My mother believes that bisexuality is, to use her word, “greedy.” “You pick one gender and stick with it,” she once said. She also thinks that Lorena Bobbit is misunderstood and Jenny Sanford is a hero. And once, when she found me watching an episode of Friends, she told me, “Real life isn’t like that, Marni. People hopping into one another’s beds.”
The thing of it is, she believes this stuff. And she imparts these words of wisdom with the air of one bestowing a great gift. “I’m your mother,” she’ll say, as if that seals the deal.
Some of her most enduring pronouncements are on the delicate topic of mother-daughter relations. “I’m your mother, not your friend” she likes to declare. And then, on other occasions, she’ll announce “I’m the best friend you’ll ever have. I’m your mother.”
My mother is also fond of telling me, “The whole world’s crazy, Marni, except me and you. And frankly, I’m not so sure about you.”
Logic, it would seem, has no place in her world. And it’s in spite, or maybe because of this that I find her so utterly charming. So completely and truly lovable.
* * *
My mother was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1955. My grandparents named her Debbie rather than Deborah because, after all, everyone would end up calling her Debbie anyway. This sort of practicality suits my mother who is nothing if not level-headed. My grandfather says she came out of the womb reciting the Gettysburg Address.
Knowing my mother, this story seems plausible.
It’s hard to imagine my mother as anything other than a fully-formed adult. That she was once a child is something I’ve never been able to wrap my head around. What’s more, while there’s photographic evidence of her youth, my mother claims to have no actual memory of the events that transpired. Suspect to say the least.
My uncle once remarked that he didn’t know he had another sister until Mom emerged from her room at sixteen. She had, of course, been studying.
It’s safe to say that Mom was a good girl. Not just a good girl. A Very Good Girl. “Always get a seat right at the front of the class,” she advises, “and take good notes.”
* * *
Some things you should know about my mother.
1) While she has many stereotypical Jewish Mom traits, she is not a fan of physical affection. In fact, hugging is anathema to her. She will flinch if you attempt to embrace her. Which, of course, I do as often as possible.
2) I’ve still never used a tampon. Because, at an early age, Mom impressed upon me the Very Likely possibility of Toxic Shock syndrome.
The Mayo Clinic staff describes TSS as “rare,” but, then again, doesn’t Mother know best?
3) She’s as close to a Christian Scientist as one can possibly be while still practicing Judaism. I can recall an occasion in high school in which she gave me half an Extra-Strength Tylenol tablet to quell a fever. The recommended dose was two pills. Moreover, I wasn’t allowed to take aspirin until I was 21. “Rye syndrome is real, Marni.” And if you really want to get Mom going, just ask her about the drug companies.
4) And yet, despite the aforementioned aversion to medication, Mom is a frustrated physician. She wanted to be a doctor, but was never able to screw up the courage to apply to med school. These days, she acts out her fantasies by diagnosing friends and family and watching copious amounts of House. Since USA started playing the reruns, House has replaced Law & Order as the go-to television program in the Grossman family. It’s a constant refrain: “Isn’t there a House on?”
The kicker? There always is.
5) My mother is not what you’d call lighthearted. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t have her funny moments or her silly times, but, more often than not, she’s serious. Studious. Smart and driven and dedicated. There is , however, one thing that will—without fail—bring tears of joy to her eyes. That, my friends, is my father’s physical pain. Sure, she enjoys his incompetence with technology. And the way he looks when he wears sneakers. But nothing makes her giggle like the sight of Dad stubbing his toe or cutting his finger. When I was twelve, my father fell down the steps at my school and broke his arm. The mere memory of this occasion makes Mom smile.
6) She has a habit of telling me what to do in great detail. “What I’d do,” she’ll start, and then she’ll go on for several minutes, outlining exactly how she would go about things. Mom will, if given the time, dictate e-mails, answering machine messages and sometimes, entire hypothetical phone conversations. And at the end, she’ll say, “I don’t know why I bother. You never listen to me anyway.”
7) If you cross me or my sister—hurt us in any way, shape or form—your relationship with my mother is over. “Ice in the winter,” she’ll say. “That’s what they’ll get from me.”
* * *
Because we’re Jewish, my family speaks with one another several times a day. Cell phones have done wonders for the overprotective Yiddishe Mama and mine is no exception. With the family plan, she can now call me whenever her heart desires. And often that means that I hear from her repeatedly.
Screening doesn’t work. Because she’ll just keep calling.
Friends and roommates know this. “Just pick it up,” they urge. “Please. For the love of G-d.”
Mom and I speak at least twice on any given day. Late afternoon or early evening, we discuss the events of the day. This conversation typically opens with the sally “what’s doing?” Then, later, I call to let her know I’m in my apartment for the night.
This second conversation is a bone of contention between us. I maintain that it’s overkill. I am, after all, 23-years-old. A college graduate. I can drink, I can drive, I can vote. When Mom was my age, she’d been married for a year.
But no matter how old I get, I am my mother’s baby.
I’ve tried to negotiate. “We talk every day,” I say. “Can’t you just wait twenty-four hours?”
“I’d be going crazy, Marni. You could be dead.” She doesn’t say that I could be lying in a gutter somewhere. She doesn’t need to. It’s implied.
“You do realize that everyone else thinks it’s insane, right? That most people talk to their mothers one or twice a week at most?”
“No one I knows thinks so,” she’ll reply. “They think it’s perfectly understandable.”
No doubt that’s true as the people she talks to are her mother and sister.
She’s a stalker, to be sure. But a loving one.
Some years ago, my sister told us a story about a friend of hers. This girl was sheltered, religious. At eighteen, she went off to Wellesley. And then, sometime during her first semester of college, she began a relationship with an older man she met on the internet. To her family’s chagrin, she later ran off with him. Leaving no forwarding address nor any indication of when she’d return.
“I’d find her and drag her home,” my mother told us. “What are her parents thinking?”
We pointed out that the girl in question was—in the eyes of the law anyway—not a girl at all. “She’s eighteen,” we said. “There’s nothing for them to do.”
“I don’t care,” Mom retorted. “I’d hunt you down.”
“And if I got a restraining order?” I shot back.
“There’s not a restraining order in the world that could keep me from you.”
* * *
Mom and I look alike. Everyone says so. Older people, when they want to be cute, say that we could be sisters.
My mother thinks that I hate hearing this. “You’re much prettier than I am,” she’ll whisper as they walk away.
I don’t hate it, though. “I’m not prettier,” I tell her. “I just have bigger tits.”
My mother and I share the same dark eyes and hair, the same mouth shape. But she got the deeper dimples and the more discreet nose and I got pricey orthodonture. We have more in common than looks, though. More than my fair skin or brown hair, what I inherited from Mom is temperament.
We analyze and overanalyze. We think too much. Mostly, we worry.
Mom will vigorously deny that I’m anything like her. “You’re so much more social. You always know just what to say, Marni.” She’ll tell me I’m smarter and more fun and just all-around better. Which, come to think of it, is just what I’d say about her.
* * *
Much of high school was, for me, an extended Very Special Episode. A page cribbed from a discarded Elizabeth Wurtzel essay.
Here’s the one where Marni is confronted about her eating disorder. See her push away her still-full plate. Watch as she pukes up dinner with the greatest of ease. And here’s the one where Marni slices up her stomach with a razor blade. Or the one where she reads Anne Sexton and listens to Elliott Smith.
Like Donna Martin, I did graduate. But getting there required a larger budget than producers had anticipated. And I kept my cutting a secret for as long as I could.
I told my mother, finally, during an argument.
In a characteristically idiotic fashion, I hurled the cutting at her, aiming to wound. Maximizing the moment’s dramatic potential, I rolled up my sleeve and thrust my arm in her face. “You didn’t even know about this!” I said. “You didn’t even know about this!”
I regretted it as soon as I said it.
I couldn’t take it back, though. Just like I couldn’t take back the red and white graffiti now marring my arms and stomach.
Cutting lost me forever my place as The Good Kid. I was dethroned. Summarily dismissed. Pushed from atop my pedestal. Good Kid became Damaged Goods. Anorexia was a blip. A painful, troublesome blip, but a blip nonetheless. No permanent injury. Nothing I couldn’t take back. No real harm done. This though. This was different.
My mother set about trying to erase my scars. We went to the dermatologist. Again and again. We talked about plastic surgery and lasers and debated the effectiveness of various topical gels. My mother set about trying to erase my scars because even more for her than for me, they hurt.
And then there was this: she didn’t want me to go to school. At Vassar, she wouldn’t be able to keep her eye on me. She couldn’t ensure I’d be safe, she said. She said, “I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to you.”
And there it is, both implicit and explicit. A variation on a theme. “You could be dead.”
But something had already happened to me and no amount of Mederma was going to change that.
* * *
In the end, we struck a deal and I went to Poughkeepsie. Because, after all, children grow up. Children fall. They skin their knees and scrape their elbows. They try and they fail and live to try again. Children leave. And you have to let them.
It’s worth remembering, however, that there’s not a restraining order in the world that can keep Mom away from me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.