There’s the old adage about being careful what you wish for, because sometimes you might actually get it. My mother’s philosophy, though, was “don’t bother wishing for anything, because you’re not going to get what you want.” Wishing and hoping were, for my mother, some kind of dark force. Don’t go there, because you’ll just be disappointed—it’s better to want nothing than to be disappointed. What’s fascinating is how pervasive this attitude is, and how it haunts you even when you try to get away from it. You know, like a chigger—those little red bugs that live in long grass and make you itch until you want to crawl out of your own skin.
After Ronnie, my mother and brother became even closer than they’d been. As is pretty much the story of my life, I see and react to that from two different places. The first, and most logical, part of me understands that their closeness was borne of his role as “man of the house.” He was, in many ways, the only one she could always count on, and this was true throughout her life. Once, when he was maybe 16, maybe not even, my mother sent my brother to the pawn shop to sell the good silverware. I was young and self-absorbed enough to not have any understanding of what was going on or why, knowing only that he left with the big wooden box of silverware that we never used, and it never came back. My disappointment was mudane and short-lived. I was fascinated by the way the silver would tarnish and how, with a bit of scrubbing, I could make it shine again. I didn’t know what “good silver” was at the time. Nor did I understand the crushing poverty that we lived in as a result of my parents’ divorce. My father refused to pay child support, and this was a time when the courts didn’t have the protocols for insuring that it was paid. There was neither legal nor material recourse for us; we simply had to make do the best that we could. Until she died, my mother was proud that she’d always kept us clothed and fed. “Maybe you didn’t have exactly what you wanted, and maybe it wasn’t always brand new,” she’d say almost pugilisitically, as though expecting me to argue the point, “but you always had shoes on your feet and food in your belly.”
What my mother, with her blazing pride, would never understand is that I still feel kind of left out. My brother got the memories of the room mother who brought tuna can drums to his whole class, and who laughed, and who threw birthday parties that were the talk of the neighborhood. I got the mother who, when I was bullied by a couple of girls who threatened to kick my ass on the way home from school, promised to hide in the bushes and jump out if I needed help. Did she hide in the bushes on my walk home from school? Of course not. She had to work. And the girls never did try to kick my ass so it turned out okay. I get this, believe me, I get this. But where my brother got respect and attention, I got the trip to the Ice Capades that didn’t happen. Someone had given my mother free tickets, and I was oh so excited about it. The Ice Capades! In Texas! Yay! The day finally arrived, we got in the car and pulled out of the driveway, me bouncing in my seat so ready to BE there already. We drove out of the neighborhood, toward the freeway that would take us to the auditorium and the Ice Capades! My mother pulled over to the side of the road, turned to me and said “you don’t really want to go, do you?”
“Yes! Yes I want to go!”
“It’s a long drive” she said.
“That’s okay” I assured her. “I don’t mind a long ride to see it.”
She sat there by the side of the road for a long minute, staring out the windshield, let out a long sigh, then turned the car around and drove home.
“But mom! What about the Ice Capades?”
She pulled into the driveway, got out of the car, and said “You don’t want to go to that.” She walked into the house, and it was over. I already knew there was no arguing, no attempting to convince her to change her mind. She had told me I didn’t want to do this thing that I was desperate to do…that was that.
Over time, I understood that that was her way of dealing with every kind of disappointment—“I (or you) didn’t want it anyway.” Truth? I still don’t understand that pathology—it is as if, by admitting disappointment, we become something weak and pitiable. Instead, denying that we wanted a thing meant that not getting it couldn’t hurt us. What the hell is that all about? How is this healthy? If we don’t allow ourselves to experience disappointment, how on earth do we learn to move on from it? As I got older, I started fighting back. And by older, I mean my 30s and 40s. I’d tell her about something I wanted, or wanted to do, and when it didn’t happen I was disappointed. She’d respond with “Well. You didn’t want it anyway.” To which I would always reply “But I did. I did want it. And now I’m disappointed that it didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want it in the first place.”
She’d just look at me and shake her head at my foolishness. “Then there was no point in wanting it, was there?”
Trevor Noah, in Born a Crime, writes about his mother bringing him a pair of Abbidas sneakers, when desperately wanted a pair of Adidas. His mother argued that there was no difference between them; Trevor pointed to the fourth stripe on the Abbidas. His mother, the story goes, smiled and said “Aren’t you lucky! You got an extra one!”
I was listening to the audiobook with my son on a roadtrip last summer (to be fair, it was the third time I’d listened to it. It’s that good), and when I again laughed out loud at this section, he turned to me with a puzzled expression. “Why is that so funny to you?” he asked. I tried to explain the poverty mom perspective but he really didn’t understand it, because he couldn’t understand it. He has never had to worry about adding water to make the shampoo last, or putting tape on the soles of his shoes to keep the water out, or patching over a non-artistic tear in his pants because there is no money to replace them. And for this I am truly grateful.
Harder, though, than explaining poverty to a privileged child, is ignoring the incessant voice that tells me to squash his dreams because he’ll only be hurt when they don’t come true. That it is better to want for nothing than to be disappointed. Research shows that abusive families beget abusive families, that alcoholism is genetic, that the only way to beat them is through constant vigilance. What it doesn’t say, though, is that wishing, and hoping, and believing in the impossible is something that has to be re-learned every single day.