Here's Betsy and me yesterday eating Mother's Day lunch at Isabella's (a wonderful restaurant) in Lynchburg. That's my birth mom below. Wish she could have been there. She and Betsy would have liked each other.^
When I was a little kid, say between 6 and 8, I came home on occasion with poison ivy on my little wiener and cried to my mother to help me with it. I had picked up the nasty swelling and itching because of this instinctive reaction little boys have to the urge to pee: they find something big and soak it down. In the woods, where we most often played, that'd be a tree. Poison ivy grew up the sides of trees. I hadn't learned about the poison ivy yet.
So here I am on the verge of tears telling Mom I need a little nursing and she's putting this pink lotion on my weenie, same as she would if it was my elbow. Until the day she wouldn't do that any more. I was probably 8, maybe 9. "Mama, I got it again," I said. "You got the pink stuff?"
But then I got what the little eagle gets when mama thinks its time: she pushed me out of the nest. "I'm going to let you do it this time," she said, smiling and handing the bottle over to me. "You know how and I'm cooking supper."
I'm not much of a sentimentalist, so when I think of my mother, it's stuff like that coming to the top. First time I ever spent the night in city jail, I showed up back home the next day, looking sheepish and mom greeted me with a grin and a cheerful, "What kind of bird can't fly?" Pause. "A jail bird. Hahahahahahahaha...." How the hell did she know? I hadn't told her. And she hadn't judged.
When I trudged into the kitchen--smelling biscuits baking and bacon frying--on one of those mornings after being out carousing with the boys, she'd meet me with, "Toss me your shorts and I'll sew them up again." She knew that Bobby Payne's little Simca--a car--had a spur over the wheel well where you got into the back seat that ripped my pants in the same place every time I went out with him and the boys. She knew I always sat in the same place in that little car and that I would never learn to get in the other side. She just sewed the pants.
The morning after I spent two hours in the back seat of a Winnebago-sized 1960 Buick with Christine Cash--both of us 15, but she quite a bit more experienced than I--Mom said, "Don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. You learn what you need when you need it." I hadn't said a word about my embarrassment. She just knew. She always knew.
Mom never said, "You shouldn't ...", but she often said, in expasperation, "You didn't!"
And she always listened when something was on my mind that was so heavy I couldn't give it to anybody else. I could tell her I was afraid, that I didn't understand, that I was embarrassed--which is worse than anything else. I could ask her why things work the way they do.
You know, I don't recall her saying anything especially profound in those situations--Mom was a simple country woman from Squirrel Creek, N.C.--but I learned a good bit because I could go through the exercise of learning, of questioning, of probing, of discovering how I felt about a whole variety of issues. It was OK to question anything. Anything at all. Even God.
This is not to give the short sentence to fathers because we--and I have two kids--have our place. It's just a different place. It's not less valuable, less caring, less nurturing. I heard a guy on the radio say the other day that the the worst human experience is a mother losing a child. That's just bullshit. A father's grief is no less sincere, deep and honest. It's simply expressed differently.
Still, the places in our lives of these invaluable people are almost parallel to the spot we fill ourselves. I discovered that when, years after my mother died, Betsy Gehman came along and and put calamine lotion on my bruised ego or my hurt feelings long after I imagined the need for a mother would have dissipated. Betsy has been every bit as giving, guiding, loving, coaching, scolding and kind as any mother could be. And it is important to me, even a couple of months short of my first Social Security check.
There's just some pieces of our lives that need mothering and nobody else can do it.