On the train home from work today I was thinking about this. I was thinking about how my mother always instilled the idea of "marching to the beat of your own drummer" in me from very early on and didn't put much emphasis on being an ideal physical beauty. My mother has always taken extremely good care of herself, don't get me wrong. I don't think I've ever seen my mother in a ratty t-shirt or sweats unless she is cleaning the house. She has costume jewelry that fills and entire dresser and is always put together from her sculpted red coiffed short hairdo to her coordinating fashionable footwear but underneath the leopard print, fuzzy vest is a woman who is tough as nails. My mother's beauty radiates from within. She is the most sympathetic, empathetic, caring and nurturing person I have ever met, but she will also put her foot down when necessary and tell you exactly what she thinks. Growing up in Queens, New York didn't create a shrinking violet.
(My mom and cousin Joe.)
When I was in fifth-grade, I went school shopping for clothes with my mom. I don't know if anyone else remembers feeling this way but of all the new outfits I would get, there would always be one that I couldn't wait to wear to school. I remember this particular outfit so vividly: black and white horizontal striped knee length leggings, an over sized black silk and lace tunic, matching black and white striped socks, patten leather Mary-Jane flats with a black satin bow and a black satin headband with matching bow. Yeah, I know what you are thinking, "AMAZING!" I floated out the door to my first day of fifth-grade and was expecting everyone to be pretty much floored by my style and panache.
Fast forward to me returning home, in tears. My mother was in her scrubs preparing dinner for my brother and I before she had to work the night shift at the hospital. "What's the matter?" she asked, seeing me walk sulkily through the door.
(My mom and cousins)
"Everyone at school made fun of my outfit! They said I looked like the wicked witch of the west!" I cried.
"Who cares what they think? Don't you love that outfit? Weren't you excited to wear it?" she asked.
"Yes. I think it's pretty," I replied. "Well, then you need to stop caring so much what anyone else thinks. March to the beat of your own drummer!" she replied. And though I had vowed earlier that day at school never to wear that outfit again, I wore it often. And the kids stopped making fun of me, because I didn't care what they thought. I wore what I wore because I liked it, and I still do it to this day.
Later, in middle school, there was a group of girls who constantly bullied me. I was sort of an awkward goofball. (I mean, it was middle school after all. Not the finest years of our lives for most of us normal people.) My way of fitting in was making people laugh, but this did not sit well with these girls for some reason. They constantly called me names, and would torment me during gym class, throwing things at me, threatening to beat me up. My way of dealing with it was avoiding them or running away. I came home one day, exhausted from the stress of it and said, "Mom, this girl at school won't leave me alone! She's always making fun of me and she said she is going to beat me up! Can't you tell the principal or something?"
Now, my mom would take a bullet for me, I am sure of this. Whenever I have been in any pain, emotional or physical, my mom would take it from me on herself if she could but she just looked at me and said, "So tell her you'll fight her if she wants to fight." Keep in mind this was before the times of knives and guns at school. A little schoolyard scuffle was fairly harmless. My face dropped in horror, "WHAT?!"
(My Aunt Lucy and my mom, the little one.)
"If you tell on them or run away, they'll just keep coming after you. Stand up for yourself! When I was your age I got picked on too. The bully told me, 'Meet me after school, and I'm gonna kick your ass,' so I met her after school. She was so surprised that a lanky little girl like me still came to challenge her that she left me alone after that. She may or may not beat you up, but you have to stand up for yourself. Fight your own battles, Erin," my mother said.
Well, I couldn't believe it! My mom was leaving me out in the cold to get my butt kicked! But, I thought, "Well, I'm gonna stand up for myself and when I get beat up, that'll show her! Then she'll feel really bad!" So the next day in gym class, all the girls formed a circle and we were supposed to kick the soccer ball back and forth to each other for practice. One of the bully girls put the ball in a pile of ants so it was covered with the creepy crawly insects and threw it towards my head. I caught it and threw it with all my might right back at her. It bounced off the side of her head and I will never forget the look of shock on her face. I just kept eye contact with her and said, "The next time you pick on me, I'm going to get in my brother's car and run your ass over. So throw the ball at my head again, I dare you."
(My mom, the younger one, and my Aunt Dot)
Needless to say they never bothered me again, and later on actually invited me to skip class with them. I never did that of course. I was still a goody-two-shoes at heart.
There are too many stories like this to even recount. I don't think my mother would even remember all the things she pushed me to do that completely impacted the woman I became. A sweet young girl that I have worked with in LA recently sent me a letter saying how she is going through hard times right now and thinks of me, and how strong I am as an inspiration. I was so humbled, and immediately thought of how thankful I was to have the mother I have. Any compliment to my strength is a direct compliment to hers.
(Just LOOK at that yellow hat! Fantastic!)
But in the last seven months of living in Singapore, these early lessons have really come back to strengthen me. Yeah, I still want to sport the latest hairstyle, Betsy Johnson bag or Guess stilettos, but I know that what I really care about is what's underneath all of that. My mom is so beautiful not only because she still has amazing skin at age 60, dresses flawlessly and looks amazing in earth tones, but also because she has taught me that you can be generous, empathetic, caring and vulnerable but still carry a big stick (or in some cases, a soccer ball.)