When I was younger, I was always envious of my friends with nerdy mothers. Mothers who took an interest in learning. Read for pleasure and edification.
When I’d come home from school, and my mother would ask me about my day, I’d tell her, but she’d quickly tune out. While I was geeking out about history or long division or whatever thing I was excited about (I loved school as a little kid), her eyes would glaze over.
I’d get a “that’s nice.” Occasionally, she’d ask me midway through the evening if my homework were done. But if I’d try to show her what I’d written or talk about the lesson, she’d wave her hand.
“Let’s go to the mall,” she’d say.
When I was younger, she always made sure I had my homework done before setting out. As I got older, she stopped asking. And a few times, I remember telling her I still had something to write for school, and she said, “You can finish it when you get home. The break will do you good.”
My mother loved shopping. We’d spend hours wandering around the mall. My mother would lean in conspiratorially and whisper pointed observations of everyone we passed. “Would you look at her?” It always seemed mean, but wanting to get through the night, I’d do my best to give Mom her desired response. Usually a nod would suffice.
When we weren’t judging people, we’d try on clothes. This was a long process that involved a lot of fussing with unfamiliar garments before another judging session. This one involved her dissecting both of our bodies. Analyzing what seemed to work and what didn’t. As I got older, it seemed like less and less worked, at least according to her rubric.
At the end of the night, we’d inevitably return home with a bag or two. If my father’s car were in the driveway, Mom would hand the purchases to me and have me stuff them inside my backpack so we could smuggle them inside without Dad knowing.
I don’t know what she did with the receipts. But she was the one who balanced the checkbook, so I figure it wasn’t too hard to cover her tracks.
I Turned Out Much Nerdier Than Had Been Hoped
My mother had been the pretty popular girl in high school. She was literally a cheerleader. And she’d married the man with the best job prospects, a quiet guy who had been a star athlete and salutatorian. Dad was smart. Definitely the geekier of the two of them. I think Mom had always hoped her pretty, popular genes would win the day when they had children. Or maybe they’d have pretty, popular kids who were smart but had the common sense and ability to properly hide it when it meant they’d look uncool.
But instead I was the result. They had four children, all told, three girls and a boy. I don’t think any of us were exactly what she envisioned. None of us was a suitable clone. But I think she’d chosen me as the closest and tried desperately to close the distance between who I was and who she wanted me to be. Which, as best as I could tell, was Mom 2.0.
But I wasn’t that girl. I was a weird kid. A motor-mouthed nerd with a wild imagination who never went anywhere without a book in one hand and a notebook and pen in the other.
Mom wanted to go shopping. I wanted to read. Write weird stories. Collect bits of trivia.
And when I went over to certain friends’ houses and saw that their mothers took a sincere interest in their kids’ intellectual lives, it damn near broke my heart.
Movies Were Strictly Monitored. Books? Not So Much
Looking back, however, I can see that there were a number of advantages stemming from my mom not being a reader.
The biggest was that Mom never censored what I read. While she placed rigorous restrictions on what movies I could watch, there were no rules governing books whatsoever.
So I wasn’t allowed to watch Pretty Woman because it wasn’t appropriate for children (rated R — oh no!). But I was reading horror by V. C. Andrews when I was 9 years old.
A lighthearted Hollywood tale where Julia Roberts played a hooker with a heart of gold was off limits — but incest, poverty, attempted murder, and child abuse? Fair game. Apparently. I read those disturbing books hungrily. It felt like I was gorging on every secret that adults were keeping from me. Pure, unadulterated truth.
Things only intensified when my Aunt Barbara dropped off a huge trunk of books intended for my mother that Mom instead simply passed over to me, without reviewing what they even were. A solid fifty pounds (give or take) of romance novels. The trashiest, most ridiculous kind. With period costumes and a thin historical veneer scraped over the top of the same tired tropes.
Love and Other Double Binds
I ate it up. It was a radical departure from how everyone was trying to tell me the world worked: That you didn’t have sex until you were married. And then after an all-too-brief honeymoon period (where you hopefully made a kid or two), the sex would dry up. Because married people hated each other and didn’t have sex. After a spell, they barely tolerated each other, instead coexisting as resentful roommates who stayed together for the sake of the children.
That’s what all the acceptable media was telling me anyway. It seemed like there was a reason why stories ended with “…and they lived happily ever after.” And why the alleged happily ever after was never dramatized.
And the Catholic Sunday school I attended reinforced this. That the most anyone could look forward to was sex in the missionary position for procreation.
But the romance characters didn’t behave that way. They seemed to inhabit a whole other universe, one that frankly seemed like a lot more fun. In the pirate book, they had sex standing up against a ship mast. And they barely knew each other. No babies after either. What a trip.
The approved story about the world presented love as a kind of double bind: They said sex was for marriage, and also joked constantly that married people didn’t have sex. With so much bitterness, it sounded less like a proper joke and more like a veiled lament.
I can see in hindsight why these other stories were off limits. When stacked up against passion and adventure, sanctimony never had a chance.
I’m not quite sure when I made the conscious choice to give up the “right” path when it came to love, romance, sex. I don’t know that there was any single moment but instead a series of quick day trips where I strayed slightly from the path and found the results much more gratifying than the official tour that everyone else seemed hellbent on dragging me on.
And with each deviation, I found new shelter that enabled me to stay away longer. To find myself in the wilderness. Learn my way not from following established roads but navigating by stars. To love by conscious choice in custom relationships.
Not everyone understands the choice to explore the wilds. Some consider it a kind of emotional suicide. Worry I’ll get lost. Never return.
And I’ll admit that it was scary at first. Especially in the beginning when I didn’t know what I was doing. When I was a fledgling orienteer.
But now that I’ve been out here a while, it’s pretty damn perfect.
And it’s out here in the quiet, miles from civilization, that I finally found myself.