The phone rings.
“Good afternoon, Bliss!” I answer, in my best friendly-sales-clerk voice. I am winding up the last of my sales shifts at the now-defunct Bliss Weekend Wear, an overpriced women’s clothing store in the Bayview Village shopping Centre in a Toronto suburb. It's the summer after Grade 12, and in a few weeks I will fly to British Columbia to be a counsellor at Camp Hatikvah.
“Your report card arrived in the mail.”
I flip immediately into primal defense mode.
“DON’T OPEN IT!”
“I said, don’t open it! It’s mine! It’s private! It’s addressed to me! You have absolutely no right to open it and if you do you’ll be breaking the law!”
“Susan, don’t be so dramatic!”
“I’m not being dramatic. I am telling you not to open my report card!”
“But you’re not going to be home for six hours!”
“I don’t care. You’ll just have to wait.”
“If I see even one corner of the envelope lifted…”
“Fine. You’re being ridiculous.”
I hang up. Esther, the older woman on shift with me, is staring at me open-mouthed.
“That was my mom,” I explain. She just nods.
I write about my mother at fairly regular intervals here. These posts tends to be of the “grab some Kleenex” variety — all the cancer, and death, and grieving, and the bittersweet of everything she was, everything she’s missing.
And sometimes, less often, I write about the quirkier things, like that time she bought me that black PVC outfit for my 25th birthday. But today I’m thinking about the quirky things, because ten years later, there’s more room for them. And while there is no denying that my mom was a saint (a saint! And if you say anything to the contrary, I will shiv you), and an unobjectively wonderful person, she had her quirks. And one of those quirks was a tendency to be over-invested in my academic life.
I’m not talking about garden-variety questions like, “Where did you lose the 2%?” or “How did everyone else do on that quiz?” or “Was yours the highest grade?”, although those were certainly common questions in my household. I’m talking about scenarios like the following:
- My mother sent back my midterm report card in fourth grade. SENT IT BACK, like one would send back an overcooked steak in a restaurant (although my mother would never send back an overcooked steak because to her, no steak, no matter how grey and leathery and juiceless, could ever be overcooked. I don’t know where I get my love of tartar from, but definitely not from her). She sent it back to my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Fenn, told him it was unacceptable, and asked that he issue a new one. Her reasoning? That he was grading the entire class low so that our June report cards would show improvement. Our family, however, was moving across the country, from Toronto to Vancouver, over the Christmas break, and she felt that a fourth-grade report card that did not reflect my true (and substantial) achievements would hold me back. From what, I’m not quite sure, but I remember Mr. Fenn walking up to me in the library and handing me, in front of my friends, a heavily stapled replacement report card. And my mother was happy. And I was mortified. (I just told that story to my dad, and he laughed and laughed – and has no recollection at all of the episode.)
- Three and a half years later, we moved back to Toronto from Vancouver. My father worked for IBM — the joke was, of course, that the acronym stood for “I’ve Been Moving” — and Big Blue saw fit to torture me by uprooting me not once but twice from all my friends and asking me to settle into a new social circle. The eighth-grade girls at my North Toronto junior high were vicious, but hey! I got material from that time and that’s what matters, right? The point of this anecdote, though, is that even though my mother knew that I would be moving across the country in time to start Grade 8 in Toronto, and even though we had already sold our house and purchased a new one, she still signed me up to write the entrance exams for not one but two prestigious private schools in Vancouver, just to see if I would get in. (I did.) And she was happy. And I was puzzled.
- Also, just in case we didn’t move (like, you know, if my dad as the sole breadwinner at the time of our stalwartly middle-class household decided to, say, quit his job to find himself) and therefore we could not afford the prestigious private-school tuition, she registered me anyway at the out-of-zone public high school in Vancouver she thought I should go to (likely because Jews went there) rather than the public high school I was zoned to attend. In order to convince school officials that I actually lived within the boundaries of the desired school zone, she had friends of ours install a second telephone line, in our name, at their in-zone home. Where I lived, obviously, with my pretend adoptive family.
- What else? Oh, yes: the PSAP. In sixth grade, I was chosen to participate in something called the (cough) Project for the Study of Academic Precocity. It involved me and a seventh grader from my school writing the SATs. I don’t know why. All I remember about the test is that I had a bad cold and was spooked at the thought that I wouldn’t be able to pee for three hours or leave the room to blow my nose. I have no idea how I scored or what those scores would’ve even meant. But my mother, bless her, knew EXACTLY how I scored and would often quote those numbers to dinner guests. For years afterward. When it came time to write the SATs for the purposes of actually getting into university in the United States, I outright refused.
I’m thinking of my mother’s glorious overinvestment in my brain today as I read The Jewish Daughters Diaries: True Stories of Being Loved Too Much by Our Moms. Edited by Rachel Ament, this anthology is full of stories — full of mothers — like mine. Mayim Bialik’s mom is convinced that anything that goes wrong in her daughter’s life is because, “Everyone is jealous of you.” Abby Sher’s mother adamantly denies that her daughter needs a nose job ("You're beautiful!") until Abby breaks her nose during a game of Ultimate Frisbee. “Well, since it’s broken already… .” Lauren Greenberg’s mom sets up a JDate profile for her and then impersonates her on the site in order to get her married. (To my mom’s credit, she never stooped to the, “Find a husband at all costs,” Jewish mom stereotype, which in retrospect is a good thing, because she would have been very frustrated. The first time she met Rachel, though, my mom did exactly what I thought she would do in an effort to make my girlfriend feel welcome: she reeled off a list of every final thing in the refrigerator that Rachel might possibly like to eat and offered to get any of those things for her. “I told you,” I told Rachel. “Everything will be just fine.”)
Rachel Ament was kind enough to send me a copy of the book, and I’m giggling away as I read it. The list of contributors reads like a Who's Who of young Jewish women in media today: Wendy Liebman, Mireille Silcoff, Iliza Shlesinger, Rebecca Drysdale, Kerry Cohen, etc. I don't think it's coincidence that so many of the writers also happen to be stand up comedians: I mean, it seems like a perfectly reasonable outlet with mothers like these. I also have no idea if these anecdotes are truly Jewish in nature, or if all of us with mothers have mothers like. I suspect a little bit from Column A and a little bit from Column B.
But! You tell me, after you read it: I am offering a copy of The Jewish Daughter Diaries to one lucky reader of this blog. Leave a comment below in order to be entered in a random draw to win it. Bonus points (in terms of my reading pleasure) if you tell me an actual Jewish mother anecdote (and no, you and/or your mom don’t have to be Jewish to win). I’ll announce the winners on Monday, June 9.
Till then, there’s some nice tuna in the fridge.