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Monday, July 31, 2006

My Mother's Earrings

My mother’s earrings.

My mother wears large earrings and bright lipstick everyday. No matter what. Working. Babysitting my daughter. Staying home and doing paperwork for her business. Even on Sundays, parked in her favorite pastel colored chair, inking away at the NY times crossword puzzle, shaking her head back and forth in frustration over “12 down”, long strands of beads and small slivers of metal cling and clang against each other and brush her cheeks. Even before she goes to work, while she sits and does her morning routine of phone calls and coffee, still in her nightgown, her half full coffee cup will have a stain of lipstick in the shape of a pucker.

No matter what goes on in her life, my mother will wear her lipstick and earrings. Even in moments she probably shouldn’t.

When I was about a year old, my mother perched me on her lap in our 1975 living room replete with black, white, and red décor. We sat in a round, black, high-back chair in a corner of the room. Opposite us was a short, black leather chair that was too deep to sit comfortably in. A red shag carpet covered the hardwood floor and behind that was a black and white striped couch. Next to the sofa was a fake large round fish tank with a fake large plant growing out of it. Plants large and small, real and fake were scattered about the room. She bounced me on her knees and sang the songs of her childhood: “I’ll be down to getcha in a taxi baby…” Or, “On the good ship, Lollypop…” I reached up to touch her long and dangly pierced left earring and– yank!

When mom tells the story, this is the part where she does the dramatic pause she’s famous for: glasses on the end of her nose, dark brown eyes narrowing over them and her bright pink lips in an “o”. She’ll say, “Oh, dear G-d! Hannie ripped my ear in half!” That’s where the story ends. She never has an answer to me when I say, “then what happened?” She’ll shrug and say with a laugh, “I don’t remember?”

When I first had my daughter, who is 2 years old now, delicious, loquacious delightful two years old, she used to regularly pull at my own earrings. So much so that I only wore tiny studs the first nine months of her life. Not one to wear earrings bigger than the tip of my finger, this wasn’t a problem for me.

The first time she reached her long delicate fingers up to my ears, the image of my mother’s damaged ear, two little flaps that look like individual earlobes stuck together, struck me hard, like a slap on the forehead. As I caught my daughter’s hand just in time, I wondered, how did I, as the infant, get to the point of pulling? My reflexes with my own daughter were razor sharp. I seem to recall that there were other casualties of the war of my early childhood, like the scars on my fingers from getting into my mother’s razor blade in the tub and the scar on my lower lip from my father turning his back to me while in one of those now illegal walkers. I fell down a flight of basement stairs, in a heap, screaming. Mom likes to remind me that she had left him home with me only after he reassured her over and over everything would be fine.

So, I take this moment with my daughter and the memory of my mother’s ear and the other memories of injury, and I realize how casual my parents were about parenting me. Since my expectation of my father is and was so much lower than my expectation of my mother, I seem to recall more moments that are about her than about him.

I have never said, out loud, to her that I think her approach to parenting was casual. I have said that she didn’t set enough boundaries (the same shpeel she got from the family therapist we all had to see when I was in high school). She might nod in silence and peer at me over her glasses about that. But casual? If I said that she would go dramatic on me. She’d suck in her breath and shake her head and then slap the table: “How can you say that? That really upsets me.” I would want to say to her I can say that because that’s what it seemed like for most of my life. That she (and my dad) took the role of parent a little too casually.

However, since having my own daughter, I find myself not able to be as judgmental of her as I used to be. I am more forgiving, more understanding of my mother. What I used to call my mother’s “benign neglect” (borrowed from one of several therapists in my late teens) I now view as really her trying to not be overprotective or controlling like her parents were to her. In her mind, she was trying to give me room and space to grow–nothing benignly neglectful about that! The price to pay ( for her) was the occasional ear slicing–I mean that hurt her more than me, right? I don’t even remember it. The blood and the screaming that probably went on–I don’t remember it.

The price I paid….well, panic attacks and eating disorder. No, not from the ear tug and slice. But that was a metaphor. I had panic attacks and an eating disorder because I didn’t know where I ended and my mother began. She and I were so connected. She never told me “no” or “stop”. Not with pulling her ear and later not with getting involved with an abusive, bad boyfriend.

I can hear her response to this, “But look how good you turned out! You didn’t get into drugs or run around and have sex. You always did decent in school. What was so terrible?” What was so terrible was the personal hell I felt every moment of my life.

When I was eight years old and fell off my bike (which was a hand-me-down from my sister who rode it for about five years. One of those banana boat jobbers) and gauged my right knee so bad that I had to run back home holding over the flap of skin that covered my knee cap so the blood wouldn’t drip as much. What did my mother do? Unlike the ear incident, I have a clear recollection of this one: she put me in the tub, screaming and crying and washed all the gravel out and bandaged me up. My knee hurt for years after that and the scar is still there–covering the entire knee. I asked her later why she didn’t take me to the doctor for stitches, to check out the damage. She just shrugged and said, “You were hysterical. You probably wouldn’t have gone in the car.” In my head I think, so what? You’re the parent. It’s your job to draw the line–particularly in terms of safety. In my mind it’s like saying my kid throws a fit when I put her in the car seat and so I’m not gonna put her in there cause she throws a fit. It’s like putting the job of parent on the kid. Is she kidding?

Most of the responses to my inquires about various childhood moments that I look back on, aghast, are like the above. I’ll say: “Hey, Mom why did you let my boyfriend sleep over our house, regularly, when I was only 14?” Her response: “Well, my mother let my little boyfriends sleep over when I was a kid. You always slept in different sides of the house? What was the big deal?” The big deal was two-fold: it wasn’t 1963 with the “Beaver Cleaver” concept of little boyfriend, and this “boyfriend” used to push me around and call me names. The big deal was we stayed up all night making out….we could have had sex, and they wouldn’t have known. I say this to her and her reply is: “Well, you didn’t. I never thought you would.” Again I think…is that my job? Is it my job at that age to make that decision without any guidance to put myself in a risky situation? She doesn’t see it that way. “I had no idea he hurt you. None. You didn’t tell me until you were an adult.” “But he was clearly messed up, Ma! He got in trouble at school, he had bad boy written all over his face.” “Yes, I know and I felt sorry for him and I figured that if we were nice to him, he’d be nice to you–you liked him.” Wow….again what is she thinking? She felt sorry for him? Why wasn’t she thinking about me? I was too young to be able to make clear decisions about things like discerning if a troubled kid was a good choice for a boyfriend; I needed her to look at how this could have affect me. But instead she worried about his home life, his lack of parental guidance. Meanwhile, where was mine?

So I usually move to the other thing that, as a parent now, I am horrified by: she allowed me to not only date a 22 year old guy in the military, when I was 17, but allowed him to spend weekends at our house. She knew we were having sex the entire time and never tried to stop it. Ever. One morning, after about the fourth time my boyfriend had stayed the weekend, I stopped at the kitchen before going off to school. My mother was sipping coffee and leaning against the counter. “So, you’re sleeping with ___-. You’re using something, right? We should get you to the gynecologist.” That was it. I just stood there and mumbled something about needing to get to school early and ran out the door. My father, who never even attempted to set a boundary with me, tried in this case: One time he was driving this boyfriend back to the bus (yeah, he didn’t even own his own car) and threatened to kill him if he got me pregnant.

But forget all that for a moment….because now that I am a parent and a parent in a much more “aware” time period (thanks to the internet and four hundred TV channels all vying for producing the most horrifying news story of the day), I have let go of all my anger about the lack of boundaries in my childhood. I also have done unofficial interviews with all kinds of people friends and strangers at the gym or the local coffee shop where I write: “Do you remember your parents checking up on you–your homework, who your friends were? Did your parents every let you have sex in their house.” Surprisingly I am met with a lot of “Well yeah…” Or, “I did all kinds of stuff I know my parents knew about they just didn’t ask me.”

Yes, the lack of boundaries caused for a lot of problems in my teens….eating disorders, drinking, bad boyfriends, but as my mother points out, “Look how great you turned out! See, I just trusted you Hannah. I always trusted you and your sister.” She did…she trusted me, to a point. The one area my mother had absolutely no trust in was my appearance. And that leads us back to my mother’s earrings.

She won’t leave the house without her earrings on. She’s wear the same pair of black linen pants, black leotard top, and black shmata shawl or cape draped over her shoulders…..for weeks at a time, but you wouldn’t know it because the earrings and change daily. Along with the professional WWE wrestler size belts she decorates her outfits with. And these belts are cinched so tight, you swear she’s got a corset on underneath her garb. She usually tops off her look with bright pink or orange lipstick. The belt and lipstick are weapons to my mother’s daily armor, which includes her drapey clothing as well as a few extra pounds. Neither the drapey clothing nor the weight detract from her beauty or sexiness. My mother is hit on all the time, and she responds like any self-respecting over fifty divorcee would¬–she flirts back! My mother is a sight for men to behold and it has been both a blessing and a curse to her. Vanity is crucial to mom and not just superficially. Her earrings make her feel better, feel better on the inside. They show the world that even when she is down and out she’s trying, trying to get out and on to the other side of misery.

And there’s been plenty of misery for her. Particularly after I graduated high school and my father announced he was going to get a job in Washington D.C….and that he wanted a trial separation. My older sister and I were gone and now her husband of 27 years was leaving. The worst part was he didn’t just leave. For two years he came and went and sometimes wanted to be married and sometimes didn’t. Sometimes wanted to be a father and other times did not. She broke apart. She became a different person. One time I came home, and this was during a moment my father wanted to be married, and I walked into the house through the side door to the dinning room and my mother, who didn’t cook and never ever wore an apron and had short hair since I was seven, was standing in the middle of the kitchen with a white apron on, a wooden spoon in her hand, and long black flowing hair….and no earrings. She was stirring something in a large bowl and kind of flowing around the kitchen like her feet weren’t off the ground. I knew we were in trouble.

In the months that Dad decided not to come home and that he didn’t want to be married mom stuffed the wig in the closet, holed up in her bed and rocked and cried the days away….but she always wore earrings. I believe those earrings saved her.

Did my father like the earrings? Maybe. One time he actually bought her a pair. But I think they were gold plated and “helascious” as my mother puts it. I know he wanted her thinner and he wanted her quieter and he wanted a lot of things she wasn’t.


I loved the earrings as a little girl. I loved my mother’s clothes and jewelry. So much so that every Halloween until I was eleven, I dressed as a gypsy because it was an excuse to have her wrap me up in her flowy and dangly outfits. I wanted to be just like her too. I cried if I wasn’t wearing a dress that twirled and flowed. I work lipstick starting at age 10. And, I wept after shopping binges with Mom, modeling everything in front of a floor length mirror in my bedroom, crying with gratitude that I would come back to school this year with more clothes than Chrissie Cheerleader or Susie Student Council.

Most importantly is that back then I wore BIG, dangly earrings…that my mother supplied me with. She bought gorgeous, antique silver and turquoise or 14-carat gold hoops…she found the danglies on regular shopping trips to Providence, Boston, and Newport and kept my supply plentiful enough so that I had a pair with every outfit. I was all of eleven, twelve, and thirteen.

Then I hit high school and everything and anything associated with my mother was considered poison, like any normal girl. I only worse dresses that DID NOT TWIRL. I only wore lipstick that had no color. And, I saved my weeping for fights with an abusive, pot smoking, drinker, kind of boyfriend who I couldn’t get away from until college... But that, truly, is another story. And if he ever reads this, might violently claim my portrayal of him is inaccurate–he just smoked a little weed and drank a little beer….here and there. Oh and yeah, I guess he wasn’t really abusive (isn’t that like being a little pregnant?). He just slammed me around a few times, punched me here and there and called me slut, whore, and bitch loudly and screamingly in school and pranked me regularly. But he wasn’t abusive, right?

I stopped wearing big earrings–all the way through college, getting my first job, getting married, having four cats, and even buying two homes. It was a direct message to my mother that I had grown up.

Then I had my daughter and saw how she reacted to my mother, Bubby.

Bubby walked into our house, clinging and clanging with all her belts, earrings, etc….My daughter lights up and bounds over and the first thing she grabs is the earrings and then states, not asks, “Make ups?”. They play make up every single time they see each other and they play “ears” where my mother will clip her earrings onto my daughter, who will pull her shoulders up so that she can carry them as she parades around. She notices “new earrings” and she loves to put on “Bubby’s belts”.

I saw this over and over and watched with envy and no longer saw my mother’s earrings as a reflection of her desire to dress me and everyone around her.

My daughter jumps on me and reaches for nose. That’s about all that dangles from me. That’s about all the fun I have to offer her from my thin, bony, non-dangly frame. I don’t wear make up or belts. I have a wedding band and engagement ring that amuse her when she’s on the changing table…but I don’t dangle like Bubby.

Slowly, during the second year of my daughter’s life, Mom started to bring me clothes and jewelry…she claimed that she knew I no longer had time to shop and she found all this great stuff at a great price, a friend of hers is a buyer who visits boutiques in New York regularly and gave my mother eighty percent off…”Just try this stuff on…”

Next thing you know I’m wearing hot pink and lime, wearing earrings that reach my pupick and my daughter is bounding and running towards me asking, “Earrings?” And now, a year since I began wearing the big and danglies again, my daughter becomes annoyed with me when I forget to put on my earrings. “Mommy? Where are mommy’s earrings?”

When I was in my first serious round of therapy, about 13 years ago, Josephine, my therapist proclaimed that she pictured my mother, whom she never met, as a woman in a long floral cloak and she pictured her wrapping it around everyone she loved….the implication rang loud and clear, mom controls by sweeping us into her orb and then dressing and decorating us with earrings and “makeups”.

At the time, that sentiment fueled the necessary anger I needed to separate from Mom and move on to my own identify and life. It worked. As I said, I was virtually the opposite of her for many years which gave me room to wiggle into my skin and figure out who I was….having my daughter made me confident that I knew who I was, that I had to know who I am, that I better know who I am for now I am responsible for another…who must shape herself. I also realize that my mother’s sweeping me into her cape, her “orb” was simply an act of mother love, the kind of love that protects you the best it can from the scariness of life. My mother was just doing her job¬–loving me.

Mom backed off after high school, after I ranted and screamed and even threw a coffee cup at her about how she controlled me through clothes and jewelry. She no longer tried to dress me and her recent attempts are much less loud. She doesn’t scream at me, like she used to, “You dress in bags and rags…you’re face is gorgeous and with makeup, just a little color….”. All she does is offer. Yes, my mother, offers…this used to not be her protocol. Ordering, screeching, guilting, bribing, were tactics used when I was growing up. But I laid the smack down after therapy with Josephine plus mom was just plain scared…I accused her of trying to swallow me up….that was enough and she backed off…

The point is…I’ve become my mother–no, I’ve become me who admires certain things about my mother. I want something to keep me permanent and constant and earrings worked for my mother…through the breakups with my father, the death of her beloved Bubby and Pop-Pop, the death of her own mother, through it all those earrings held her up…and I want the same thing, and I see that it’s one thing she’s done in her life for herself and not to please others…especially when my sister and I used to tease her about them….she did it for herself. I want that. I admire that. So, I will wear my earrings, the dangly ones and the small ones. I will wear them for me, for my daughter, and for my mother. And you know what, maybe that rip all those years ago was just an honest accident. And accidents do happen all the time.

My mother is a pair of sparkly, shiny, dangly earrings that are so fun to look at, wear out on the town, show off to your friends. My mother is a distraction, a way to cope with pain, a way to escape and forget. And that isn’t a bad thing, no it’s a mother thing.

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