Here’s To The Girls They Were

Before they were our moms, they were something else.

Pretty obvious fact, but especially when you’re a kid, it’s easy to believe that not only your life but your mother’s started at your conception. In the self-centered universe that is childhood, nothing is less logical than your mother having any sort of past life. What would she need that for? She’s got ME.

But she did have a past life, and she made a choice to leave it behind when she became a mom. Maybe not entirely, maybe not every moment, but she made – makes – a conscious decision to let go of it, in order to have the energy, the creativity, and the sturdiness to be a mom. So on this Mother’s Day, I say we take a moment in recognition of the Girls Our Moms Were.

My mom grew up in Rochester as the youngest of three sisters and I’m pretty sure the three of them were the ringers that everyone liked to invite to their parties in the early 1950’s. They were pretty, they laughed easily, they were not above neighborhood mischief involving but not limited to roller skates, pilfered sugar packets during the wartime rationing years, and one stolen canoe. My mother has an outsize sense of fun and is the queen of the self-deprecating quip, painting herself as the dummy we know she’s not. One of her favorite stories to tell is how she and her roommate Nancy – who I’m named after – took at performing arts class in college. The professor announced to the class he was going to lecture about Giuseppe Verdi. Then he turned to Mom and Nancy and said, “That’s Joe Green to you two.”

Party on Mom

Back in the day. Mom’s the Rapunzel-esque blonde.My godfather is dressed as a sailor and drinking beer from a fishbowl.

When Mom had a big milestone birthday last December, my sister in law and my niece presented her with a precious gift. They’d taken Mom’s deteriorating, tattered college scrapbook and painstakingly transferred its contents into a new archival book, keeping the layout and contents of each page intact. It overflowed with cocktail napkins printed with fraternity insignias, programs from the Winter Carnival, playbills from trips to New York City as part of her theater class (where they went to hear Joe Green’s music.) There were black and white photos of Mom in full Mad Men mode, cocktail dresses, dark lipstick, trapeze coats and coiffed blonde hair. This is, I presume, the period my mother referred to during our growing-up years when she used to say, “Back when I had money for fancy clothes. Before you kids were born.”

At some point as Mom looked through the scrapbook in the middle of the party, her eyes widened and she said, “I think I’d better look at this later” and quickly slammed the cover shut. Though she whispered it, I heard her older sister, my Aunt Noonie, quietly say, “I told you if you danced on that table, you were going to fall off eventually.”

noonie and momMom became a kindergarten teacher when she graduated, and a summer or two later she and a couple of girlfriends spent the summer driving from Rochester to San Francisco. We’ll never really know the full extent of the adventures she had on the trip. I do know that a few times as I’ve driven her from Oakland into San Francisco across the Bay Bridge and said, “Now we’re crossing Treasure Island, it’s an old military base,” she’s said, “Oh, I know. We had dinner on Treasure Island at the Commanding Officer’s house. We’d met some sailors who invited us there.” Oh, okay, Mom who gets invited to high security Naval bases for dinner.

Shortly after the cross country trip my mother connected with my dad; when they married, her devoted students showed up at the steps of the church, wooden rulers in hand, to raise them into an arch for Mom and Dad to walk through. The picture made the front page of the local paper.

And then she became a mom, and while she had a career in education and administration, and she’s travelled with my dad, and has read a million books and seen a thousand movies, the biggest segment of the pie chart that is her life is labelled “Mom,” with a secondary slice called “Grandma.” That Thelma and Louise life, the one where she wore the expensive clothes and danced on the tables and got invited out by sailors, was edged out by the one where she made homemade vocabulary flashcards for her preschool-aged children, cooked us Yorkshire pudding, and sat on the front porch on hot summer days killing flies with a flyswatter so my brother could feed his pet turtle. That mischievous younger life faded into mere memory as she attended her grandkids’ dance recitals and volleyball games and graduations.

Mom has never once made us feel that she has regrets. But this Mother’s Day, let’s just take a minute and appreciate the enormity of the moment when our mothers made the conscious decision to put their girlhoods in a scrapbook, so they’d have room in their lives for us.

My mom’s favorite song, El Paso by Marty Robbins, covered by the band I’m seeing tomorrow night: Old 97s. She will hate this version.

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  1. says

    For me, it was my grandmother who seemed to lead the exciting life before settling down. My mother led a very chaperoned life. Went to an all-women’s Catholic college, lived at home for one year afterwards while teaching (at her all-girls high school) and getting her graduate degree, then immediately married my father. My oldest sister was born 11 months later.

    But Grandma, she had played the harp on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Taught a room full of sailors how to do the Charleston. Had a family nickname of Queenie. It still boggles my mind.

  2. says

    This was beautiful.

    And there are many moms who don’t put away the lives in the scrapbook, and this lady here of yours, did it so clearly without regret.


  3. Alison says

    So much here reminded me of my mom and her best friend.  Two fun gals who gave up some good lives to dive into motherhood. And mine dove deep — having six kids starting at age 24.  Thanks, Nancy. I loved this one. 

  4. Nancy says

    What a wonderful gift to redo the scrap books and an even better gift to have some of the stories that go with them. Sounds like your mom’s memoir would be a lively one to read, I love stories like these that help the kids realize that yes, their parents were once young also,

    By the way — I’m old enough to agree with your mom that the Marty Robbins version is better — these guys are going a little too fast — darn whipper snappers……

  5. says

    I really love this one, Nancy…the Aunt Noonie quote, the sailor boys, the scrapbook. Everything. And now I see where you get your extra spark. :)

    Happy Mother’s Day to you and your awesome mom!

  6. says

    Love this post and the idea behind it. Also love El Paso by Marty Robbins and *everything* by the Old 97s. How was the show (like I need to ask)? I’m seeing them here in Houston on Tuesday….

    • says

      UGH, Jenny…can you believe I bagged out of this show? First time I’ve done that in forever but the week just kicked my butt and I realized I was just not going to pull it together. You’re going to have a blast – report back!

  7. Shanan says

    I love that her students held their rulers up at your mom’s wedding! How fantastic! She sounds like a fun gal and you sound like you’ve inherited it too!

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