Today the family is getting together on the occasion of my mom’s 70th birthday. It’s not for a few days, but with family scattered across 100 miles of highway, people collect when and where they can.
Photographer unknown. From the archives.
The gathering begins in less than three hours, but I’m still unsure about whether we’ll make it. Two young kids does not make for easy travel, particularly if they’ve already had a long, boring car experience earlier in the day and now the trip would mean another.
But in honor of my mom’s 70th, I thought I’d take a few moments to thank her for some of the legwork that she put in over the years—there was a lot of it.
- “Surplus.” Anyone else reading this will have no idea what the term means, but for my mom, I am positive, the term “surplus” brings to the fore a whole catalog of places, faces, and purchases. “Surplus” was a term in the names of an array of otherwise unrelated places—mostly government agencies and departments of large nonprofits—to which I used to beg and plead for her to take me, so that I could buy computer equipment. Or rather, so that I could beg and plead for her to buy me mostly used up, often highly archaic computer equipment. This went on for years. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of trips. Each time with no particular aim in mind—I just wanted to go, to see if there was something interesting (to ask for her) to buy. Often there wasn’t. The wasted trips must have numbered in the hundreds as well, often involving cross-valley, in-traffic driving. In retrospect, I can’t believe that she never once, in all those trips, lost her cool and drew the hard line: “No more surplus. No places with surplus in their names. Not now. Not ever. Never again! Ever!” I certainly would have. But she never did.
Now that I’m a parent, I can also begin to understand that she probably had mixed feelings about it all—a strange cocktail of pride (“My kid may be an ubergeek, that’s kind of cool, I want to support this!”) and fear (“How much is this going to cost me, how many pounds is it going to weigh, how much like junkyard refuse is it going to look, is it electrically and chemically safe, and how will I even tell? Does he know what he’s doing?”) In fact, often I didn’t. But she put in hundreds of hours helping me to excavate the world of “surplus,” without which I wouldn’t have had the educational life, or the career life, I’ve been able to have.
- Keeping me righted that time I totally lost it on the stairs. (For, like, a decade.) At some point during fourth grade, having a very rough time of things at school (an understatement if ever there was one), I came home and threw what can only be called the mother of all big-kid tantrums. I yelled. I screamed. I punched walls. I complained and insulted and criticized and manipulated and make big claims like “I’m never going back to that school again.” Funny thing—I basically didn’t. Rather than lay down the wood and tell me to shut up, go do my homework, and count my stars that I wasn’t grounded forever, she listened. She asked questions, in response to which I mostly yelled. And then she got together with my dad and made sure that I was re-routed soon afterward to a different school. Again, as a parent now, just thinking of that particular logistical task gives me hives. But mom wasn’t just receptive and understanding—she had follow-through.
School wasn’t ever quite smooth again as a result of my experience early on and for years afterward I’d need help to remain “compatible” with the education system, but I ended up in a far better place, and on multiple occasions as I—let’s say—failed to make the most of alternative education opportunities that she was instrumental in tracking down for me, she’d continue to run interference between me and “the system” to ensure that I didn’t become a statistic. She supported me in doing work my way, then invariably helped me to brainstorm about where that work might be valued and how it could be presented. Often, she ran ahead, making the phone calls and doing the visits with The Important People to ensure that my self-directed path remained a viable one. That path that she helped to clear carried me all the way to Ph.D. in the end.
- The endless consultations. Some people don’t have many answers. Some people have tons of answers. Both are fine, as far as they go, but it’s far more rare to meet people with tons of interesting questions. Mom has always been one of my top resources in times of confusion, largely because she doesn’t try to cut through it. Instead, she listens—then asks. However arcane the topic, mom has always put in the time to listen patiently as you try to bring her up to speed, so that in the end you can conclude by telling her just how stuck and bewildered you are. And then, rather than try to give advice, she asks questions. She doesn’t run out of questions. When I was younger, I sometimes became infuriated at her refusal to provide pat answers or opinions on things. Sometimes I wanted validation for what I already had concluded; sometimes I hadn’t managed to conclude anything yet and wanted her to do the hard work for me—to take the responsibility off of my hands. But mom has never faltered in refusing to provide answers, whether easy or hard. Instead—questions. One after another.
I can’t possibly imagine how many hours of patient listening she’s given me, or how many thousands of questions she’s generously donated, but over the years I’ve come to realize that having someone with an endless reservoir of relevant questions to ask is one of the greatest assets a person can have in their life. There is still no one else that I know who can ask questions like mom does—whether about Ph.D. dissertation topics or about weekend play plans. And no matter how long-winded or strident your answers become, no matter how many times you’ve already called out of the blue for a two-hour conversation this week, she doesn’t lose her nerve or her mind—she listens carefully, somehow puts a few more interesting thoughts together—and then asks more follow-up questions. Without mom’s questions, I can’t imagine where I’d be.
- Cooking with us. Especially pizza. While talking about pizza. From a very early age, I remember cooking with mom. I have to confess to having teased my mom a bit about cooking over the years, as her cooking habits have never been those of the average foodie. When I was young, they were middle-America chic (hot dog chunks in macaroni and cheese, the latest casserole recipe from Better Homes and Gardens) and as we all got older, they shifted toward middle-Whole Foods chic (quinoa, kale, and grapeseed mayonnaise a-go-go). But the fact is that I remember hours and hours of cooking time with mom as a kid, and I loved them—and I remember loving the food that we cooked as well. This is particularly true for pizza, which we used to make in a beaten-up tin cake pan with a green painted exterior using frozen bread dough rolls for crust, tomato sauce from a can (with a dash of oregano from a shaker) as sauce, hamburger, and cheddar cheese. We’d do this while she told the story (oft-repeated, as my siblings can no doubt confirm) of her first encounter with pizza as a young person in middle America, and thinking that it was “so, so good.” And as we ate the pizza that we made (of a sort that would give any pizzeria guy in Manhattan fits), I remember thinking that our pizza, too, was “so, so good.”
These days I’m a pretty good cook, but I never use a recipe. I’m pretty sure this is thanks to hours of alchemical food work with my mom, not in the tiny, often pointless territory of haute cuisine but rather in the high, culinary-scientific weeds of “what’s in the fridge, how will it behave when we combine it all together, and what processes can we apply to influence this behavior for our own ends?”
- Helping us to understand and apply key bits of Heidegger. I’m sure this reference will mystify her. She’s not necessarily a continental philosophy buff, especially 20th century continental philosophy. But “we attain to dwelling,” good old Martin argues in Building Dwelling Thinking, “only by means of building,” and “the latter, building, has the former, dwelling, as its goal.” Heidegger relates both to “the basic character of being” that mortals experience, and to the question of what it means to have and to be at home in the world. All of this is really a complicated way of saying that mom has always intuitively understood—and intuitively fostered in us—that sense that being (being alive, being content, being productive, being a complete person) is something that can’t be contracted out, and that must never be episodic. You can’t live in and through what someone else built, and you can’t dwell while you’re not also building.
Whether as a matter of planting trees and laying sod, of insulating and flooring, of encumbering our rooms with decorative regimes in keeping with strange teenage whims, of building—haltingly—identities and preferences and personas, often in eyebrow-raising ways, mom tolerated, encouraged, often paid for, and patiently supported so very much building. She thus fostered—I think without consciously realizing it—dwelling and being of a sort that many people struggle to find and understand today (this lack being, I’d argue, a fundamental disease in our society right now). There are a lot of messed up, miserable people out there, people who are never at home and never will be at home because they don’t know how to be. We—my mom’s children—are not those people because for all of the time I can remember as a child, the building was ongoing, never quite “just begun” and never quite “finished,” but rather a fundamental process of life, and it was always ours to do, as the people who lived with it, not to be contracted out or bought “off the shelf.” Mom invested year after year in demonstrations of this ethic—and we all internalized it.
Yes, mom, all those planted trees, painted walls, laid floors, and extended appliance-comparison-shopping-and-installation periods, none of which ever quite seemed to be “done forever,” were a useful thing. It was not about how well they turned out in the end, but the fact of doing them. They were an intuitive philosophy lesson that sticks with me to this day. You taught us how to dwell, and thus how to be, at home.
I’m fairly sure none of this is what my mom expects me to remember most about our relationship over the years, but these are in fact the things that continue to influence me each and every day. They’re not memories; they’re practicalities and practical realities upon which I rely. They matter, and for that, I thank her.
There are, of course, memories too:
- Mom reading the rhyme “I’m Hiding” to me over and over again from those big books whose covers I never recognized until she actually began to read.
- Little trips—so many little trips—to stores, to museums, to libraries, and to visit friends and people in need of help and company; I can still remember so many of their names, faces, homes, and yards, though I won’t go over them in public for obvious reasons.
- Extracurriculars, the trips to and from them, and mom’s belief that they’d be good for me—soccer, karate, track, electricity, creative writing, piano, computer club—even when I wasn’t sure (they were).
- Mom’s good humor at invariably failed attempts—on holidays, on weekends, over and over again—to get us all together to play a game, sing a song, do a project, or anything else one might wish a herd of cats to do—and her amiable smile and half-hearted protesting when we refused and made light of the very suggestion, every time.
- All the wild goose chases for particular kinds of clothes, shoes, food, toys, and other kid stuff.
- Seeing mom’s foot, always in the same sensible nursing shoes, on the gas pedals of a parade of vehicles over the years in hours and hours and hours of driving.
- So many moments of unowed enthusiasm for things that her kids decided to pick up along the way, some of it very arcane indeed, whether (in my case) I was trying to explain to her the fundamentals of the Von Neumann architecture (and she appeard to be enrapt) or how heavy metal, thrash metal, and speed metal differed (she did in fact hold up her end of the conversation rather better than anyone could justifiably expect).
- Lots and lots of family history stories. (Like… lots of them.)
- Lots and lots of moments of self-deprecation, at which she would say to unsuspecting opponents, “I don’t know, I’m just a mom…” and later on “I’m just a little old lady, what do I know…” before proceeding to get Big Things Done in the most unassuming way possible.
- And, going back very, very far indeed, being rocked to sleep in the old, old massive rocking chair whose arms made a sound like the clang of a grandfather clock when you hit them, with mom singing quietly and the world fading slowly out. That is, of course, a long, long time ago now.
Happy birthday, mom. You have always been a real mom—not hunting for superficial “perfections” and temporary plateaus, but rather teaching how to live, how caring works in the real world, and how to get things done when all hope is lost and it seems completely impossible to do so.
We love you.