(This originally appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine on May 9, 2010)
Mom’s Lessons on Love
She taught me to be independent and sure of my gut, even though it took me decades to apply her advice to romance.
By Nancy Davidoff Kelton
It takes a village to raise a child, but it can take a lifetime to appreciate Mom. I recognized the wisdom of her lessons as she was doling them out. But only now, years after her death, do I truly understand her spirit and legacy.
In 2000, on what was to be my last visit with my mother, 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 together in the living area while he made calls, I asked, “What do you think of him?”
“What I think doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re the one who has to go for him and maybe eventually sleep with him, right?”
“Right.” I cracked up, reaching for her hand. At 52, I wasn’t about to spill the details of my present or “eventual” sex life, but I recognized how human, perceptive, and on the mark my mother, a proper lady with a long list of “shoulds,” really was.
She reminded me my gut was my best guide in all circumstances no matter who stuck her two cents in. I was 8 and in a department store fitting room, trying on a plaid dress I hated and she loved. “If you’re not sure, don’t buy it. You are the one who’ll be wearing it.” We left without that dress.
At 12, I was talking on the phone to my first boyfriend in my parents’ bedroom while Mom sewed. I had remembered her advising my older sister that she, not boys, should be the one to end phone conversations. 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 just 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.”
She looked up from hemming. “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 and also while sewing in her room, she told me to wait until I was married before going all the way.
“What if I fall in love with 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.
She took a beat. “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 in my teenage sassy-sulky phase and angry that she was neither Betty Crocker nor working at an interesting job, I was watching my stupid soap opera when she walked into the living room 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 the book to my friends at school. “My mother would never read that or allow me to,” one said. The other girls felt the same way. I devoured it, appreciating Betty Friedan’s powerful message but my mother’s even more. We discussed it, only briefly, once while she cooked. How 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 after meeting my first post-marital beau, who was more garage mechanic than nerd.
“I doubt I’ll marry him, Mom.”
“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?”
“Sure.” She blushed. “Can’t you tell?”
I 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, more balanced woman to my present husband. That glue is there. Thank you, Mom.
Nancy Davidoff Kelton is the author of six books, including Writing From Personal Experience.