“There are no mistakes or failures, only lessons.”
When I was in the fifth grade, I was a knobby-kneed, stringy-haired tomboy who liked to ride my horse, play with my dogs, catch frogs on the pond bank, and pop wheelies on my bike. I had no time for cootie-soaked critters (a.k.a. boys) unless they wanted to race me down the gravel road, help me put the chain back on my bike or try to catch me in a game of tackle football.
And then a weird thing happened.
One of the boys on the bus–a blond, freckle-faced fourth grader named David–asked if I wanted to be his girlfriend. Hmm. He was kind of cute, I had to admit, so maybe he didn’t have quite as many cooties as the other boys. I was intrigued, but I had never had a boyfriend before, and so I told him I would have to ask my mom first. When I approached my mom that night, she wanted to know how I thought being his “girlfriend” would be different from being his “girl friend,” and I explained we would probably sit together on the bus and maybe even hold hands if that wasn’t too gross. I remember my mom sitting quietly for a few minutes before granting her permission as long as I promised that I would “be nice” and always, always conduct myself like a lady. Of course I would, I assured her, while alternately picking at the scab on my elbow and scratching the mosquito bites on my leg.
For the next week I sat with David every day on the bus, and the following week we started holding hands (which wasn’t as gross as I had expected). At the end of that week he gave me a beautiful silver ring with a blue stone in it and told me he had bought it with five dollars of his hard-earned allowance money. Five dollars–a small fortune in 1971! I was so proud of that ring, showing it off to all my friends and bragging about how much money my boyfriend had spent on me. In fact, I was in the girls’ bathroom at school a couple days later, telling the story of my ring to some of the sixth graders, when David’s older sister walked in.
“Five dollars? You’re so stupid!” she announced to everyone in the bathroom. “He got that ring out of the gumball machine for a whole quarter!” And then she and the other sixth grade girls tumbled out of the bathroom, laughing loudly at stupid little me–and just like that, my beautiful silver and blue ring turned to tarnished trash on my finger. I was humiliated . . . but I was also dog-fightin’ mad.
I never asked David if his sister was telling the truth. I sat with him that afternoon on the bus, and I even held his hand when he reached for mine. But when I got off the bus at my stop, I turned around and yelled his name–and when I saw him looking out the bus window, I ceremoniously jerked the ring off my finger, threw it to the ground, and smashed it into the gravel with the heel of my white vinyl go-go boots. And I never spoke to him again.
So much for acting like a lady.
I wish I could say that was the last time I let a boy hurt me, the last time I felt the need to hurt in return, the last time I acted in such a mean, unlady-like manner, the last time I didn’t follow my mom’s advice. But that was just the beginning (on all counts). In fact, I remember another incident from just a couple years later that proved without a doubt that sweet, petite Karen had a mean streak a mile long and half a mile wide.
I was in the seventh grade and visiting a friend’s house while her parents were still at work. Because of the lack of adult supervision, her house was a popular hang-out for the neighborhood teens looking for a little after-school excitement–excitement which usually started with a hot game of “truth or dare” and ended with hormones gone haywire. In the past, I had always selected “truth” because my truths were too boring to be embarrassing, and I was much too chicken to accept an unexpected dare. But on this day, I bowed to unrelenting peer pressure, and the “dare” led me to a behind-a-closed-door, lip-locked encounter with Eighth Grade Football Stud.
I was nervous (I had never kissed a boy!) but excited, too (he was cute!). He leaned close and put his chapped lips on mine, and for the briefest of moments fireworks exploded in my spinning head and songbirds burst from my silly, caged heart–and then the fireworks fizzled and the songbirds died when he tried to put his clumsy hands where they didn’t belong. I quickly jerked away and shook my head “No”; after a second, half-hearted attempt that was just as quickly shunned, he shrugged his shoulders and mumbled, “Sorry,” and with bowed heads and sheepish grins we returned to our snickering friends.
Eighth Grade Football Stud and I did not discuss our brief encounter, and I assumed everything was okay between us. I was wrong. The next day at school I learned the story he told his buddies in no way resembled what had actually happened behind that closed door, and this time it was not a cheap ring but my reputation that was being tarnished. I was devastated, but when my tears finally dried on my pillow later that night, I was also determined to get revenge.
My chance came at the end of that week. Eighth Grade Football Stud sat behind me in a pre-algebra class, and his math skills were notoriously non-existent. During that Friday’s chapter test, he nudged me from behind and then motioned for me to move my arm so that he could see my paper.
Seriously? You’ve spread lies about me all week and now you want to COPY off me? And you think I’m so wimpy and desperate for approval that I will actually LET you? Okay, Stud, you just go ahead and think that. For now.
When we got to the last problem and he had copied every answer, he rushed to turn in his test so he could move to the back of the room and hang out with his buddies. And then, before turning in my own test, I went back and changed every answer. Eighth Grade Football Stud might have been really good at scoring touchdowns on the field and spreading lies in the lockerroom, but he was too stupid to realize that I had intentionally answered every problem incorrectly so that all the answers he had copied were wrong–and he had underestimated the wrath of a sweet, petite, wimpy seventh-grade girl.
I never told my mom that story, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this one time she would have actually been proud that my mean streak overruled my overwhelming desire to be nice and lady-like.
When I was 17, my mom taught me a lesson in humility. I was all set to go out on a first date with a handsome, rich boy from the other side of town, and I was determined to make a good first impression. I cleaned the house and sprayed air freshener everywhere to mask the smell of stale cigarette smoke, and I begged my mom to “dress up” and to lock the dogs in the bedroom so they wouldn’t attempt to mount Handsome Rich Boy’s leg. My mom sat quietly through my requests–and then when the doorbell rang a couple hours later, she ran to the door wearing her rattiest of old housecoats and curlers in her hair, her false teeth left behind in the bathroom, and two barking, jumping dogs at her feet. I was horrified. When I finally stopped pouting a few days later, my mom explained to me that there was nothing wrong with trying to better my station in life–but there was also nothing wrong with my family, my home or my upbringing, and I should never be ashamed of who I was.
It was an interesting lesson to learn from my mom because I had always felt she carried a heavy burden of shame herself. She had quit school when she was 16 to marry my dad, and for years afterward her focus was on raising three kids on Kool-Aid and bologna sandwiches, taking care of our meager home, and trying to make ends meet with my dad’s never-quite-enough, self-employed salary. She seldom bought anything for herself, she seldom spoke up for herself, and she certainly never expressed an opinion. Her lack of an education made her feel inferior and insecure, and time after time I watched as she quietly allowed others (especially men) to belittle her and put her “in her place.” I was a budding feminist back then, and her submissiveness embarrassed and infuriated me–why did she have to be so weak and mousy? It wasn’t until years later that I realized her example (however unintentional) had taught me to stand up for myself, and it further instilled in me the importance of getting an education.
Many years later when her children were grown with children of their own, my mom went back to school and completed her GED. It wasn’t easy for her–she had never even heard of algebra before–so I was very proud of her when all her x’s and y’s added up and she earned her high school diploma. More importantly, she was proud of herself, and her newly acquired confidence was visible when she stood behind a podium and spoke on behalf of her class at their graduation ceremony. She was weak and mousy no more.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom lately, about the advice she tried to give her stubborn daughter and the lessons she tried to teach. Sometimes her most valuable lessons were the ones she taught by example, often without even realizing she was doing so. On March 21, 2004, I stood next to my mom’s hospital bedside with my brother and sister and watched her slip away from us. She was only 62 years old. And in those awful, final moments, even though she couldn’t speak and I’m not even sure she knew I was there, she taught me one last lesson–a lesson about regret for loving words left unspoken and kind deeds left undone. I could have done more; I should have done more. It’s hard to say, “I love you” to someone who is no longer there.
It has been almost nine years since my mom’s death, and even though it’s too late for me to be the daughter she deserved me to be, it’s not too late to be the person she raised me to be. I’m trying to keep that mean streak in check (I’m successful more often than not), I’m trying to be lady-like (okay, the tattoo doesn’t count), I’m trying to be proud of my upbringing and confident in my abilities (except on all those days when self-doubt consumes me), and I’m trying really hard to act and speak with more affection (I think my sons are alarmed).
And I hope somewhere my mom is watching, sitting quietly and nodding her head in approval.
Note: I think the lessons we’ve learned from our parents is an interesting topic to explore. How many of their lessons do we carry with us into adulthood? How do those lessons shape the parents we become? And which lessons have more impact–those imparted through the spoken word or those displayed by silent example? In Part II I will be sharing what some of my friends and family have to say on the subject.
My mom, a couple years before her death in 2004.
And just in case she’s watching, my mom loved daffodils . . .