When my brother and I were five and seven, my mother would take us on walks through the neighborhood just as the sky darkened and the inside lights came on. The timing of this was essential, because our purpose was to get a good look into the the living rooms of our Beverly Hills neighbors.
We were students of interior decoration, looking at how each family had arranged their furniture, decorated their walls, created their home. We had to look intently but quickly, so as not to weird anyone out, but we knew to slow our step as we came abreast of a promising window, giving Mom time to log the details into memory. In between windows, she would chat with us about the pros and cons of each home, their lamps and sofas and coffee table placements. It was like an IKEA showroom in the wild.
When we got home to our apartment on Olympic Blvd, we’d spend the hour before bedtime rearranging the living room furniture. “It’s like an entirely new home!” My father was then a resident gastroenterologist at the VA, working the graveyard shift. It must have been a little dislocating for him, coming home at five a.m. to an alternate version of his living room.
This is one of my favorite memories of my mother before “that night,” as my brother and I call it. It was less than a year later. My mother had some kind of flu, so to give her a break Dad took us out to a movie and then to Ships Coffee Shop for dinner. When we got home, Mom was asleep and couldn’t be awakened. There was confusion and terror. Dad’s friends from work are running in the door, still in hospital scrubs. Now our grandparents are here, sitting us down in front of the TV. A rush of people carrying Mom down the stairs. Her pink nightgown. She’s unconscious but also throwing up. Her brain was swelling and she fell into a coma. No one paid any attention to us and we stayed up late watching The Smothers Brothers.
Mom had contracted a rare disease known as Weston-Hurst syndrome. It’s usually fatal. Mom came out of her coma after six weeks and lived into her 70’s, but she was not the same person. Her memory was shattered and she was invalid for years. Our living room had been permanently rearranged. I sometimes say I lost my mother when I was eight, but more exactly what I lost was being mothered.
Some kids lose their mothers entirely. Some kids are raised by single Dads. Some kids have a succession of foster moms. Some kids’ Moms can’t even take care of themselves.
This Mother’s Day, I’m reflecting on the Plan B mothering we count on from all sorts of others in our lives, when the main supplier goes offline for whatever reason. It may be the cool aunt or the tolerant grandfather. It could be a teacher that goes out of their way to take an interest in you. It could even be a complete stranger. The other day we had a first-time client in the fitting room, a teenage girl who was feeling unhappy about the size and shape of her body. By pure luck, the older woman in the next booth was almost the same size, and she took the chance to share some of her own history. We gave them a little space, because it was clear there was much more happening than just a bra purchase.
If, like me, your experience of mothering and motherhood is less cut-and-dried than the holiday encourages us to think of it, please accept a giant, embarrassing, smothering hug from me!