Sunday, December 8, 2013

For My Mother

In my adult life, I’ve struggled with my relationship with my mother.

I’m not great at small talk. If someone meets me halfway, I can make ends meet, but without the benefit of common interests, a common workplace, or at least common geography, I cede my limitations as a conversationalist.

And then there’s Mom. She doesn’t do small talk. Her brain isn’t any more wired for it than mine. Moreover, I get the impression she actively detests the notion of idle chatter.

Thus, when we get on the phone once every month or two, the conversation has a tendency to stall before the ten-minute mark, and when we partake in one-to-one visits at her home or mine, I tend walk in with a degree of trepidation, only trumped by my actual discomfort when we inevitably run out of things to say.

So I got to thinking about the nature of my relationship with my mother. What we’ve done for another. What it has meant. What I’ve taken away.

And I remembered all of the times she has shown up.

I remembered the ritual that played itself out over a period of years in my childhood. I waited, back to my headboard, sitting up in bed, writing, reading, or just thinking. Mom knocked on the door and came inside. We hugged and said good night. She turned out the light.

The practice repeated itself until one night--probably in middle school--I was frustrated with something or other and not ready to go to sleep and told her she didn’t need come in my room every night.

I felt like an ass afterward. Not only for hurting my mother’s feelings, but for the purely selfish reason that it made me sad to think I wouldn’t ever end another night hugging her.

So, the next evening, I told her it was still OK for her to come in and hug me good night sometimes.

Sure enough, that night she showed up. Told me my offer was too good not take advantage of.

But at some point, not so long after, we did stop hugging good night.

I remembered the speech contests. Each year the local chapter of Optimist International put on a three-round speech tournament, the winner of which received a $1,500 scholarship. My sister won the contest and, as was so often the case for the first seventeen years of my life, I followed the trail she had blazed, entering the contest in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades. And, though my father may have been the one most invested in my participation and in my winning, he ultimately withdrew himself from attendance, knowing his presence had a tendency to make me nervous.

But Mom was there. To see my first attempt at public speaking. To see me bottom out in my second attempt, when my cue cards were out of order, I grew flustered, and suffered one of the most profound embarrassments of my life. And she was there the last time I competed—the year I left most of my profound quotes and grand proclamations aside in favor of talking about basketball for five minutes--drawing connections between the experiences of my NBA idols and the pickup games at my local playground as an extended metaphor for my vision of the future of America. Mom was there to watch me win in the first round, and finish in second place at the next level. There to watch me come to peace with the whole experience.

Seven years later, Mom came to Geneseo, where I delivered the student commencement speech, one of the proudest moments of my life. And amongst an audience of 5,000 she was the only one to recognize from first-hand experience that I was, after all those years, still capping speeches with the same parable about carrying a bird in one’s hands that I had test-driven in front of the Optimists long before.

In the years to follow, Mom was the most faithful reader of the Preston Burns project, more than once sending me emails to speculate on what would happen next. And more than just about anyone else, she’s the one I can count on to read this very blog, and this very post today.

Time and again in my life, my mother has shown up to demonstrate her quiet support and interest--no small feat over a span of thirty years. And so, for all of that and much more than I could express in the humble blog format, I offer this:

I love you, Mom. Happy birthday.

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