When I was four years old, my mother took Janie, Pauly, and me to Denny's for breakfast. I have no idea why, and it didn't really matter. For us, this was akin to Disney World because our dad didn't usually want to take us anywhere nearly as cool.
My mother sat next to me in the booth, and my brother and sister sat across from us. I ALWAYS got to sit next to my mom because I was the baby. She pointed out all of the breakfast foods on the menu, and by far the pancake with the smiley face was the coolest option. But I couldn't stop my gaze from wandering to the next page of the menu where the most beautiful hamburger and French fries I had ever seen were glowing gloriously beneath the green pendant lights (or was that Pizza Hut?).
"I want THAT," I said passionately, pointing at the picture.
"That's not a breakfast food!" my mom laughed.
"But I REALLY want a hamburger."
My mother took the menu from hands and folded it with a patience I do not have with my own children. Her mouth was set in a firm smile, and she said, "Okay. You can have a hamburger for breakfast. But DON'T tell your father. He'd KILL me!"
Pauly and Janie nearly fell out of the booth over my choice, and over my mom's concession.
So many moments of my life have been conditioned by my mom saying, "But don't tell your father. He'd KILL me." We all love my dad tremendously, but there was something so special in the secrets we shared with my mom--a trip to Kone King, a toy received when it wasn't a birthday or Christmas, a Happy Meal in the middle of an ordinary Thursday--that made her admonition anything but ominous. Of course we knew nobody would be killing anybody, but there was magic in the illicit behavior.
Especially because my mom was normally pretty strict. She didn't let us get away with much in the grand scheme of things. School ruled our house. The teacher's word was gospel, and God forbid we ever have a note sent home about anything. Through high school, I watched all the things I'd waited years to acquire--a phone in my bedroom, for one thing--disappear when my grades weren't what my mother wanted them to be. And she wanted them to be perfect.
She wanted everything to be perfect, actually. It was a quality I spent a long time resenting. Look perfect. Talk perfect. Make sure anyone's impression of any one of us was perfect, PERFECT. The only thing I ever wanted to be was normal, and it made me absolutely crazy that she wouldn't just let me be that.
But when I look at Joey and Noah, I think to myself, "Why the hell would I settle for NORMAL?" I want far better than normal, or average, for my children. I give them every ounce of energy I've got--they owe it to me and to themselves to do better than NORMAL with it. Every day when Joey leaves the car to head into school, I echo my mom's words from long ago: "Be the BEST."
My mom is many things. She is movement, she is loveliness, she is insanity. She is magic. She is spaghetti and meatballs and the best mashed potatoes in the world. She is unconditional love--and trust me, I've thrown a LOT her way over the last thirty two years. She is the phone call in an Emergency, the phone call in grief, the phone call Just Because. She is the pulse that keeps my whole family alive, and we all KNOW we would be lost without her.
Happy Birthday, Mom. There's only one You.