60. Mom

Published on 4 February 2024 at 09:34

© 2024 Robert Sickles

I asked Linda if, when she was a child, she ever thought that her friends’ mothers were cooler that hers. I assumed that everyone thought that. But not so. She answered, “No, not really, I loved Mom. We were very close, and we had fun together.” When I married Linda and met her family and friends, I became part of their clan. I was impressed, even overwhelmed, by their full range of emotions and expressions of love. They laughed, they cried, they raged and they forgave. And it ended every time with hugs and kisses. 

You see, my mother skipped over most of that. “Folderol,” she'd call it. I believe she even used the word “humbug” to describe someone's excessive joy! I knew she admired and trusted me, and provided a very good home and wonderful opportunities. But I honestly never heard “I love you” nor felt an embrace. We discussed and debated things, but she avoided heart-to-heart conversation. And as for affectionate touch, even a hug? Nah.

With Linda’s extrovert family, it was get loose, laugh out loud, and speak your mind. For my family, it was be calm and sensible, mind your manners, and avoid improper grammar. Straddling these two worlds to this day, my mind works like the fulcrum on a yin-yang seesaw.

When I was a kid, I compared my friends’ moms with mine. I remember the mom who went to PTA meetings and got involved in the classroom; another who reminded me of Beaver Cleaver’s mom when she counseled her son tenderly after a rough day on the playground; and the one who served cookies and Kool Aid when her child’s friends came over, and then sat with us for a while, truly enjoying a room full of young people.

I’ve thought of some reasons, or theories, why my mother wasn’t able to participate more enthusiastically: she was unconfident or socially inhibited, even a little phobic about letting herself out; she was critical of other people—mannerisms, education, appearance, ethnicity; she had a laissez faire way with child-rearing, that is, letting things take their own course; and she was no-nonsense by nature and by nurture. Any or all of the above.

Robert and Ruth McNeill, my Scottish and German grandparents, raised five children who all possessed varying degrees of a certain personality trait—reticence.  They learned in their upbringing to be terse with words and emotionally level. Isn’t that sort of a Scottish or German stereotypical thing? My cousin said you could put the siblings on a one-to-five rating chart, ranging from cold fish to lukewarm chowder. My mom, Esther, the eldest, wasn’t at the coldest extreme, but I could agree with where she fit on the chart.

Mom would defend her judging of people as simply being helpful, pointing out their errors of behavior, language and manners. Today, I can see that a lot of that stuff could fit under the umbrella of ethnic and racial bias. Yes, she carried prejudice toward “other” cultures, as she was raised in the enclaved neighborhoods of Newark in the early 20th century. I did occasionally hear her criticize peoples’ color, nationality, or religion. But mostly, if she said anything, I guess it was intended as complimentary—like “he’s a good lawyer… Jewish, you know.” and “let’s go to the Italian bakery, they make better bread.”   

None of that made a lot of sense to me. I wish I’d told her she was full of baloney.  The joys of Irish dancing, African-American music, Hindu philosophy, Italian cuisine, Jewish folklore—these are things I had to learn about on my own.

OK, I admit it, I sometimes override my brain and become judgmental. When my wife is frustrated with my critical attitude, she cuts me with, “You’re being like your mother!” Boy, that makes me defensive, but I know what she means, and I cringe at the truth.

Enough about what Mom didn’t give me! She also had very positive gifts for me. She encouraged my artistic and sensitive side; she knew that I needed indoor and alone time to read and think and imagine. She was delighted to see my interest in the humanities, art, cooking, music and literature, and so we traveled to expand our world views. I was a good student, and I knew it pleased her when I brought home a nice report card. And this is truly formative… she enjoyed my jokes and silliness!

Mom always recognized that I was a sensitive kid, and long before the so-called Highly Sensitive Child was a thing, she allowed, or created, a space that was best for me. That included giving me the time to withdraw when there was too much going on around me, facilitating whatever hobbies, collections and interests I had, and letting me mess up my room to my satisfaction. In short, she didn’t feel the need to train me to be someone I wasn’t.

My untethered hippie-vagabond years surely caused her concern, but the only comment I ever heard was how I should part my hair straighter and put it in a nice ponytail. She was right, I needed help with my grooming! Soon after, when two ladies who reminded me of Mom passed me on the sidewalk, they clutched their purses and fearfully moved to the far edge. That was the day I went and got a haircut!

During a visit with my folks in 1971, I was showing some pencil drawings I’d done. Mom surprised me by asking if I would like her to sit for a portrait. She actually set aside her crossword puzzle and held a pose for over an hour!

Hey, Mom! The next time I see you, hold onto your girdle, I’m going to show you what I’ve learned to do—give you a big hug and a kiss!

Add comment


Linda Sickles
4 months ago

I love all the aspects of you that your mom supported. Yah Mom! And as u said my family was fine with picking up the slack with hugs and kisses.

Carol Christiansen
4 months ago

Being raised by Scandinavian parents and grandparents, I total understand!

4 months ago

This is a great story, Robert. You and I had almost the exact same experience with our mothers! I suspect their behaviors stemmed from similar familial and cultural backgrounds added to the customs of a certain era… many of which I am sure we will never understand. Thanks so much for sharing!