My mom’s on Facebook, and I’ve accepted her friend request. (Hi, Mom!) She doesn’t own a computer, she doesn’t own a cell phone, she still deposits checks and withdraws cash by walking up to the bank counter, but she’s been on Facebook for a few months now, which is long enough, as she informed me (actually, when she was just a few weeks in), to learn more about me by clicking links than she’s learned from me in person. She found one mention of herself in my online writing—it was on this site, in my self interview—and she took issue with it. She wants you to know: That hummingbird that got into her bedroom? She tried every other way to get it out, she tried for hours, before she killed it with bug spray. It was horrible and it was late at night and she needed to go to bed.

It’s not that pre-Facebook I hid my writing from my mother, or from anyone, exactly. In the nineties, I co-published a zine called Maxine, and I included in it writing of mine that was sometimes sexy, sometimes weird, and almost always personal—for example, I collaborated on a comic loosely based on my best friend and I that involved cunnilingus. And I sent the copies to my parents. I sold copies to co-workers. Devil may care! I liked the feeling, actually. I liked the combination of accepting ownership but relinquishing the fantasy that I could control others’ perceptions. It felt very different than finding someone listening at the door or rustling through my stash of journals and love letters. (You know you did that, Mom!)

In fact, publishing personal writing on paper felt like an anecdote to privacy invasion. I’m not sure why online writing feels like something in between. Is it just because it’s more likely that something online can worm its way anywhere, easily? That it wouldn’t be a magical, fate-ridden thing for someone I knew to stumble onto a blog post the way it would be to stumble onto a zine? All it takes is being bored at 2 AM. What’s that old girlfriend doing. What about that cousin who I played doctor with once. What about that daughter. She always kept the room to her door closed. She always had her nose in some book or up in the air. She’d always give me this look, like. . . . And now, when she finally does call, she’s too busy to talk.

My mom knows her own inclinations. She says that’s one reason why she doesn’t want a computer: she’s a voyeur; it’d be too tempting. She did her Facebook sleuthing this summer, when she was living with my sister-in-law, whom my brother has been divorcing for years. They’re still fighting over money and visitation and blame. I told my mother that it was a bad idea, that things would get awkward. And they did. She was on the phone complaining about it one day, perhaps commenting about the quality of my sister-in-law’s mothering—and her appearance and her eating habits and her housekeeping—without realizing that her hostess was sitting on the porch just outside the open window. When my mom walked out there, Stephanie told her, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

When my husband and I found my mother snooping around our windows the summer before, when she was house-sitting down the street, we choose not to say anything. We just pretended it had never happened.

My mother, who when I told her I had quit smoking, said, “That’s not very sociable, is it?”

My mother, who when I told her as a new parent that I didn’t have time to go shopping for sales said, “If you’d get off your high-horse and go to McDonalds once a week you’d have one night a week to go shopping.”

My mother, who was actually very concerned about nutrition when I was growing up, and who insisted for awhile that I eat cubes of cheese in the morning, for fat and protein. I did not want to eat cubes of cheese in the morning; they disgusted me. So I did what any self-respecting kid would do: I palmed them and later slipped them into a drawer in the playroom.

And my mother, upon discovering the colony of cheese cubes—by this time with edges turned a waxy blood orange and sides coated in powdery mold— became enraged and made me eat them as punishment. It was a Mommy Dearest moment, her towering over me and brandishing the plastic spatula with which she sometimes spanked us, me choking down a cube or two before pushing past her to go retch into the toilet. I can still see the hunter-orange curdles floating in the shining white bowl—my mother kept a very clean house. But she is no Joan Crawford. She didn’t make me eat any more after that, and cheese was taken off the breakfast menu. So I think I won that round.

Yes, when it comes to my mother, I am a perpetual adolescent who will—obviously—air old and dirty linen in public to score a point.

Although this is the first time I am doing so. In a piece that I am posting to the internet.

As a kid, I was the kind of good girl who was secretly, sneakily bad.

In first or second grade, I went to the bathroom and locked all the stalls from the inside before crawling out of the last one and going back to the teacher with a report: I couldn’t use the bathroom; someone locked all the doors. “Probably some sixth grader,” the teacher said, “who thinks she’s being smart.”

When I was in sixth grade—an impeccable student—I had already developed a taste for bad boys, and I befriended the grottiest trouble-maker in class, Scott Bilow. He was actually a pretty nice kid who had a rough lot. His dad was a drunk, and a good day for Scott was when he was sent to the bar to get his dad and was invited in and given a Coke instead of a back-hand. Scott had stories to tell, and dirty poetry to recite, and I was all ears. One ditty ended with the memorable line: “Sister’s on the corner yelling pussy for sale.” I thought on that a lot. The pieces were just starting to add up for me. Sometimes, if we had indoor recess or whatever, I’d play a game he taught us where I’d hold a pencil and follow directions that resulted in the spelling of fuck or shit or mother fucker on the lined, grey paper of his writing tablet.

When the teacher found these pages in his notebook, she took him out in the hall and hollered at him. The rest of the class couldn’t hear his side of the conversation, but we didn’t need to:

“What did you say?”

“You’re trying to tell me Zoe Zolbrod wrote those awful words in that awful handwriting?”

“Zoe Zolbrod has beautiful handwriting and she would never write those dirty words!”

Thirty years later, I’m still proud that I accepted the blame. The teacher was so dumbstruck at the dissolution of her categories that I don’t think either Scott or I was ever punished. Or maybe the punishment was just a note home to my parents, still married then. They wouldn’t have given me a hard time for something like that. They might have congratulated me on taking responsibility when I could have skirted it. Honesty was their big thing. As a teenager, especiallywhen some of my friends physically feared their parents or were routinely denied freedoms—my mom and dad let me get away with a lot, as long as I told the truth.

So, my mom’s on Facebook  (welcome, Mom!) and that’s what’s inspiring me to trash talk her to you all and to post this up on TNB. But I’m not sure whether I’ll link to it. And my mom’s back home now, no longer living with my sister-in-law’s laptop and internet connection. She uses the computer at the library sometimes, but it’s not open at 2 AM, and during business hours, well—she still works part-time as a care-taker for elderly people, and she plays tennis, and volunteers, and shops the sales. (She basically clothes my children with her findings, saving me needed time and money. She’s the only person who has ever watched the kids overnight or over two. She . . . but I digress.) So she might not see this. And if she does, I’ll own up to it. These are some facts. Shrug. Nose in air. Laid out just so. That’s all I’m saying.

 

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ZOE ZOLBROD's first novel, Currency, won a 2010 Nobbie Award. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania; went to college in Oberlin, Ohio; and got a MA from University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in educational publishing and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, the artist Mark DeBernardi, and their son and daughter. She's currently at work on a memoir.

43 responses to “My Mom’s on Facebook”

  1. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    The parent-on-facebook conundrum is one I haven’t had to deal with, yet. I keep telling my mom that the interface is really complicated and it’s not that interesting anyway, so don’t bother. But I have dealt with publishing satire pieces directly culled from group emails she sends to my siblings and me. Her response was “Now I have to watch what I say around you” though it didn’t change her behavior in any way and, in fact, almost had the opposite effect of making her act her “part” more.

    But this “…the combination of accepting ownership but relinquishing the fantasy that I could control others’ perceptions” describes well why it’s worth it to the writer to air laundry. So thanks for having the courage to put things out there.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Thanks, Nathaniel–

      I’ve haven’t written much at about my family, and I have the itch, so I appreciate your reinforcing the message that it’s worth it, despite the complications.

      • kim brown says:

        i think this story was great. i love the way you write, it is as if it is marching right out of your head, onto the paper. i think a lot about small things that happenin every day life where at the moment do not seem so interesting…it is always in retrospect….but wish i had written themdown.
        thanks

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Zoe,

    You probably have a lot in common with my daughter, Lenore.
    She’s on TNB and so am I.
    She rarely, if ever, reads my stuff, even if I ask.
    I’m pretty sure I’m an embarrassment to her.
    But I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.
    In any case, it’s how it is with us.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Irene, do you read Lenore’s posts? I’m pretty nosy (like my mom) so if she were a writer, I’d probably be a reader.

      I was going to say that it’s probably more typical for parents to want to know more about their kids than their kids want to know about them, but as soon as the thought formed, my mind was flooded with so many exceptions that the statement became ridiculous. Maybe the divisions are just between the nosy and the non-nosy. Or the curious and the incurious.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Zoe,

        Anything I have access to by Lenore, I read.
        I usually comment, but sometimes my face turns so red and I start to stutter and I simply can’t say anything.
        I’m sure she’s really happy when that happens.

  3. Greg Olear says:

    Great to see you on here, ZZ!

    My mother joining FB definitely represented a crossing of the Rubicon. It is a useful tool for dissemination of cute pictures of grandkids, which is well and good, but it foists more self-censorship on me than I’d like, thus spoiling FB’s intent. Might I suggest liberal use of the HIDE feature…

    And poor you and the moldy cheese cubes!

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Yeah, Greg, I think overall, the advantage of not to have to print out actual photos and put them in the actual mail makes the possible awkwardness of having parents/grandparents on FB worth it.

  4. So far my mother has resisted the Internet. When I bring up the ease of communication or when she complains that everything she used to do via phone now has a web page, I try to persuade her again but she is steadfast in her refusal. She claims she will be “on all the time” and “the Internet will consume her life” all arguments I try to negate until I realize I’m guilty of trolling web sites for hours under the guise of research and have filled my head with fuzz all while procrastinating about doing any “real work”. Perhaps mom is, as usual, right.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Yeah, your mom might be right! Sometimes I work on an old laptop when I want to be serious about writing, because the internet is so slow that it should, theoretically, be less of a draw.

  5. Robert Vaughan says:

    Loved this read, Zoe and so happy to have you on TNB. There is the question of sharing internet possibilities with parents, or children (or ex’s or, or, or…). And then there is the question, or is it ongoing flux of how one’s mother (father) is simply in the d.n.a, in the brain, in the writing, as audience, as voice, as participant. For instance, how you added the parenthetical phrases (Hi, Mom! and Welcome, Mom!) directly to her, as if she is here. And, one has to wonder, is she? Is mine? Provocative article given the family dynamics dropped against the backdrop of today’s web scene.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Thanks, Vaughan. You’re right. Parents are in us so deep, whether we like it or not. It’s a question of how much we can get away with pretending otherwise. It’s harder in an online world! (Potential employers are another audience who I’m picturing—or trying not to— around the campfire when I post something online.)

  6. Jeffro says:

    Hilarious yet very true. Scott Bilow sounds like a fun dude to have around.

    re family / facebook: My mom has Facebook too but what’s even scarier is my grandmother just joined Facebook. (She still has dial-up) It’s one thing trying to explain a story about an unintentional erection from a 50+-year-old masseuse to your mother and sister. But your grandmother — that’s just a different ballgame altogether. Visions of testicles dancing in one’s head.

    Good stuff.

  7. Becky Palapala says:

    My mom is not on facebook.

    My mother-in-law, however, is.

    She sent me a friend request but didn’t send one to her son, my husband.

    As a deeply paranoid and fairly private and/or shady individual, I found this kind of question-mark-inducing behavior totally unacceptable.

    I just ignored it. Have never mentioned it. Either has she. If she brings it up, I will just say, “no.” and leave the room.

    If she asks why, I’ll tell her, with a straight face, that I don’t want her to see the naked pictures my high school pimp posted of me shooting heroin in a 7-11 bathroom.

    With a straight face.

    Then I’ll be like, “When’s dinner?”

  8. Gloria says:

    My most recent post here on TNB briefly describes my mom’s inability to read my writing because she’s in an abusive relationship with a control freak and totally has Stockholm Syndrome.

    I then called her and read it to her.

    I really related to this piece.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      I tried to find that piece of yours, Gloria, but I couldn’t. I remember loving “Things You’re Not Supposed to Say,” though.

  9. I love your lede. Best ever?

  10. zoe zolbrod says:

    Thanks Claire!

  11. Art Edwards says:

    I don’t think there’s a good answer to the mom/Facebook question. I like to think I’d be an adult about it, but I like to think I’d be an adult about a lot of things.

  12. Matt says:

    The day my mother gets on Facebook is the day I get off Facebook, and possibly the rest of the internet as well. We’re estranged already, and a few years ago she cyberstalked my then-girlfriend (who she hated) and I and used that info to make some really creepy overtures. She’s left a few massively passive-aggressive and hugely inappropriate comments on some of my essays for this site, all which I quickly deleted.

  13. Zoe, I loved this at TNBLE Chicago, and it’s even more complicatedly funny-troubling now, on the “page,” when I have not had a couple of scotches. That cheese image is going to haunt me for awhile . . . but yeah, I ignored David’s dad’s FB request for over a year, until my mother-in-law passed away, and then “friended” him. But not without hesitation.

    Meanwhile, my mom googles me pretty much every day. She has compiled an entire “book” (a three ring binder) of shit I’ve done online, from TNB posts to interviews to reviews of my work. This gives me the willies in a variety of ways, though I know how well-intentioned she is. But it does seem true that we can’t really “say” anything anymore without it being accessible to our immediate family, even if at one time that family was totally disconnected from the lit world.

    You KNOW you’re mom’s gonna find this, right?

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      My mom found it. Within 24 hours. As I said, she does not have a computer. I was going to give her a head’s up, but I thought I had a little time.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      PS: Gina, despite the potential weirdness, some day you or your kids will be glad to have that book your mom’s making.

  14. Doug Bruns says:

    Z ~ Thank you for the wonderful essay. It’s quite humorous–but it isn’t funny in its sort-of dark seriousness, if that makes sense. The first real thing I published was about my father. My mother waited, as other pieces, essays particularly, found homes, most of them including a tidbit or two about dad–she waited for something about her. And it never came–that is, until after she died and then I wrote about her death, here on TNB (Storm as Metaphor). That seems a high degree of irony. I like too how you skate across the ice pond of technology and privacy and family. I look forward to getting to know your writing better.

  15. angela says:

    trying to explain Facebook to mom is like trying to explain colors to a blind person.

    i’m very glad neither she nor my father are on it. i’ve told my parents they’re not allowed to read my nonfiction, TMI writing. my father abides my wish, preferring to remain ignorant – though he’s very supportive of my writing – while my mother has expressed curiosity. i made the mistake of telling them i won a contest, which they told their friends, and now they’re all asking to read my essay on how my husband cheated on me and i’m divorced, even though most of these friends don’t know anything about that.

    what does my mother think i write about? unicorns and rainbows?

    the other day i asked, “so are your friends getting on Facebook now?” she answered thankfully, “noooo. we’re too old.”

  16. Don Mitchell says:

    When I got a Facebook account I told my son that I’d never look at his page, and I haven’t. I didn’t ask him never to look at mine, because I knew I’d never post anything of any importance there (I got it because of my 50th HS reunion), and it just sits there endlessly displaying what other people are doing.

    Now as for whether he follows my antics on TNB or not, I don’t know. I do send him links to some of my pieces, but that doesn’t mean he’s looked at them all. He may or may not have read the one about his birth and my thoughts about whether to have him cut or not. He’s never said.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Dear God, Don.

      You are my hero.

      Snooping, of any kind, is my least favorite thing on earth. And you don’t do it. I would hug you if I could. You saint, saint of a man.

      I’m not even joking. That kind of integrity, provided you’re telling the truth, is a thing of real beauty.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Ah, I had a girlfriend (as an adult) who loved to say of me, “He giveth and he taketh away.”

        Yeah, I’m telling the truth.

        I’d better say that not looking at his page isn’t that big a deal, considering that he’s nearly 30 and married. I’d probably have a different take on it if he were, say, 15 and living at home and I had reason to believe something was wrong, and that’s the truth.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, it’s not the thing itself; it’s the principle of the thing.

          A minor child is indeed something a bit different, but still.

          To keep your word when you could conceivably break it without risk of anyone ever knowing is a big deal.

  17. Stacy Bierlein says:

    Zoe, I love this piece and the vibrant details about your mom! I would have loved to hear your reading at TNBLE. (Chicago envy, again.) One July night about two years ago, my sister called me in a late night panic. I thought something was seriously wrong until she said, WTF, Mom is on Facebook! If I do not friend her, it’s going to be a huge issue. If I do friend her, she’s going to know what I’m up to! I knew my mom was on Facebook because I had helped her sign up. I hadn’t thought it through. I hadn’t anticipated that she would like Facebook so much. (Mom draws the line at Twitter.) At one point Facebook became rather, well, personified in our family. As in, What do you mean I did not tell you such-and-such?! Well, you should check in on Facebook! Sometimes Facebook is like the maternal aunt we never had–the one who is a better communicator. The one who keeps track of photos and birthdays. The one whose stories we can like and unlike in the same day. (Was “unlike” an actual word pre-Facebook? I am not sure.) Again, thanks for a wise and wonderful post!

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Thanks, Stacy. I’ve noticed that FB has changed my expectation about friendship, in a way. As I’m sure is true for many of us at this busy stage of life, I can go months without talking to close friends. I love FB because it lets us get quick, efficient hits about the outlines of each other’s lives–did anyone lose or gain a pet? take a quick trip?–so when we see each other we can get to down to the nitty gritty more quickly. In comparison, I feel less in touch with the few friends who aren’t on FB, even though we communicate nor less than we used to. Sounds like something similar happened in your family. It becomes a duty to keep up with FB!

  18. sari wilson says:

    Amazing piece, Zoe. Facebook has been such of a weirdness challenge on so many fronts–the breaking down of all sorts of barriers in construction of various selves–that I hadn’t had time to start organizing them. You’ve done so in this wonderful, smart, and funny piece. So thanks (Hi Aunt Cathy!)

  19. Josh Neufeld says:

    Hey Zoe, Great piece; I’m glad I finally had a second to read it (even if it is NEXT year). It’s especially relevant to me now because my mom is on FB too (as well as my mother-in-law… and my ex-step-mother. Oy.) Anyway, a friend of mine once made an analogy of FB as being a giant cafeteria where everyone is supposed to be overhearing everyone else’s conversations. But I warned my mom when she friended me that I basically use FB to be completely banal and goofy and she better not judge me. She said “cool” and it’s actually been really freeing for me to continue in that vein with the promise that she will indeed not judge me. OK, time to stop rambling now. And yeah, that cheese thing — ugh. Happy New Year!

  20. […] months later; gave me a reason to write a couple nonfiction features that garnered good comments (here and here); and, most recently, honored me with a Nobbie award and an asterisk after it that meant […]

  21. […] — Zoe Zolbrod […]

  22. […] — Zoe Zolbrod […]

  23. […] ZOE ZOLBROD’s mom is on Facebook. […]

  24. […] I love the community there, not to mention the eyeballs. I’ve posted essays about the my mom being on Facebook, the gang rape of the eleven-year-old girl, my reaction to the proposed opening of a breastaurant […]

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