After a succession of particularly mean first, second and third grade teachers, I was assigned the motherload of evil in one Mrs. Webster for my fourth grade at Round Meadow Elementary. She was a short, stout woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a red bouffant hair-do that seemed as petrified of her in its frozen stillness as her wide-eyed students. After receiving the news of my unfortunate placement, my mother, (imagine a cross between an angry Helen Reddy and Sally Field from “Norma Rae”) marched to the principal’s office demanding I be put in a class with a teacher that didn’t hit or believe in public humiliation as a teaching tactic.
Enter into my life the amazing Mrs. Miller. She was like no teacher I’d ever had. She oozed warmth, plus a whole lotta 70’s cool. I remember seeing her one day smartly dressed in a white turtleneck, dangling gold chain, and flared bellbottom slacks, and thinking I wanted to be her when I was older – although sans the stench of smoke that floated around her like Pigpen’s cloud of dust.
While I was in the fourth grade, my mom decided she’d had enough of a life that existed mainly within the four walls of 371 Oakwood Lane and re-joined the workforce. This filled me, already a fingernail-biting nine-year-old, with considerable fear for my future. With my mom gone, that would leave just myself and Pandi, our aloof Siberian Husky, to watch “Tattletales” and “Match Game 77” after school. I had no idea, nor did I care, just how desperate my mother was to re-start her nursing career. How could she possibly want to do something other than spend time with me, watching Gene Rayburn and pals on our small black and white TV in the kitchen while I ate my Peanut Butter Tandy Takes and drank my milk?
Until that point, it was just my dad who worked. And judging from his tense face, frequent cursing (“Jesus Christ, I hate my job” was a frequent refrain heard ‘round the dinner table), and litany of complaints about his “idiot” bosses, work was not something that seemed in any way pleasurable. It was to be endured.
As a nine-year old with an ever-present, PTA President mom, I‘d never been alone. As the youngest of three kids, I was the one always in the back seat while she drove my older brother and sister to the orthodontist, sporting events, birthday parties, and forever by her side at the supermarket, clothing stores, and trips to the bank.
Shortly after getting the news about my mom’s impending absence from our afternoon viewing ritual, Mrs. Miller discussed with great passion how independent kids become when both parents work. I suspected no involvement from my mom and bought into the premise hook, line and sinker. I would be that kid – the one who walked into an empty house, made tuna fish salad for dinner, and did homework without parental assistance. I would become what I hadn’t even cared about until Mrs. Miller deemed it so admirable – independent.
When we visited my grandmother that winter in Florida, she commented on how hairy my arms were. My grandmom had a superstition for everything. And regarding my hirsuteness, she said, “Hairy arms means you’ll marry rich.” I immediately shot back, “No, I’m gonna be rich.”
She looked out at me from over the top of her glasses and ducked her chin. “Well, good for you,” she said with a mixture of surprise and pride. As the oldest daughter in the early 1900’s, she’d been forced to quit school in seventh grade to take care of her family after her mother died from diabetes. She washed the floors of the house every morning, shopped and cooked all the meals for her father and four siblings, made their clothes, generally sacrificed her dreams to do what had to be done each day. She told me often how she was the fastest runner in her school and had been looking forward to joining the track team. To make up for her self-consciousness at her lack of education, she’d randomly insert large vocabulary words into a sentence regardless of meaning. My favorite was ‘cosmopolitan,’ which she substituted for flexible: “Whatever you want, I’m cosmopolitan.”
My grandmom, who was my dad’s mom, taught my mom to cook and lived with us on and off throughout the years. My mom’s own parents and all but one of her seven sisters cut off ties with her after she married my father, who is Jewish and apparently to be shunned like the devil. My mother tried to make peace with her father when I was eight years old and attending the wedding of the one sister we knew. My grandfather’s words, “I’ll never forgive you for marrying a Jew.” That was the last time they spoke.
My grandmom became my mom’s family and pitched in with all her might, just as she’d done after her own mother died. In later years, their relationship was strained, perhaps because my mother achieved something my grandmom never did – finding a place of her own outside of the home.
To me, my mom was, like Mrs. Miller, strong and cool. My elementary, junior high and high school friends always commented on my mom’s cool factor. She was engaged in her own life.
Those two women showed me at a very young age what it looks like when you love what you do, being a mom, pursuing your career, or a combination thereof. Mrs. Miller with her glamour and sincere love of children, and my mom whose career started with severely disabled children, then as a nursing home administrator, and later as a hospice nurse, gave every patient 100 percent of her attention and herself. She came home exhilarated and eager to talk about her adventures that day. With every dinner conversation she started, no matter how some of the more bodily topics repulsed my more lady-like older sister, she grew more and more vibrant. She was behind the wheel of her own car now, not merely along for the ride. In her confident stride and enthusiastic storytelling, she exuded the same new found independence I was finding as a proud, latch-key kid.