By Nancy Davidoff Kelton
It takes a village to raise a child. It took me forever to appreciate my mother. Now years after her death, I can embrace her spirit and legacy.
In 2000, I brought my then beau, a well-dressed CEO with a fine coat of polish—a card-carrying mother-pleaser—to the nursing home to meet her. Sitting in the living area while he made calls, I asked, “Do you like him?”
“What I like doesn’t matter. You’re the one who has to go for him and maybe eventually sleep with him.”
“Right.” I cracked up. At 52, I wasn’t about to spill the details of my present or “eventual” sex life, but I recognized how human my mother, a proper lady with a list of “shoulds,” truly was.
She reminded me my gut was always my best guide no matter who stuck in her two cents. I was eight and in a store, trying on a plaid dress I hated and she loved. “If you’re not sure, don’t buy it. You’re the one who’ll wear it.” We left without that dress.
At 12, I was on the phone with my first boyfriend in my parents’ bedroom while Mom sewed. I had remembered her advising my older sister that she should end phone conversations with boys. When I told Danny I had to go, he said, “I love you.” I said, “I love you” too. When we hung up, I panicked.
“Mom, I told Danny I loved him.”
“When I said I had to go, I’m not sure if he said ‘I love you’ or ‘I do, too.’ Now I feel like a jerk. Even if he does love me, I was forward saying it.”
“He probably said it. If not, it’s nice you could. It’s hard to express certain things. You let him off the hook.”
And she did me. Another night years later, she told me to wait until I was married before going all the way.
“What if I fall for a garage mechanic?”
“You probably won’t.”
“But say I do, Mom.” At the time, I viewed the opposite sex as bad boys or bespectacled dorks.
“Then I guess it would be OK.”
“To sleep with him before we’re married?
“Just sleep with him,” she said.
The desire for a bad boy was not all Mom understood. In 1963, when I was a sulky, sassy teenager, and angry she was neither Betty Crocker nor working at an interesting job, I was watching my stupid soap opera when she appeared with a book. “Read this instead. It’s important. You’ll understand me and figure out your life better.” It was The Feminine Mystique, the groundbreaker I had read about. Wow! I ran to my room and dipped in.
The following day, I showed it to my friends. “My mother would never read that or allow me to,” one said.
I devoured the book, appreciating Betty Friedan’s message but my mother’s even more. We discussed it once while she cooked. I wish I had thanked her for sharing her frustrations and for guiding me to a fuller life.
I understood her better when I became a mother, my most important and challenging job.
After my divorce, when I began dating, I got that she understood me.
“I see why you like him,” she said about my first post-marital beau, who was more garage mechanic than nerd. “I doubt I’ll marry him.”
“I see that, too.” A pause. “If you tie the knot again, make sure that physical bond is there. Marriage is hard. That glue helps.”
“Do you have it with Daddy?”
She nodded. Even in their 80s, the attraction was apparent in their eyes, their touch, their laughter. Lucky them, I thought. I have that now. I brought a richer, fuller woman to my present husband. That glue is there. Thank you, Mom.
Nancy Davidoff Kelton, the author of seven books and numerous essays in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, and other publications, teaches at the New School and Strand Bookstore.