day of her death rolls around, as that day has nothing to do with her value as a person. I calculated the day that began these reflections, the “half my life without a mom” day, simply to satisfy a curiosity. That date rolled around and I told my wife about it. “Is there anything you need to do for it?” she asked. I shrugged, totally unsure. I knew that the day would’ve passed without any acknowledgment if I hadn’t done the calculations, so I just dove in as a father and a husband and tried my best to have a good day.

And it definitely turned out to be an amazing day. I took the lead when it came to initiating an epic squirt gun fight in the backyard. My wife took the lead when it came to taking our kids out to a park specifically so my daughter could try her hand again at riding a bike without training wheels.

She was putting her feet on the pedals that evening, but something wasn’t quite clicking. The bike was staying up and coasting, which was awesome. But as soon as those feet started pushing the pedals, she’d second guess herself and plant both feet back on the ground.

“Put your hand on her back and run alongside her,” suggested my wife.

I was more than happy to. And that was all it took. That one hand, that vote of confidence. A hand on the back that was doing nothing but saying, “Your dad is right here,” and she was off. Her face glowed with pride. She could barely be removed from her bike for the rest of the evening. SHE GOT IT. Six years old, and my daughter is off and riding a bike on two wheels. I’m a proud papa.

And that’s what the day became. Not another day of mourning for a mom lost, but a day to celebrate my daughter learning to ride a bike. That, and a reminder of how far I’ve come with my mom’s hand still on my back, even though she’s not around.

I hope you are still listening, Mom. You are missed. I tell my kids about you and I love them like you loved me.

I love you, too.

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The Tale of My Mother’s Failed Joke

I had the pleasure of visiting with a woman who will be 96 years old next week. She told tales over and over about her and her husband and the tremendous things they accomplished in their SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS OF MARRIAGE.

It was amazing (and I don’t say that just to say that, listening to this woman talk about her husband and marriage was truly incredible. I mean, 75 years of marriage…and he served three active years in the Army during World War 2!) to watch this woman’s face light up as she spoke of the times she and her husband shared. One of the things they did from their early 70’s through their mid-90’s was organize bus excursions for groups of seniors. They would get a luxury bus together and charge anyone who bought a ticket just the cost (no profit), and the bus would always fill up. This was most likely because of the lengths this woman and her husband would go to in order to make the bus trip fun. Sometimes the trips would only be local day-trips, but these excursions could be as long as a week. Each trip came with a goodie bag filled with home-baked items, various trinkets provided by local businesses, decorations, food and drink, prizes, sing-alongs, and comedy…all provided by this woman and her husband. It all sounded like a blast, and since these trips were only at cost for the bus ticket and any entry fees to wherever they went, it was no wonder why these trips always sold out.

What got me was the comedy. This woman would stand up in front of a bus full of people and tell jokes for hours. Naturally, I asked for a joke. She couldn’t wait to tell me her “favorite joke.”

She then proceeded to attempt to tell a joke about someone ordering a BLT at a diner, but somehow there were extra letters involved spelling out various “bad words.” She was laughing as she told the joke, but she was forgetting the actual acronyms involved in order to make the joke work. The delivery kept starting and restarting, but all attempts ended in failure, yet she still laughed. In the end, she decided to give it all up, but assured me that it was the best joke she knew. She was 96 after all, and just watching her light up while trying to tell the joke was worth more than hearing the joke itself, I’m sure. Nevertheless, I gave her my phone number and asked her to call me with any jokes she wanted an audience for, especially the BLT joke, should she remember it.

It seriously made my night to watch her reaction to the joke, even though I didn’t get to enjoy the punchline. She was enjoying both her memory of telling the joke and her failure in remembering it. I loved seeing her smile as she failed in her comedy, as it reminded me of a great story about my mother.

This story harkens back to the time when my mom was new to the Akron, Ohio area and trying to make friends (sometimes by giving strangers the middle finger).

My father brought my mother to a company party and was introducing her to many of the people with whom he worked. Many of these people were high up in the ranks at his job. My mother was as charming as usual, and she gathered much attention in conversation. To add to things, my mother had a tiny bit more to drink than usual, which wasn’t much because she was never much of a drinker. Long story short, having gained the attention of many important people at my father’s new career, my mother’s fairly inebriated mind decided it was time to tell everyone her favorite joke.

Roughly speaking and with obvious embellishment, the joke goes as follows:

A man with no arms walks into an enormous church, demanding to see the head priest. As everyone thinks he is ill and requires immediate spiritual attention, they fetch the head priest at once. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, the armless man pleads with the head priest to be the bell ringer for the church. He says he comes from Falmouth, a town several hundred miles away, and he has been rejected by every church between here and there, as no one believes he could be a bell ringer due to his lack of arms. The man begs and pleads with the head priest to give him a chance to prove that he is the greatest bell ringer anyone has ever heard. Moved and curious, the head priest agrees to hear the man ring the bells for the next noon hour, just so he can witness the man’s abilities and make a decision based solely upon his skill.

Soon enough, noon draws near. The armless man takes his place atop of the bell tower, right next to the enormous iron bell. The entire town has gathered to watch, as word of the high priest hiring an armless bell ringer has spread like wildfire. At last, noon arrives, and with hundreds of people watching, the armless man finally gets his chance to prove his worth.

Much to everyone’s shock and awe, the armless man bangs his head against the enormous bell once. The resulting BONG! from the church bell is beautiful. The church bell has never rang so clearly. The man bangs his head against the bell a second time, and the resulting BONG! is even more lovely than the first, yet no one has noticed the blood starting to seep from the top of the armless man’s forehead.

BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! 

Halfway through the essential twelve rings of the church bell to signify noon, the crowd is entranced by the new and echoing beauty this armless bellringer has brought to their oft-ignored bell chimes. No one is questioning the bellringer’s abilities at this point. It is obvious that he has a natural, albeit unconventional, talent.

BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!

The seventh through eleventh rings of the bell only cause the townspeople to start tearing up in overwhelming emotional joy. That’s how amazing the armless bellringer’s talents are. Entranced, no one notices that the bellringer’s face is streaking with blood and he is wavering atop the church steeple. Everyone is awaiting the final twelfth ring, but it never comes.

The armless man succumbs to his injuries and falls several stories to the ground below. He dies instantly in the fall. His lifeless body wears a smile, as he was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of being the bellringer for a church.

All of the townspeople are in shock. The man who just brought most of them to tears with his bellringing has just died in attempting to accomplish that very task. Many cry out for an immediate blessing and memorial. The high priest agrees that the man should be honored, yet he is distraught, as he failed to get the man’s name prior to assigning his bell-ringing trial. All he knows is that the man is from Falmouth.

Using this only identifying piece of information, the high priest addresses the crowd, begging anyone who has been to Falmouth recently to step forward and try to identify the dead, armless bellringer.

A man in the back of the crowd steps forward. He says that he has family from Falmouth, and he would perhaps know of a man without arms, as long as he can get a good look at him. Naturally, the crowd parts to let the man through.

He examines the bellringer’s body from top to bottom while the crowd waits in hushed anticipation. Finally, the man stands straight up, and with a smile, he says…

(This is the actual punchline:)

 I do not know this man, but his face sure rings a bell!

Only, this is NOT what my mother said in front of everyone my father relied upon professionally. Instead, with complete confidence, she said:

I do not know this man, but his face looks familiar!

Instantly realizing her mistake, my mother burst into a great fit of self-induced nervous laughter. She blew a joke after an extra-long setup, and now she was laughing at how badly she blew the punchline. The fact that literally no one around her was laughing only made her own laughter impossible to contain. She was caught up in the fact that what she had just accomplished was ridiculous and embarrassing, yet her natural reaction was to laugh at herself, which only made everyone around her believe that she believed that what she had just said was funny.

The fact that she cocked the whole thing up in front of the undivided attention of some of the most important people in her husband’s career only made her laughter continue in a seemingly endless manner until she regained enough breath to apologize and tell the appropriate punchline, which was long lost at that point.

At the end of the night, both my mother and father were cackling into the night together at how glorious the error was. They bonded over the failed joke in such a seemingly important situation. The failed joke ended up funnier than the successfully told joke ever could have.

And this ended up a story both my father and mother enjoyed telling for decades after the fact.

Because of this, the “his face looks familiar joke” will always be one of my all-time favorites.

And to think, if my mother had executed the joke properly, the joke might have caught a few laughs and then promptly disappeared.

What is actually important is never required to be perfect.

In fact, perfection should be discouraged, shouldn’t it?

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The Tale of My Mother's Failed Joke

I had the pleasure of visiting with a woman who will be 96 years old next week. She told tales over and over about her and her husband and the tremendous things they accomplished in their SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS OF MARRIAGE.
It was amazing (and I don’t say that just to say that, listening to this woman talk about her husband and marriage was truly incredible. I mean, 75 years of marriage…and he served three active years in the Army during World War 2!) to watch this woman’s face light up as she spoke of the times she and her husband shared. One of the things they did from their early 70’s through their mid-90’s was organize bus excursions for groups of seniors. They would get a luxury bus together and charge anyone who bought a ticket just the cost (no profit), and the bus would always fill up. This was most likely because of the lengths this woman and her husband would go to in order to make the bus trip fun. Sometimes the trips would only be local day-trips, but these excursions could be as long as a week. Each trip came with a goodie bag filled with home-baked items, various trinkets provided by local businesses, decorations, food and drink, prizes, sing-alongs, and comedy…all provided by this woman and her husband. It all sounded like a blast, and since these trips were only at cost for the bus ticket and any entry fees to wherever they went, it was no wonder why these trips always sold out.
What got me was the comedy. This woman would stand up in front of a bus full of people and tell jokes for hours. Naturally, I asked for a joke. She couldn’t wait to tell me her “favorite joke.”
She then proceeded to attempt to tell a joke about someone ordering a BLT at a diner, but somehow there were extra letters involved spelling out various “bad words.” She was laughing as she told the joke, but she was forgetting the actual acronyms involved in order to make the joke work. The delivery kept starting and restarting, but all attempts ended in failure, yet she still laughed. In the end, she decided to give it all up, but assured me that it was the best joke she knew. She was 96 after all, and just watching her light up while trying to tell the joke was worth more than hearing the joke itself, I’m sure. Nevertheless, I gave her my phone number and asked her to call me with any jokes she wanted an audience for, especially the BLT joke, should she remember it.
It seriously made my night to watch her reaction to the joke, even though I didn’t get to enjoy the punchline. She was enjoying both her memory of telling the joke and her failure in remembering it. I loved seeing her smile as she failed in her comedy, as it reminded me of a great story about my mother.
This story harkens back to the time when my mom was new to the Akron, Ohio area and trying to make friends (sometimes by giving strangers the middle finger).

My father brought my mother to a company party and was introducing her to many of the people with whom he worked. Many of these people were high up in the ranks at his job. My mother was as charming as usual, and she gathered much attention in conversation. To add to things, my mother had a tiny bit more to drink than usual, which wasn’t much because she was never much of a drinker. Long story short, having gained the attention of many important people at my father’s new career, my mother’s fairly inebriated mind decided it was time to tell everyone her favorite joke.
Roughly speaking and with obvious embellishment, the joke goes as follows:

A man with no arms walks into an enormous church, demanding to see the head priest. As everyone thinks he is ill and requires immediate spiritual attention, they fetch the head priest at once. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, the armless man pleads with the head priest to be the bell ringer for the church. He says he comes from Falmouth, a town several hundred miles away, and he has been rejected by every church between here and there, as no one believes he could be a bell ringer due to his lack of arms. The man begs and pleads with the head priest to give him a chance to prove that he is the greatest bell ringer anyone has ever heard. Moved and curious, the head priest agrees to hear the man ring the bells for the next noon hour, just so he can witness the man’s abilities and make a decision based solely upon his skill.
Soon enough, noon draws near. The armless man takes his place atop of the bell tower, right next to the enormous iron bell. The entire town has gathered to watch, as word of the high priest hiring an armless bell ringer has spread like wildfire. At last, noon arrives, and with hundreds of people watching, the armless man finally gets his chance to prove his worth.
Much to everyone’s shock and awe, the armless man bangs his head against the enormous bell once. The resulting BONG! from the church bell is beautiful. The church bell has never rang so clearly. The man bangs his head against the bell a second time, and the resulting BONG! is even more lovely than the first, yet no one has noticed the blood starting to seep from the top of the armless man’s forehead.
BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! 
Halfway through the essential twelve rings of the church bell to signify noon, the crowd is entranced by the new and echoing beauty this armless bellringer has brought to their oft-ignored bell chimes. No one is questioning the bellringer’s abilities at this point. It is obvious that he has a natural, albeit unconventional, talent.
BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!
The seventh through eleventh rings of the bell only cause the townspeople to start tearing up in overwhelming emotional joy. That’s how amazing the armless bellringer’s talents are. Entranced, no one notices that the bellringer’s face is streaking with blood and he is wavering atop the church steeple. Everyone is awaiting the final twelfth ring, but it never comes.
The armless man succumbs to his injuries and falls several stories to the ground below. He dies instantly in the fall. His lifeless body wears a smile, as he was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of being the bellringer for a church.
All of the townspeople are in shock. The man who just brought most of them to tears with his bellringing has just died in attempting to accomplish that very task. Many cry out for an immediate blessing and memorial. The high priest agrees that the man should be honored, yet he is distraught, as he failed to get the man’s name prior to assigning his bell-ringing trial. All he knows is that the man is from Falmouth.
Using this only identifying piece of information, the high priest addresses the crowd, begging anyone who has been to Falmouth recently to step forward and try to identify the dead, armless bellringer.
A man in the back of the crowd steps forward. He says that he has family from Falmouth, and he would perhaps know of a man without arms, as long as he can get a good look at him. Naturally, the crowd parts to let the man through.
He examines the bellringer’s body from top to bottom while the crowd waits in hushed anticipation. Finally, the man stands straight up, and with a smile, he says…

(This is the actual punchline:)

 I do not know this man, but his face sure rings a bell!

Only, this is NOT what my mother said in front of everyone my father relied upon professionally. Instead, with complete confidence, she said:

I do not know this man, but his face looks familiar!


Instantly realizing her mistake, my mother burst into a great fit of self-induced nervous laughter. She blew a joke after an extra-long setup, and now she was laughing at how badly she blew the punchline. The fact that literally no one around her was laughing only made her own laughter impossible to contain. She was caught up in the fact that what she had just accomplished was ridiculous and embarrassing, yet her natural reaction was to laugh at herself, which only made everyone around her believe that she believed that what she had just said was funny.
The fact that she cocked the whole thing up in front of the undivided attention of some of the most important people in her husband’s career only made her laughter continue in a seemingly endless manner until she regained enough breath to apologize and tell the appropriate punchline, which was long lost at that point.
At the end of the night, both my mother and father were cackling into the night together at how glorious the error was. They bonded over the failed joke in such a seemingly important situation. The failed joke ended up funnier than the successfully told joke ever could have.
And this ended up a story both my father and mother enjoyed telling for decades after the fact.
Because of this, the “his face looks familiar joke” will always be one of my all-time favorites.
And to think, if my mother had executed the joke properly, the joke might have caught a few laughs and then promptly disappeared.
What is actually important is never required to be perfect.
In fact, perfection should be discouraged, shouldn’t it?

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One of Many Tales About My Mother’s Cunning Way of Mothering

In terms of their offspring, my parents had it easy. Well, until I became a teenager, I suppose (there are too many stories about that). But in childhood, my sister and I were hardly ever poorly behaved and always listened to what we were told. I know I tried to be as good as I could, as my conscience was so easily weighted down when I acted out that the punishment became concreted into my soul. I was a shy child who was happy when no one was mad.

A lot of this was due to the careful work and wonderfully cunning parenting strategies of my mother. She cared for my sister and I, and she molded us as best she could to be courteous and good-natured. I still remember the dinner we had the night before my first sleepover. The entire meal was a lesson. I was to sit up straight, compliment the meal, try everything on my plate even if I knew I didn’t like it, keep my elbows off the table, never speak with a mouthful of food…the list goes on. It was boot camp for my first meal at another family’s dinner table. It might sound a bit overdone with the way parents let things slide in this day and age, but it was all about respect to my mother. You show others your best because you respect them, no exceptions. She taught me countless lessons throughout my life with her, and I’ll admit that one of the side quests of keeping this blog is to relive and revive the wonderful wisdom of my late mother.

A side effect of teaching me to be proper and polite all the time was a small lack of resilience. Perhaps part of that was genetic for me, I’ll never be sure. But mom’s lessons were focused on how to be a good person, not how to handle people who weren’t. Naturally, I myself would push the envelope every now and again, but when I was caught, I had no clue of how to cope with the punishment. I had been told how good I was so often that when I acted out and was caught, it seemed the world would end.

I still remember getting busted for flicking rubber bands at another kid in the back of the class in sixth grade. It was during a time when we were all supposed to be silently reading. The teacher caught me and called me up to her desk. During the long, terrible march toward my fate, my conscience had beaten me up so terribly that I was holding back tears when I finally stood before the teacher. I remember her nearly laughing at me, because really, how bad could the punishment have been? I was flicking rubber bands. But, I wasn’t supposed to misbehave. I knew better. And I had never been in that much trouble before. Seriously. Sixth grade was the first time I was called up to the teacher’s desk for poor behavior, ever. And I was so miserable about it that she just told me not to do it again. You can be sure as shit that I did not. 

There’s a chair that sits in the corner of my present-day dining room that I kept from my childhood. It’s a really nice student chair, but it’s nothing remarkable. I’m not terribly nostalgic, nor do I enjoy keeping extra things around, but this chair has significance for me. Back when I was a kid, I dubbed this chair “the punishment chair.” It was where I was told to sit when I got into trouble, hence the nickname. Being told to sit in that chair was so awful for me that I named the chair, and I certainly avoided it at home. How many times did I have to be sent to the dreaded punishment chair? 

Twice. In ten years. For maybe a minute each time. But the lesson stuck, and I find that so funny, so bizarre, that I can’t help but hang onto this important psychological artifact.

In short, I was a good kid whose conscience had a hair-trigger. I hated getting in trouble.

I wasn’t born good, though. I cried and cried for the first nine months of my life, much to my parents’ loss of sanity. But after those nine months, I became angelic, and I’ve been that way ever since (wink-wink).

My sister and I owe a great amount of gratitude for our good behavior to the intelligent upbringing by our mother. Mom was one of those people who threw out the instruction manual and figured people out all on her own, and her children were no exception. Mom was a good mom not because she had great strategies that work for raising children, she was a good mom because she took the time to get to know her children, and once she knew who we were, she knew what would work best for us. This is why the punishment chair was so effective. She knew that if I had an object, a reminder, sitting in the middle of the living room that reminded me of what happens when I misbehaved, I would stay on my best behavior. Standing in a corner or sitting in my room wouldn’t work for me; I needed daily interaction with “the punishment chair.”

The best example of how well our mother knew us is also one of the funniest memories (in retrospect, not while experienced) from my childhood. My sister and I love telling this story whenever we are reminded of it.

Emily and I always got along when we were kids. Always. We played together constantly. A lot of our play was in the basement, and we would incorporate all of our toys. Transformers would interact with She-Ra who would ride My Little Ponies who would talk to GI Joes while Matchbox cars raced below everyone’s feet. We had a blast. We would even agree on music. It was a lot of Weird Al and Bon Jovi with some Debbie Gibson mixed in. We had a Fisher Price record player and fists full of 45’s. We would play and play and play. There were dress up clothes and all sorts of fodder available for imaginary play. The basement was our country, and we ruled it well.

Upon one rare day, Emily and I got into a fight about something. I really couldn’t even tell you what, because it was nothing worth remembering to begin with. We had the occasional disagreement, but that’s all I would have called them. We worked it out 80% of the time, and the only reason I use 80% is because we maybe had five fights and this was the one and only time we needed outside assistance to sort things out. 

Whatever this particular fight was about, it had digressed to the point to which Emily had decided she needed to invoke the threat.

“I’m gonna go tell mom!”

I was either confident in my side of the argument or trying to call her bluff when I said, “Go ahead!”

Emily marched upstairs, stomping each hollow step up to the first floor just to let me know that yes, she was actually going upstairs, and yes, mom would know about how bad I was being.

When she reached mom, Emily laid out her case against me. She stated how she was completely right and I was completely wrong, no doubt.

In the vast majority of American households, this situation would usually be followed by the mother directly intervening, perhaps talking to her son and daughter together, coming to a conclusion, and doling out punishments, if needed.

This is not how this went down. Our mom knew us better than that. Plus, she knew to “work smart” before she had to “work hard.” She was a highly intelligent woman, so the genius solution came to her right away. After hearing Emily’s arguments to completion, she simply turned to her and asked:

“Why don’t you just hit him?”

Emily was at a loss for words. I’m sure her eyes grew beyond their sockets in disbelief after receiving this advice. This did not faze my mother one bit. She decided to just bring it all to an end with a simple solution.

“If he’s making you that mad, just go back down there and hit him.”

Emily then returned downstairs. I was nervous, but I didn’t want her to see that. When I saw that Emily came back down alone, I figured I was in the clear. The look on her face was one I interpreted as defeat, that her argument was not well received by mom. In that annoying “na-na” tone that young children can make, I asked my sister, “What did she say?” The tone was cocky and nasal in an attempt to make fun of her for being wrong.

My sister wasn’t making eye contact with me before I asked this question. She was, in retrospect, trying to process our mother’s advice, not trying to cope with being wrong.

She finally looked up at me, wide-eyed.

“She told me to hit you.”

She said this like it was a command from the president himself, and there was no way of backing down. I remember my spine shivering. Had my mother agreed with my sister’s side so much so to the point of advocating violence? I was astounded. I would have been less surprised if my sister had come back downstairs speaking Japanese. The obvious question came to mind.

“You aren’t going to, are you?”

We just stared at each other for a moment, still trying to process what had just happened.

“No. I’m not going to hit you.”

If my mom were a chess player, she could have given Bobby Fisher a run for his money, I’m telling you. She knew as soon as she commanded my sister to hit me that she was ending not only the current argument, but many future arguments as well. Of course my sister wasn’t going to hit me; neither one of us ever wanted to hurt the other. By simply telling my sister to hit me, our mom was putting our arguments into perspective for us.

From that point on, if what your sibling was doing to aggravate you was so important and you were so sure that you were right, then why not just hit them? We knew that we didn’t ever want to hit each other, so any little spat just got sorted out. That was really the last argument I can remember having with Emily when we were kids. I’m not saying this strategy would work with any other kids, but our mom knew us, and she knew what would work.

Checkmate, mom. Well played.

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One of Many Tales About My Mother's Cunning Way of Mothering

In terms of their offspring, my parents had it easy. Well, until I became a teenager, I suppose (there are too many stories about that). But in childhood, my sister and I were hardly ever poorly behaved and always listened to what we were told. I know I tried to be as good as I could, as my conscience was so easily weighted down when I acted out that the punishment became concreted into my soul. I was a shy child who was happy when no one was mad.

A lot of this was due to the careful work and wonderfully cunning parenting strategies of my mother. She cared for my sister and I, and she molded us as best she could to be courteous and good-natured. I still remember the dinner we had the night before my first sleepover. The entire meal was a lesson. I was to sit up straight, compliment the meal, try everything on my plate even if I knew I didn’t like it, keep my elbows off the table, never speak with a mouthful of food…the list goes on. It was boot camp for my first meal at another family’s dinner table. It might sound a bit overdone with the way parents let things slide in this day and age, but it was all about respect to my mother. You show others your best because you respect them, no exceptions. She taught me countless lessons throughout my life with her, and I’ll admit that one of the side quests of keeping this blog is to relive and revive the wonderful wisdom of my late mother.

A side effect of teaching me to be proper and polite all the time was a small lack of resilience. Perhaps part of that was genetic for me, I’ll never be sure. But mom’s lessons were focused on how to be a good person, not how to handle people who weren’t. Naturally, I myself would push the envelope every now and again, but when I was caught, I had no clue of how to cope with the punishment. I had been told how good I was so often that when I acted out and was caught, it seemed the world would end.

I still remember getting busted for flicking rubber bands at another kid in the back of the class in sixth grade. It was during a time when we were all supposed to be silently reading. The teacher caught me and called me up to her desk. During the long, terrible march toward my fate, my conscience had beaten me up so terribly that I was holding back tears when I finally stood before the teacher. I remember her nearly laughing at me, because really, how bad could the punishment have been? I was flicking rubber bands. But, I wasn’t supposed to misbehave. I knew better. And I had never been in that much trouble before. Seriously. Sixth grade was the first time I was called up to the teacher’s desk for poor behavior, ever. And I was so miserable about it that she just told me not to do it again. You can be sure as shit that I did not. 

There’s a chair that sits in the corner of my present-day dining room that I kept from my childhood. It’s a really nice student chair, but it’s nothing remarkable. I’m not terribly nostalgic, nor do I enjoy keeping extra things around, but this chair has significance for me. Back when I was a kid, I dubbed this chair “the punishment chair.” It was where I was told to sit when I got into trouble, hence the nickname. Being told to sit in that chair was so awful for me that I named the chair, and I certainly avoided it at home. How many times did I have to be sent to the dreaded punishment chair? 

Twice. In ten years. For maybe a minute each time. But the lesson stuck, and I find that so funny, so bizarre, that I can’t help but hang onto this important psychological artifact.

In short, I was a good kid whose conscience had a hair-trigger. I hated getting in trouble.

I wasn’t born good, though. I cried and cried for the first nine months of my life, much to my parents’ loss of sanity. But after those nine months, I became angelic, and I’ve been that way ever since (wink-wink).

My sister and I owe a great amount of gratitude for our good behavior to the intelligent upbringing by our mother. Mom was one of those people who threw out the instruction manual and figured people out all on her own, and her children were no exception. Mom was a good mom not because she had great strategies that work for raising children, she was a good mom because she took the time to get to know her children, and once she knew who we were, she knew what would work best for us. This is why the punishment chair was so effective. She knew that if I had an object, a reminder, sitting in the middle of the living room that reminded me of what happens when I misbehaved, I would stay on my best behavior. Standing in a corner or sitting in my room wouldn’t work for me; I needed daily interaction with “the punishment chair.”

The best example of how well our mother knew us is also one of the funniest memories (in retrospect, not while experienced) from my childhood. My sister and I love telling this story whenever we are reminded of it.

Emily and I always got along when we were kids. Always. We played together constantly. A lot of our play was in the basement, and we would incorporate all of our toys. Transformers would interact with She-Ra who would ride My Little Ponies who would talk to GI Joes while Matchbox cars raced below everyone’s feet. We had a blast. We would even agree on music. It was a lot of Weird Al and Bon Jovi with some Debbie Gibson mixed in. We had a Fisher Price record player and fists full of 45’s. We would play and play and play. There were dress up clothes and all sorts of fodder available for imaginary play. The basement was our country, and we ruled it well.

Upon one rare day, Emily and I got into a fight about something. I really couldn’t even tell you what, because it was nothing worth remembering to begin with. We had the occasional disagreement, but that’s all I would have called them. We worked it out 80% of the time, and the only reason I use 80% is because we maybe had five fights and this was the one and only time we needed outside assistance to sort things out. 

Whatever this particular fight was about, it had digressed to the point to which Emily had decided she needed to invoke the threat.

“I’m gonna go tell mom!”

I was either confident in my side of the argument or trying to call her bluff when I said, “Go ahead!”

Emily marched upstairs, stomping each hollow step up to the first floor just to let me know that yes, she was actually going upstairs, and yes, mom would know about how bad I was being.

When she reached mom, Emily laid out her case against me. She stated how she was completely right and I was completely wrong, no doubt.

In the vast majority of American households, this situation would usually be followed by the mother directly intervening, perhaps talking to her son and daughter together, coming to a conclusion, and doling out punishments, if needed.

This is not how this went down. Our mom knew us better than that. Plus, she knew to “work smart” before she had to “work hard.” She was a highly intelligent woman, so the genius solution came to her right away. After hearing Emily’s arguments to completion, she simply turned to her and asked:

“Why don’t you just hit him?”

Emily was at a loss for words. I’m sure her eyes grew beyond their sockets in disbelief after receiving this advice. This did not faze my mother one bit. She decided to just bring it all to an end with a simple solution.

“If he’s making you that mad, just go back down there and hit him.”

Emily then returned downstairs. I was nervous, but I didn’t want her to see that. When I saw that Emily came back down alone, I figured I was in the clear. The look on her face was one I interpreted as defeat, that her argument was not well received by mom. In that annoying “na-na” tone that young children can make, I asked my sister, “What did she say?” The tone was cocky and nasal in an attempt to make fun of her for being wrong.

My sister wasn’t making eye contact with me before I asked this question. She was, in retrospect, trying to process our mother’s advice, not trying to cope with being wrong.

She finally looked up at me, wide-eyed.

“She told me to hit you.”

She said this like it was a command from the president himself, and there was no way of backing down. I remember my spine shivering. Had my mother agreed with my sister’s side so much so to the point of advocating violence? I was astounded. I would have been less surprised if my sister had come back downstairs speaking Japanese. The obvious question came to mind.

“You aren’t going to, are you?”

We just stared at each other for a moment, still trying to process what had just happened.

“No. I’m not going to hit you.”

If my mom were a chess player, she could have given Bobby Fisher a run for his money, I’m telling you. She knew as soon as she commanded my sister to hit me that she was ending not only the current argument, but many future arguments as well. Of course my sister wasn’t going to hit me; neither one of us ever wanted to hurt the other. By simply telling my sister to hit me, our mom was putting our arguments into perspective for us.

From that point on, if what your sibling was doing to aggravate you was so important and you were so sure that you were right, then why not just hit them? We knew that we didn’t ever want to hit each other, so any little spat just got sorted out. That was really the last argument I can remember having with Emily when we were kids. I’m not saying this strategy would work with any other kids, but our mom knew us, and she knew what would work.

Checkmate, mom. Well played.