I lost my mother ten years ago. I gained a mother three years ago. How many people can say that?
My first mother, who I will call my “real” mother — no offense to my birth mother –raised me through infancy, kissed my boo-boos, dressed me up for school, taught me to play the piano and sewed killer Halloween costumes.
My second mother – my birth mother — gave birth to me when she was too young to keep me, but she thought about me every day, and wished that someday she could see me again.
My real mother allowed me the privilege of knowing her. She did not let many people know her. In fact, I was never supposed to talk about “What goes on in this house” with my friends. Nothing unusual went on in our house. She was just ultra-private.
My real mom was really fashionable. Although piano was her first and only love, she went to fashion high school in New York City, and she later focused her fashion energy on me. Some moms and daughters play tennis, some make cookies – we shopped. She didn’t even wait for me to shop most of the time. She taught piano after school so her days were free, and I’d come home from school to find four sweaters in different sizes to try on. We’d keep the ones that fit and she’d return the rest.
I tried to talk to her about boys and social stuff, but the most I ever got from her was that, before you get married, you are supposed to put on “the act” with men – laughing at their jokes, acting coquettish. After you’re married all bets are off. That kind of advice didn’t work for my teen years or even beyond, but she told me what she knew.
I never knew if she was listening to me. Most of the time she wasn’t. We’d be talking, and I’d be spilling my guts and crying my eyes out, and she’d reach over, brush the hair out of my face and say, “You need a haircut.” The conversation would end right there, or worse, turn to making hair appointments and whatnot. Appearance was always more important than substance. When I published my first essay in my hometown paper, I called her to see what she thought. “That picture of you is beautiful!” she said of the modeling picture I’d sent in with the essay.
“Did you read it?” I asked.
“Such a gorgeous picture!” she said.
My mom taught me how to be Greek. My father’s Greek too, just not so much into the culture. My mom taught me how to speak Greek, dance Greek and eat Greek, although Greek cooking (mercifully) was left mostly to my Yiaya, who’s a whole different mother story. My mother would drive me crazy, though, growing up in suburban New York. Whenever she didn’t want anyone to overhear us in public (see “Never talk about what goes on in this house”) she’d speak to me in Greek. Horrified that bystanders would think I was some kind of foreigner who didn’t speak English, I’d always respond in English. I didn’t learn much Greek that way.
She kept it up through adulthood. When I was moving into an apartment in Astoria, Queens (because that’s what Greeks do), we were on the street moving stuff in from the truck and my mother started to say something in English. Fearing she’d be overheard, she switched to Greek. Thing was, she was more likely to be understood in Greek in Astoria than in English. I laughed my ass off. She was not amused.
That was my mom. She was a terrible cook, an expert seamstress, a lousy listener, a great piano teacher, a fashionable dresser, a shrewd shopper, and a good Greek who took herself too seriously.
Fifteen years ago, my mom started to show the signs of Alzheimer’s disease. For thirteen years, she suffered – the first five, she still knew me and her surroundings, but the last eight, she was just trapped in a body that wouldn’t let go. When it finally did, it really was a relief (see “The Last Lesson“)
Six months after my real mother died, I got a letter from the agency that handled my adoption. They’d matched me with my birth mother. She and I hit it off immediately and she’s become the adult mom I missed all those years. She’s got advice about raising my kids, and support when I need it. She assures me that even though I work and I don’t have the kids all the time, my job with them is still pretty darn hard. She sees me as an adult the way my real mother never did.
My birth mother and I are a lot alike – something I never saw with my real mother. We’re partyers (which would explain the teen pregnancy) and we’re very social, very much unlike my real mom. We love to cook and we love to eat. We jive in a way my real mother and I never did. For an adopted kid, it’s amazing seeing the things that are hereditary. The first present my birth mother ever sent me was wrapped in leopard-print paper, which I later found out was one of her favorite things. I have more leopard-print clothes than I can mention. Maybe love of leopard print isn’t hereditary, but isn’t that kind of a weird coincidence?
My birth mother accepts me for who I am – she’s even proud. My real mother encouraged my writing from the beginning but she would be mortified that I write about my family, and that I reveal so much about myself. My real mom stood behind my dad when he insisted I find a nice, safe job in insurance. I never did. That essay in the local paper led, in part, to a job, and that was the start of 16 years of writing professionally.
My birth mother and I have forged the relationship that, sadly, my real mother and I never would have. My birth mother let me get to know her, and she listens to me, and she wants to know me. My real mom let me in as much as she could, but it wasn’t much and she couldn’t listen enough to see who I really was. She had to endure things my birth mom never did – the drug years, the promiscuity, the suicide attempt, the manic episodes – and she did. She didn’t always handle them well, but she stuck by me.
I missed the last eight years of her life. During that time, I got married for the second time, had my first child and moved across the country. My daughter never met her Yiaya. By the time she was born, we lived in Seattle and my mom was in New York, but proximity wouldn’t have mattered. My mom didn’t know who or where she was by the time my daughter was born and I was afraid seeing Yiaya would scare the little one, so I never introduced them.
I’ve had a son since then, and my kids see their new Yiaya several times a year now. My birth mother is a great Yiaya. She spoils them with gifts but takes no crap when it comes to behavior. I could learn a lot from her. And I will.
This Mothers’ Day I’m really grateful. I’m grateful for the amazing privilege of having two mothers in my life. One was always there and one was a complete surprise but each made their unique contributions and I’m privileged to know both of them.