One evening a few years ago I stopped by Panera Bread for dinner. I gave my order, and was asked my name so they could announce it when my food was ready. I said, “Jenifer”. The teenager behind the register asked, “Did you say Shirley?”
Ummmmmm, no. I did not – and to this day I am at a loss to understand how she heard “Shirley” when I clearly stated a name decidedly unlike Shirley. The really creepy part of the exchange? Shirley is my mother’s name.
Flash forward to this week. A friend and I were riding our bikes on the Midtown Greenway and came up behind a mother and her two children – one child on his own bike, the second on an extension of her mom’s. This kid was a little girl wearing a dress made up of purple sequins and a pink tutu. As we approached, I couldn’t help but notice both the costume and the child’s demeanor – listless, bored, and dragging her toes on the pavement. As I passed her, I turned toward her and said, “What a pretty dress! I love the sparkles!” Both the child and her mother smiled and murmured polite thank yous, and I passed on.
When we were side-by-side again after passing the family, I turned to my friend and said, “That little girl is going to break an ankle, dragging her feet that way.” To which he replied, “Do you have any idea how much you sounded like Shirley just then?!” I reached over to whap him on the arm, misjudged the distance and almost lost my balance. Wouldn’t that have been great – crashing, then explaining to people (my mother in particular) the reason!
Though it feels like a very natural thing, I don’t know why we react this way when people say we’re like our mothers. After all, most of us love our moms. And while it’s true that the majority of mothers are not perfect (and some are spectacularly awful), many are incredibly giving and exceptional parents.
My mom, Shirley, gave birth to six kids in nine years. As a child, I didn’t understand the first thing about her life: stuck at home, no vehicle, six kids, and no money (not really a surprise, with six kids). I knew she was busy, frazzled, always cooking, cleaning, sewing, or scolding. I knew she expected to receive some help from us and from our dad. Help that, I am ashamed to say, was never quite as forthcoming as it ought to have been. As an adult, I’ve learned to see my childhood with a broader focus and stand in awe that Shirley, much less all six kids, even survived those years. I’m guessing that was dicey at times.
So, as I thought about why we react negatively to the suggestion that we sound or act like our mothers, I began to think of reasons it might be o.k. to say I’m like Shirley. In the future, don’t call me Shirley UNLESS…
…you’re saying I’m incredibly observant. My mom always knew what was going on with us. Without turning around to see us, she’d call us by name and tell us to stop doing whatever sneaky thing we were trying to get away with. More than that, she always knew when we were hurt, had a crush on someone, or were about to do something we’d regret. When my brother, Jeff, fell in love with my sister-in-law Marsha, my mom knew it right away. The rest of us told her she was crazy – each of us was certain Jeff would end up with someone else. More than thirty years later, Jeff and Marsha are STILL very much in love.
…you’re saying I have a generous and forgiving heart. Shirley can always access empathy for others. I can remember many times when I confronted her with a “How could you…” style accusation, only to learn that my mother’s underlying reasons were compassion and understanding. She had many reasons, for example. to be angry with my Nana (her mother-in-law). Nana’s mental health issues led to manic spending sprees and her alcoholism was not often in check. Yet my mom saw her way to allowing Nana and I to spend quality time together, with the understanding that if anything harmful happened to me, these times would unequivocally end. The upshot was that, before Nana died, she and I created some warm and happy memories that I’ve been lucky enough to cherish my whole life. Again, when I was a teenager, I spouted off about a family friend getting back together with her cheating husband. My mom stopped me mid-sentence, asking me to back off the judgements and try to understand that people’s lives and relationships are complex and impenetrable from the outside.
…you’re saying that I embrace and celebrate diversity. Several times in my life, my father has been recognized by community, church, or political organizations for his work. During a particularly turbulent time in my hometown, he was recognized as Man of the Year by the local NAACP chapter for his leadership in efforts to end institutional racism. But my dad will tell you that Shirley is the person who taught him to let go of his racist upbringing and to appreciate human diversity and dignity. She is also the person who brought six kids up believing that all people are worthy of love and respect. These are deeply ingrained values in our family – and they are bearing fruit two generations down from Shirley, as my niece Hallie has engaged in social activism and human rights organizations throughout high school and plans to do so throughout her life.
…you’re saying that I am fully capable of unconditional love. Like many parents, my mom has had no reason other than love to tolerate me – her child – throughout my life. I’ve behaved badly when I ought to have been kind; I have been arrogant and dismissive of her wisdom and experience – especially in my youth; I have often been singularly self-focused when I ought to have seen with broader clarity and compassion. But Shirley has loved me, sometimes with exasperation but always with open hands, ears and doors.
To my friends who are mothers (and fathers), I hope that reading this helps you to believe that the day will come – though it may be far off in the future – when your children will have at least an inkling of all you do and feel, have done and felt, for them and with them throughout their lives. Will your children react badly when someone tells them they look or act like you? Yes, inevitably. But not always, at least not in their hearts. Some day they will likely see this differently, as I have begun to. These days, I say, “Don’t call me Shirley…
*UNLESS YOU MEAN IT AS A COMPLIMENT!”