My mother was a perfectionist and that is where we differed the most. Everything had to be perfect – from her penchant for ironing underwear and socks, to using a toothbrush to clean the baseboards around the floor to folding military-style corners on bed sheets to having perfect attendance at work. She was very disciplined and tried to instill that into her daughter. Unfortunately her daughter was just not wired that way.
I have to say that eventually some of it did rub off and I am grateful for that. I learned the discipline to get things done and to work hard but the rest was just not for me. I would watch as she would meticulously clean every corner and dust every inch of the house and have everything in place in her cabinets, dresser drawers and closets. You never had to worry about what our house looked like if you stopped by for a surprise visit. It was always immaculate … except for my room. My mother finally resolved that issue by simply closing the door of my room whenever she felt it was necessary. Every house she lived in was always that way until she became very ill at the end. Her homes were always sparkling clean and company ready.
She tried and tried and tried to instill the same desire for meticulousness in me, it just never worked. She thought being disciplined would motivate me but it did just the opposite. It made me not want to be a perfectionist. I will never forget my first high school report card. Going to high school was a very scary thing for me. I excelled in grammar school but was uncertain if I could cut it in high school. I remembering giving my mother my first high school report card and being very proud of what I accomplished. I had one B and all the rest were A’s. My mother looked at my report card for a minute, turned to me and said very seriously, “so what’s with the B?” I was crushed but she did not know it. She thought by saying what she said she would motivate me to try harder. I took it to mean that I was a failure. And that was the beginning of me being harder on myself than anyone else ever could for many many years. I know now that was never her intention. In later years she told me how proud she was of what I achieved academically. When I told her the story of the report card she didn’t even remember saying it although she did admit that it sounded like something she might say. One of the many push-pulls of a mother-daughter relationship.
She was also a stickler for my school attendance record and single handedly saw to it that I had perfect attendance for all four years of high school. My mother worked nights at Harris Bank in downtown Chicago when I was in high school. My dad had the responsibility for getting us up in the morning, making our breakfast and getting us out of the house. Mom usually came home after breakfast and just about when we were ready to go out the door. One morning I woke up and had bad cramps, I was getting my period. I really felt lousy and my dad said I could stay home. My mom got home, saw I was still in bed, got me up and made me get dressed in the car while she drove me to school. After all, we couldn’t spoil my perfect attendance record. I have to say once I got to school and started moving around I felt better, but to this day still find it hard to understand why she thought perfect attendance was so important.
My mom was famous for speaking first and thinking second, especially when it came to me. I think she felt so comfortable with me that she never felt she had to mince words – and she never did. Once we were on the phone and she was talking about an article she read in a magazine about John F. Kennedy Jr. Without thinking she blurted out, “and guess what, Jan. He’s a slob, just like you!” By that time I was more mature and not so easily crushed by some of the things she would say and when I called her on it she immediately backpedaled and said, “the article talks about how it is common for slobs to have a lot of money and I know you have a lot of money so I was making a financial comparison between the two of you.” To this day that logic still escapes me, but somehow I feel comforted knowing that John F. Kennedy Jr. was a slob.
I share all of this because I want to create a realistic picture of my mother. Like any other mother and daughter relationship we certainly had our ups and downs. Things weren’t perfect, often messy but there was always love. Although I wish my mom had done things differently in certain instances, I have yet to meet the parent who found the book that tells you how to raise the perfect child and be the perfect parent. As a matter of fact I am glad a book like that didn’t exist as my mother, in her never ending quest for perfection, may have memorized every chapter of it. And although my mom and I were both headstrong and opinionated, it was she who taught me to believe in myself, she who made me believe I could be whatever it was that I wanted to be, she who made me believe that I could compete with and be better than any man, she who gave me the independence to strive and achieve far more than I ever dreamed. In an era where women were still expected to play a more subservient role, she was the first woman in her peer group to go back to work and the first female head of the bank’s charge card division. I learned from her that women could play whatever role they chose to play in life and not necessarily the role that society had perennially designated for them. I grew up not fearing competition and not ever settling for being subservient to anyone – one of the greatest gifts I think my mother ever gave me. The role model that she was and the unending love that she gave were and still are today the things I cherish the most about her. They are also the things that I continue to miss the most.