I can say, definitively, that the perfect number of children to have wasn’t two. My mom should have had ten children. Or maybe zero. But two was way too little. Or probably much too much.
My mom taught me about life through her example, as most moms do. I learned from her amazing successes. But I learned even more from her spectacular failures. The retrospective of my mom’s life that I play in my head is like watching that old Wide World of Sports commercial – “The thrill of victory. And the agony of defeat.” The one where the skier goes flying off the trail and hurtles into the crowds. In my mom’s case, the agony of defeat was a slow-motion spill across decades.
When Mom was eighteen, she experienced the thrill of victory by enlisting in the Women’s Army Corp. That’s right. My mother wore combat boots. She was also a five-two, double-D, red-headed bombshell who looked like some sexy-adorable mash-up of Marilyn Monroe and Pippi Longstocking.
Partly, Mom joined the Corps because she was smart and she was poor. But mostly, she joined because becoming a WAC was an ADVENTURE. The first fitness manual published for the WACs in 1943 began by naming the responsibility of the women in the Corps: "Your Job: To Replace Men. Be Ready To Take Over." My mom took that mission to heart. She talked a good game as a man-hating, bra-burning feminist.
Well, she would have burned her bras had gravity allowed.
In the 60s with that attitude, mom should have been one of the new career women à la Mary Tyler Moore. Instead, her lifestyle became more June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver. After serving six year in the Corps, she married my dad, an Army pilot, and was honorably discharged so she could focus on having babies. She wanted lots of babies. She was off to a good start with me and, 17 months later, my sister. But then she started having miscarriages. The doctor finally told her she wouldn’t survive another pregnancy.
So, she was stuck with a restless heart, a razor-sharp mind, and way too much energy for two well-behaved girls and a husband who was frequently gone. We came to dread hearing mom say, “So, I’ve been thinking.” It invariably meant:
a) she would be starting a business that would flame out in six months,
b) we would be moving – most often in the middle of a school year, or
c) both a and b.
She would frame the upheaval as, “It’s an adventure!” From kindergarten through twelfth grade, we had LOTS of adventures. I went to eight different schools, and I struggled each time to make new friends. I was always resentful that my mom didn’t need to make new friends because she had my sister and me. In fact, she would often take us out of school so she would have company.
You know those little interconnecting circles that make up a Venn diagram? [A dog circle sits next to a cat circle, and they both sit within a mammal circle, which sits inside a larger animal circle.] My mom’s circle was tiny. Her life was us. The husband circle intersected some (until they got divorced.) The friends circle bounced against the boundary of our nuclear family and was replaced with every move. The career circle would zoom in and crash out, but was mostly absent. It was just mom and my sister and me. At least until my sister and I started procreating.
Yet I can say, definitively, that two daughters and three grandsons were still not the perfect number. The Mom and the Gram circles just weren’t enough. In the parade of my mom’s life, her route shrunk to my house, my sister’s house, and the grocery store. She began dressing in old lady camouflage. Gray hair, no style. Gray face, no make-up. Gray clothes, no color. The Marilyn-Pippi persona faded year by year.
She loved us. And she was loved in return. My mom’s life was not a tragedy. But it was a cautionary tale.
Because of my mom, I am determined that my boys won’t ever be my only circle. I refuse to let them bear the full brunt of my restless energy. Instead, I cultivate a circle with my husband. I have my sister and dad. I have a career. I have writing. I have cooking. I have friends. I have hiking. I have travel. I have trashy e-books.
When my boys are fully adult, I want them to know that even though I delight in calls, and texts, and visits, I am happy and fulfilled without them. That their trajectory toward independence has not created a vacuum. I want my circles to expand every year – in number and size and diversity.
Last October, I broached the idea of quitting my big corporate job to start a new career as a writer by telling my husband, “So, I’ve been thinking.”
My mom would be thrilled. It’s been an adventure.