It’s almost the holidays, the season when we relish time-honored traditions such as complaining about our parents. Did Dad always listen to AM radio at top volume while sighing? Why does Mom think I’m interested in the robotics career of a high school classmate whose mother she ran into at the Market Basket deli?
I’ll start. Every Christmas since I was a child in the 1980s, my mother meticulously picked — and then picked apart — my hair and wardrobe. I’m not sure whom she was trying to impress: my nana, a regular presence who was already privy to my sartorial missteps, from Jams shorts to jelly shoes to the wrong color Benetton rugby? Or maybe Nana’s upstairs neighbors, who let me make prank calls from their rotary phone underneath a giant framed portrait of Jesus? I just remember that how I dressed was of paramount importance, as was how I behaved.
The photographs tell a tale. In the 1980s, I sported braids and ribbons matching a monogrammed sweater and plaid kilt. I still remember the decorative pin sticking into my legs as we rode up Interstate 495 from Acton to South Lowell, my mother instructing me from the front seat: “don’t be piggy” and eat too much shrimp dip. This was followed by an admonition not to be “too big for my britches,” though that didn’t stop everyone from asking me to recite the US presidents both backward and forward before being dismissed from the table to read about Warren G. Harding in private. I was as cool as you might imagine.
In the early ‘90s, I sported turtlenecks and plaid Gap blazers, which my mother said looked “sharp.” She loved turtlenecks; she thought they conferred a certain New England preppy panache. Cloaked thusly, my brother and I are pictured circa 1991 in my grandparents’ front room, both dressed like accountants, singing the score from Annie Get Your Gun — my junior high school’s musical that year. I did not win the lead, but Nana and my mother clearly thought I deserved it as they beamed from behind the Hummels. My brother had bigger problems; he was wearing saddle shoes.
High school gets more complicated. After a mishap with CVS hair dye, my thick locks turned crispy, and my mother arduously rolled my hair using her curling iron to give it bounce, a painful process that turned me into the Flying Nun. She also urged me to wear headbands to “show off my cheekbones and profile.” Between the blazers, the headbands, and the presidents, I was basically a pubescent Hillary Clinton. My nana, ever the shopper, gifted me a minimizer bra.
Let’s skip college entirely; it’s for the best. Things got more contentious when I moved to Washington, D.C., and returned home for the holidays, with my own wardrobe. Cue my mother asking about my water pressure (apparently, my hair had lost its luster) and urging me to go for a walk so I didn’t get “hefty.” Often, I would argue; occasionally, I would wonder if I was, indeed, getting hefty. Then I’d rummage in the back of the fridge for an ancient wine cooler.
In due course, I moved back to Boston. One would think that, as a full-grown adult with my own home and even my own children, my mother’s opinion wouldn’t matter quite so much. Hardly. In fact, it mattered more. Before hosting for the holidays, I would clean assiduously, buy fresh houseplants that would inevitably wilt within weeks, trim my kids’ hair (so they didn’t look “long in the face”), and race around like a maniac spraying air freshener while my husband contemplated divorce. My mother was still omnipotent: A compliment from her could make my day; a look of disapproval or disappointment could take me right back to the shrimp dip bowl in my nana’s living room. You can be 4 or 40; the need for validation isn’t always something you outgrow.
But I don’t have anyone to clean for anymore. My mother died two years ago. I miss so much about her. I miss that she knew absolutely everything about my kids (from their shoe sizes to their teachers’ degrees). I miss that she kept me up to date on all the Acton gossip. But somehow, around the holidays, the thing I find myself missing most is her commentary. There’s no real reason to trim my kids’ hair or to show off what’s left of my cheekbones; my father would be delighted if I hosted him wearing a parachute and a top hat.
A mom’s opinion might level or lift you, but it will always ground you. So, this year, I’ll make my own gravity. On Christmas morning, I’ll wash my hair until it’s squeaky clean. Blow it full, the way she liked. Tidy up, make the house look nice, spritz Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day in the air. And when I lay out my kids’ clothes — because you know I will — they’ll be wearing turtlenecks.