Thursday, January 20, 2011
Happy Birthday Mother—My Anti-Tiger Mom
Today my mother is 76 years old. I'm not so sure she'd be happy that I'm revealing this, but hey, it's her birthday, so Happy Birthday Mom. Now the whole world knows how old you are. I know you don't read my blog (it's OK, neither do your progeny—the five others—love you guys), don't have a computer, and I just spoke with you over the phone; but after I put the receiver back in its cradle, I started contemplating a few things, and perhaps I should just call you back, only at the moment I'm in the mood for a write.
I'm not going to get all gushy here, but what's on my mind is this, Mother:
I'm glad you didn't parent like Amy Chua. Not that I have anything against Amy, I think she's pretty cool, in fact, for spilling her guts in her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She doesn't profess to have the answers, she admits her mistakes, and reveals some ugly truths about herself. I don't know too many parents who would confess to calling their children garbage. This is not bravado, it is bravery.
You sure had your moments, though, forcing me to practice piano—and, as an eight your old, hike up the hill on my own, with the $2.00 fee in my pocket, for lessons that put me to sleep; but after three years of torture you let me give it up when you realized it was hopeless (now I wish I hadn't quit).
I wanted to be in the streets playing Kick the Can, not running scales at the keyboard. I wanted to learn lessons my way, and you let me. Sometimes the neighbors called, complaining about how (brother) Chris and I had been climbing trellised grapevines, and precious cherry trees, picking them bare, and jumping from roof to roof through the neighborhood (you could do this in the city) with our goods, hollering like monkeys. You remained calm, and told me that you thought fence and garage climbing might not be a good idea. You said I might get hurt, and neighbors didn't take kindly to it. (Imagine this happening today with everyone so obsessed about liability.)
You let me go to sleepovers, and watch TV (a little), and get grades less than an A—although I know you didn't like it when I did. You let me spend Saturdays at the Y jumping on trampolines and gliding along the balance beam, playing basketball, and making bright key chains with gimp. You allowed me to take my wooden sled, unsupervised, to Banana Hill, where Chris, Tony and I, and the rest of the local clan, would fly down the snowy, narrow knoll and straight into the brook (its best you weren't there).
You let me produce reams of my own crayon-colored newspaper, and peddle it door-to-door. You let me fry Barbie's blond locks into an afro with my hair dryer. You let your wee ones crack your entire collection of Hummels while we tossed footballs in the dining room. Why you ever kept those figurines on open shelves...
You let me work out problems with friends, or teachers, on my own, and you never hovered. You never wanted to be friends with my friends, or organize socials. You didn't care if you weren't my friend. (I'll bet you'd never friend my Facebook friends.) You never scheduled a play date for me, but you let me run out the door, or take a bus to the mall or the beach. You never meddled in my social affairs, eavesdropped, or read my diary (or did you?!).
You let me rebel, but watched me closely, and listened quietly to my adolescent diatribes. You let me have knock-down drag-out fights with my siblings. You let me drink and smoke cigarettes behind your back (or did you honestly not know this?). You let me get sulky and crabby and bossy, but you put me on my knees in the corner when I went a little too far. Sometimes you even swatted at me with the spatula.
You even let me say I hate you more than once, and never said it back. God, I don't know how you did this, because you never, ever deserved that.
But we had curfews, the six of us, we had the education first talks, had to study hard and pull in good grades, although that didn't always happen. We had to get to bed at a decent hour. We couldn't date until we were sixteen, and weren't allowed to wear makeup to school. We had to work for our own spending money, and we had to walk or bike to a friends house if we wanted to see them, no matter how far away they lived. We had to wash a ton of dishes, vacuum the floor, wipe down chairs, and dust the windows' louvered shutters. And that was just one-tenth of the chores—wasn't it?
You let us turn the backyard into a mud hole digging to China, and paint the metal swing-set Jackson Pollock (you want to check out that link, it's fun) style, with psychedelic colors. You let us use your kitchen gadgets, pots and pans, and clothing, and pretty much anything we desired, as props for impromptu summer theatre-in-the-yard. Dad hammered together an ice rink for winter skating behind the house, and you always had hot cocoa at the table for us when we piled back in, drenched and cold.
None of this is to say that you were indifferent, or unconcerned, or unavailable. You knew precisely what we needed, and were more present for us than I could ever hope to be with my babes. You were home most of the time, returning to work only when the last little one went to high school. You didn't have a fancy career, weren't flamboyant or super cool, but you were the mom my friends most admired—beautiful, elegant, gracious, warm and optimistic—it's still that way, you know.
Anyway Mother, I'm glad you weren't a Tiger Mom. Even though none of your grown children may ever win a Nobel Prize or shuttle into space, they didn't turn out all that bad. We all went to college, we all got good jobs, we're all healthy and productive beings, raising fine children of our own. We all cherish our family more than anything in the world.
And you're no wimp, Mom. You knew that some things had to be learned in the streets. Even if they were pretty tough lessons. You knew the value of painful and embarrassing moments, and failure as priceless. You knew a thing or two about building character. Still do.
You are the amazing Anti-Tiger Mom. I didn't want to be like you back then. I can only hope to be now.