Apron Strings

17 Oct

When I turned 18, my mother gave me an apron. After I opened the gift, she took it from me, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the apron strings. She said, “I am doing for you what my mother never did for me.”

With those words, she sent me on my independent way. I was halfway through my senior year of high school at the time. For Mom, the apron strings had great meaning. I understood and appreciated Mom’s gesture, and for good reason. My grandmother was overly protective and never able to let go of Mom. Up until the time she had her first bad stroke, Grandma was always there, hovering over Mom like she couldn’t take care of herself. She meddled in Mom’s adult relationships and always criticized her.

Mothering is not easy. It wasn’t easy for Grandma, whose husband left her to willingly fight in WWII despite flat feet and a bad asthma problem. He served her divorce papers at Christmastime midway through the war. My mom and uncle ate lots of ketchup sandwiches growing up, from the house my grandma ran in the South End for “unwed mothers.”

Grandma was smart and artsy. She also worked setting up the window display’s at the downtown department store, which in the 50s was “the place” to be. But she also smoked liked a chimney to manage anxiety issues and life in general. She was a hypochondriac. And she hated seeing men in uniforms. She did have issues, and goodness only knows what her married life was like. I’m sure there was fair blame on both sides.

I grew up being the one responsible for calling Grandma to come over to our house for dinners, because Mom just couldn’t deal with her. She treated Mom like she didn’t know anything. I think she was trying to protect her from getting hurt, too. But it didn’t work. When I was about 8, Mom started having severe agoraphobia. She was immobilized by fear when she left the house and had violent panic attacks. At her worst, she spent years confined to her bedroom. This from a person who loved being out and about. Occasionally she would try to go out, and I would accompany her as the one person she felt safe leaving the house with. Or, with her spatial memory, she would write out the grocery list for me to follow, aisle by aisle, and fixed me up with a blank check to the cashier at the corner store. Dad waited in the parking lot. He wasn’t much help.

One of my favorite things to do as a kid was go to Grandma’s and spend the night. At Grandma’s, we sketched or walked around the neighborhood and talked. We played card games, Trouble, Scrabble, pool, and a board game that her German dad carved and handpainted. Grandma was crafty in more ways than one. She made up rules for the game on the fly…rules that sometimes worked to my benefit and sometimes to hers. I always had favored status with her as the only granddaughter among five grandsons. She never dominated me the way she did with mom.

She did annoying but cute things like hide money in my pockets–despite being a case study for someone who would have been on the street without Social Security–and send me away from her house with grocery bags of government cheese and rice that she never ate, because she never ate anything. She called herself “Snake Hips.” We made each other laugh. We both wore goofy hats. She kept me apprised of the daily status of her “bowels” and once informed me that things had recently been “explosive.” Grandma was a fan of Metamucil.

When Grandma died, I was the saddest I’ve ever been. Mom was on vacation when it happened. I will never forget when the nursing home staffer told me, “Mrs. Foltz has expired.” Grandma would not have been happy to know that her life was given the same freshness metric of a Twinkie.

Mothering was not easy for Mom, either. I was an obedient kid but a rebellious teenager–typical but not a walk in the park. After she cut those apron strings, I had a total of five hotel parties with my friends during the rest of my senior year. I knew when it was going to happen the first time, because I could see her bright blue trench coat through the open curtains as I was waking up in the hotel room. She tried to let me go completely but had to set some limits on my behavior, being the parent and all. Mom kicked me out of the house twice during those six months, and I stayed at friends’ houses. Their moms were extraordinarily supportive without getting in the middle of Mom’s and my issues. It was a nice vacation, but by the end of the school year, I was living back at home, by my own choice.

Looking back, I think I wanted to be more mothered. Mom would be surprised by that after her own experiences with Grandma, and by my stretching the limits of what she could condone. But it’s true. I’ve developed friendships that give me that unconditional acceptance.

As I’ve grown up and seen for myself how difficult mothering can be, I have more appreciation for the challenges Mom went through. And Grandma. As a result of being mothered by both of them, I probably have by default landed on an in-between approach for my own kids. I am not always the best at being emotionally there, but I am very good at being in the moment with them when I’m “on.” I’m not perfect, but I’d like to think that I’ve taken the best of what both offered.

I guess the point of the apron string symbolism is this: You can cut the strings, but they’re still your kids. Yeah, they’re your kids, but you can’t control what they do, say or think. No cutting, or holding on too tight. May be best to put on the apron yourself and give them their own, and make the best of it in the middle ground.

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2 Responses to “Apron Strings”

  1. Zanni Arnot June 22, 2012 at 6:32 am #

    This is a lovely reflection on three generations of mothers. It’s often so helpful to look back at our predecessors and see ourselves in them or how we differ. Great blog!

    • toknowbetter June 22, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Zanni. I love the previous generations and memories of time with them and like to think that they want to see us finding better ways to thrive than they did–spiritually even moreso than financially. And I fully expect my children to have it even more together, but I do want them to be gentle with themselves when life throws curveballs. We are all still learning.

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