I lost my mother when I was 15. I don’t mean that’s when she died – I mean that’s when she stopped being my mom. My parents’ tortured marriage had finally ended, and my mother wanted my three sisters and I to choose sides. When I refused she chose for me, leaving any parenting I was going to get to my father.
For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t live with my dad. So I stayed with my mom, but she didn’t have much to do with me. That was hard, of course, but I had school and that saved me. My friends were there of course, but even more important were the teachers – adults who noticed, encouraged, and even praised me. I worked really hard, got good grades, and was considered “a good kid.”
But one winter I got a really bad flu, and had to miss an entire week of school. My friends brought home the work I missed each day, and I kept up with it no matter how bad I felt. Late Sunday night, I realized I had forgotten to study for a major Spanish test, and tests had to be made up on your first day back.
I freaked. It wasn’t about the grade. It was the idea of not being prepared, of disappointing a teacher, that terrified me. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t have anyone to go to for advice. So I did something I had never done before: I called a friend, found out what was on the test, and made myself a little cheat sheet.
The next day I reported to test make-up, picked up my test, and took a seat. I was so inept at cheating that I forgot to wear pants with pockets; I had tucked the cheat sheet into the waistband of my culottes. But on the walk there, it had worked its way down, and now was lodged in my underwear. I managed to dig it out, but was so nervous that I fumbled it. I watched in numb horror as it floated down to the floor, landing right in the middle of the aisle. Before I even got a chance to cheat, I was busted – marched down to the principal’s office by a triumphant proctor.
I’d never been in the principal’s office before, but apparently the first thing they do is call home. This was before there were speakerphones, but this guy had rigged the intercom system to his phone so you could not just hear what the person on the other end of the line was saying – you could hear it booming out of this giant loudspeaker mounted on the wall. I was terrified and humiliated. I just wanted – well, who does a kid normally want when they’re scared and alone?
I got my mother all right. She picked up on the second ring, and the principal told her what happened. At first, there was dead silence. Then I heard her voice over the loudspeaker:
“That’s just despicable. She is just despicable.”
To this day, I cannot stand that word. I wince any time someone uses it, and I’ll defend whoever is it they’re talking about, whether I know them or not. It could be a serial killer, and my reaction will be, “Uh…don’t you think you’re being a little harsh?”
Horrible as that experience was, the day came when I was actually grateful for it. Fast forward 30 years, and I’m taking my own teenage daughter to the local mall. My MacBook was acting up, so I had to go to the Apple store. She took off to browse the stores. I had just received the news that the very expensive problem with my laptop was not covered under warranty, when I got a call from mall security. My daughter had been arrested for shoplifting.
I told them to put her on the phone, and of course she’s a mess: she had never been in any real trouble before. I told her not to worry, that I’d be right there, trying to calm her down. But that just made her cry harder. “What is going on?” I asked, and finally she managed to blurt out, “Why are you being so nice to me?”
The answer came to out of my mouth so easily, so simply: “Because you’re my daughter, and I love you.” Well, now the waterworks really start. I burst into tears as well, just as the Apple guy came out of the back room. He took one look at me and said, “Oh my God, lady – we’ll totally extend the warranty!”
If I hadn’t felt so abandoned by my own mother, I don’t know if I would have been able to act with such compassion towards my daughter. We always tell our kids, “I’ll love you no matter what.” But when they hurt you, when they fail you, when they do things so crazy you can’t even believe they’re your children, the hardest thing in the world is to act out of love. But I was able to do it, at least that day, because I knew exactly how my daughter felt and exactly what she needed. I could be her parent later – hold her accountable, discipline her – but right then, what she needed was her mom.
“You’re my daughter, and I love you,” is what I said and when I did, something inside me healed too: a wound that had lain open for 30 years. Because I realized, I may not have had the mother I wanted, but I could be the mother I wanted. And really, it’s the same thing.
There’s an expression, “Love hurts” and it’s true. I doubt there’s a person on this planet that hasn’t felt that particular kind of pain. But I’ll never forget that healing is, and always will be, what love does best.
Diane Kastiel is a writer and storyteller from Chicago. She’s a three-time Moth StorySLAM winner whose work has been featured on NPR’s Moth Radio Hour and its podcast. Diane has told stories at the Park West, Victory Gardens, Mayne Stage and Lifeline theaters. In addition to performing at Story Club, Diane has told stories for Story Sessions, This Much is True, That’s All She Wrote, and Do Not Submit. In 2015, she also appeared at WBEZ’s inaugural New Year’s Eve party and the Chicago Filet of Solo festival. Diane is also a freelancer writer specializing in nonprofits and an alumna of The Second City Conservatory, the University of Chicago’s Great Books program, and Northwestern University.