Missing That Eggplant Parm

My mom had a good but incurious mind. In conversation she would skitter from one subject to another without examining any of them deeply. She treated any reference remotely redolent of philosophy, politics, art, or spirituality as so much mud on her pristine floors (she was the Queen of Clean), and though she read voraciously, she seldom ventured beyond romance novels.

When forced to think, however, she fired true. After my father died and I turned into a headstrong teenager, she concluded it was better to let me have my independence, putting faith in my character and her own efforts to raise me, than to risk confrontations that might tear us apart. I did some stupid things, but fewer, probably, than most teens. Similarly, she could have controlled my choice of college and course of study. Rutgers would have been cheaper than NYU, business more practical than English. Yet she let me do what I thought best for me.

My friend Lou and I embarked on a cross-country trip after our high school graduation. Though no traveler herself, Mom understood the rashness of our fledge. Lou and I had never been on our own, much less thousands of miles from home. We had never lived with anyone other than our families. And we were ignorant of the degree to which travel includes travail. She must have imagined disasters that stretched the boundaries of maternal morbidity. But she never told me I couldn’t go. In fact, she let us take my dad’s old car.

Same story with my move to California. I’m sure that on one level she thought yes, launch! But on every other level she didn’t want me flying off that far. Yet she never tried to stop me, and when I established enough of a beachhead in the Bay Area to request a few belongings still in her house, she ungrudgingly sent them. She had no interest in visiting me until The Fabulous Wife — back then The Insanely Hot Fabulous Girlfriend she had never met — moved in. “Why no, Mom, it wouldn’t stress our two-week-old relationship to have you and Jack (her partner after Dad died) stay with us. Why don’t you bring Doctor Kinsey along too?” We needn’t have worried; she liked The Insanely Hot Fabulous Girlfriend immediately.

Behaviorists argue over how much of our personalities flow from genetics and how much from environment. Whatever proportions you assign, our parents have an outsize influence on us, because our genetics come from them and they create the context of our upbringing (or are partly or wholly absent, which can also shape us). To the degree I possess analytical focus and intelligence, I owe it to my father. But to the degree I possess emotional intelligence, that’s my mother’s legacy.

That’s the first thing I’d thank her for if she were still around this Mother’s Day. The love and courage she showed by letting me go allowed me to forge a life authentically my own, a rare gift. And by bequeathing some of her emotional wisdom to me she enhanced not only my life, but (I hope) the lives of those around me.

The second thing I’d thank her for is making me a reader. As a culture we have underestimated the power and importance of deep reading (a subject I hope to address in a future post). Her encouragement, which included helping me learn to read before kindergarten, has given me a lifetime of pleasure and insight — along with a critical edge in the workplace.

Then I’d ask her to make eggplant parmigiana, because as indifferent a cook as she was, she had an incredible knack for that dish, and it’s what she usually made when I came for a visit.

Mom and Jack at Lake Tahoe, 1982.