June 16, 2024 Paige Nolan

Love, Mom

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Ten years ago, in my childhood home in Louisiana, my husband, Boyd, stands in the light of my parents’ refrigerator and points to the middle shelf.

“What is happening here?” Before I can even see the details of what he’s referencing, I’m smiling.

I know what’s it going to be.

It’s going to be chaos. It’s going to be a bunch of random pieces of food, leftovers or slices of half-eaten fruit – it’s going to be a condiment, only halfway closed, that in Boyd’s meticulous mind should be kept on the door next to the other condiments. It’s going to be something insufficiently stored or pointlessly saved.

This haphazard scene is endearing to me – it’s familiar.

It’s of my mom’s making – a signature sign she’s been here.  And it’s a part of her way of being and doing in the world that I really like. It’s loose, it’s not sweating the small stuff. My mom can be a perfectionist. She wants things done a certain way, she has a clear idea about how things should go – and she prefers to be in control, especially in the kitchen. She’s an absolutely phenomenal chef. It’s a good thing she’s in control in the kitchen.

So, a disorderly fridge – she gets to live. She doesn’t care if the top to the strawberry jam is screwed on correctly or not. She doesn’t care if there is strawberry jam on the side of the jar – she doesn’t care if it’s sticky or secure. It’s a relief, actually – to have her not care – it’s a relief for her – and for all of us.

But Boyd didn’t grow up in our family, which is why he’s baffled.

“I don’t understand….” He’s reaching in to adjust the situation as I peer around the door to see what has him so bewildered.

I find what I consider to be a classic scenario – halfway covered raw chicken breasts placed a little too close, maybe even touching, a slab of butter that sits on top of a small, glass plate.

There she is, I laugh. It’s lovable. It’s not a mess, it’s the opposite of chaos – it’s my mom’s presence in her own kitchen. It’s the ordering principle of my childhood.

“I don’t know,” I speak through my giggles, “this is just how she is – she’s not a stickler about germs….she handles meat and then you know, keeps going – I rarely see her washing her hands and she doesn’t really….”

“A stickler?!?!! Raw chicken shouldn’t be resting on top of butter – that’s not me being Type A – that’s like, avoiding death.”

“It’s also just my mom.”

A few months later, Boyd and I are visiting St. Louis. It’s our first night in town and we’ve been out with Boyd’s brothers and friends. We’re back at Boyd’s mom’s house, perusing the kitchen for late night snacks. We pull out leftover pizza slices and coffee cake and I’m making us big cups of icy water.

I open the freezer drawer and sitting on top of the ice tray is a neatly folded, Ziploc bag, containing a dead bird.

“Uuum, what’s happening here?” I turn to Boyd, pointing down into the freezer.

Without even a word, we have an entire conversation that is mostly laughter.

“That’s my mom,” he says.

It’s lovable. It’s Boyd’s mom’s presence in her own kitchen. It’s her effort to teach our children – show them the details of some species of bird indigenous to Missouri. It’s her love for the natural world. It’s her instinct as a lifelong educator. It’s a signature sign that she’s been here. It’s the ordering principle of Boyd’s childhood.

As much as we share a universal understanding of moms and mothering – each of us has received a unique offering from the one we’ve called ‘mama.’ Now that I am a mom, I think about this sometimes. What am I offering to my children? What can I give to them that could help them in their adult lives? What values do I want to impart?

These are good questions to ask – these are inquiries worthy of reflection.

Also, there’s the way I keep multiple containers of butter on the top shelf of the fridge. We don’t run out of butter. This is my presence in my own kitchen. There will be warm buttered toast. There will be comfort food. There will be comfort.

And no matter what I aiming to give my children, regardless of how effectively or ineffectively I believe I am mothering – there’s the butter.

There’s the raw chicken. There’s the dead bird.

Our motherhoods are more than the foundation we offer our children when we write them notes that close – Love, Mom.

Our motherhoods are more than what we imagine them to be when we meet, and even exceed, the expectations of the mother role.

Our motherhood, the true gift of motherhood in a child’s life, is the way we sign our names, our proper names, across the ordinary days of our lives.

I don’t know that it’s ever possible to see ourselves in the way our children see us – I don’t think we’re supposed to. I think we’re supposed to *be* ourselves.

And trust that one day, in the light of the place we spent so much of our time as a mother, our (adult) children will laugh and delight and joyfully appreciate the way we have not only uniquely marked their lives, but also the way we have uniquely marked the world.