I don’t remember how old I was. Only that I was elementary school age and my sister had been born. I don’t even remember where we lived for sure. I only remember the conversation. I had come home telling my mom about a boy the kids were picking on on the bus. I can’t remember what she was doing at the time, only that chances are it wasn’t anything overtly domestic and she was doing something, because she stopped whatever it was and turned to look at me.
“And what did you do?” she asked, her voice casual but her eyes sharp.
“I told them to leave him alone.”
I remember her staring at me for a minute and I remember being uncomfortable with the stare because I always kinda thought my mom was a human lie detector. I thought maybe all mothers were. That it was like a super power you gained when you had a baby. “CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A GIRL! AND HERE IS YOUR HANDY SUPER MOM DELUXE PACKAGE. COMPLETE WITH INTERNAL LIE DETECTOR AND EXPRESSIVE EYEBROWS.” I hoped I got expressive eyebrows when I became a mom.
“Good,” she finally said. “Don’t ever let me find out that you were one of the teasers. With anyone.”
And with that, she turned back to finish doing whatever it was she had stopped doing and that was all that was said on the subject. My mom was to the point. My dad was the story teller in the family. The one whose lessons were long and detailed and contained bible verses that acted as citations. My dad was the eloquent one. Who talked flowery at times. Whom we sometimes felt like telling to get to the point, only my mom was the only one ever allowed to actually voice it. It was my mom, however, that always said the very most. Usually with the very least.
While that was the end of that particular conversation, the sentiments were expressed many times over the years. The moral was always the same. I was never to be a tormentor and I wasn’t even allowed to be a bystander. I was to be the one that aligned myself with the bullied and spoke up for them, even if it was my own friends that I was speaking up to.
And while I flirted with popularity throughout school, always managing to be in with the in crowd, I had no choice but to be friends with those that weren’t. I remember once making a comment to my mom that I didn’t WANT to talk to one particular girl, whose parents were friends of my parents. My mom, in all her own antisocial glory, gave me A Look and announced, “I don’t care if she’s not popular. I don’t care if everyone else makes fun of her. You will be nice to her. You will try to be her friend. And if you decide not to be, it will be because you guys don’t get along. NOT because of what others think of her.” I ended up becoming a drifter in middle and high school. I would float between groups of friends, welcomed in all of them as a member. My mom taught me not to stick myself in a neat little box and not to stick anyone else in one either. It started off as a necessity, a rule, enforced by my mom, but ended up becoming habit. I learned that while I liked those that were popular, I was more comfortable with those that weren’t. With them I could be myself 100%. They didn’t care.
It was my mom who also taught me that special needs people were just that. People. That they were to be treated as people. When other moms would berate their kids in the stores for staring too long at the boy in a wheelchair, my mom would look at us and say, “If you’re going to look, say hello. Tell him you like the stickers on his chair.” If she caught my sister or I avoiding eye contact with someone who was clearly special needs, she would go out of her way to make eye contact with them herself and strike up a conversation with them or their parents. My mom was not the perfect mother by any means. She was not overly motherly. She didn’t bake us cookies or keep the house immaculate. In fact, the older we got, the more she stopped fighting the mental illness that plagued her. Maybe figuring we didn’t need her as badly as we did as small kids. But she believed in what was right and she believed in being kind and she taught us how to be as well.
One memory that always sticks out to me is standing in line at a store and my mom striking up a conversation with a lady whose daughter kept clicking her tongue, staring into space and trying to wander off. The other mom would take the girl’s arm and guide her back to her side, never once breaking conversation with my mom. For her part, my mom never batted an eye. I was watching the girl, not judging, just wondering what it was she was seeing in the space her eyes kept being pulled to. I don’t remember what alerted me to the fact the adults had grown quiet, but when I glanced at them, I saw that they were both watching me. The other mother with a wary look on her face. “She’s autistic,” she told me, and while that word meant nothing to me it that time, I got the sense that it was something major enough to put this other mother on guard. “I wonder what she’s seeing,” I blurted out suddenly. “I bet it’s cool.” The other mother looked shocked, then pleasantly surprised. My own mom looked on in approval. “Oh. She’s probably noticing the dust motes,” the other mother said after a second. Her eyes looked kinda watery which alarmed me. “She noticed those kinds of things.” I nodded and then added, “Or maybe she can see stuff we can’t.” I meant magical things, of course. Fairies, maybe. Angels. I pondered on it the rest of the wait while my mom and the other mom resumed their talking. I noticed my mom slipping a candy bar in with our stuff when it was finally our turn. She never commented on the whys of it, but that candy bar tasted like a small victory, even if I wasn’t sure why.
What my mom probably didn’t realize back then was that she was actually prepping me for a life of being a special needs mom. She taught me to fight for the weak and befriend them, not because of their weakness but because they were people deserving of friendship. I don’t know how many times I heard her say, “Be careful of what you say. You never know what might happen to you in the future.” She taught me not to treat those people as a tragedy, but as people with a touch of more. I remember getting into an argument with a physically handicapped girl in my sophomore year who had reached over and snatched a pen off my desk and being shocked when the girl said I was being mean to her “because I’m handicapped.” “I am not!” I ground out. “I’m bitching you out because you’re an asshole who just took my shit without asking. It has nothing to do with you being handicapped and everything to do with you being rude.” When I told my mom the story, she just shook her head. “Did you stop to think how many people must be rude to her for that in order for her to say that?” she asked. “I don’t care! I wasn’t! She took my stuff without permission!” I snapped back. “I know that and you know that, but obviously it’s happened to her enough that she didn’t know that.” I still didn’t feel bad for my reaction, but it did make me think twice before I reacted in the future.
I was lucky this way. Lucky that before we even needed a corner, a cheering section, my mom was already there, setting up chairs and pouring drinks. She didn’t know it at the time. She never realized that’s what she was doing, but she was. She was making things right for her future grandson, one encounter at a time. Teaching her daughters to do the same.
Every time I look at my son, I think of my mom. I think of the daughters she taught to be kind and fair and fighter. I think of my sister, a young, sweet faced, foul mouthed thing, who when hearing her nephew was being tested for autism, immediately said, “I’ll get tested too. What is it?” She blindly accepted it. She was ready to go through whatever it was her nephew was about to go through, not even knowing what that was. I wanted to buy her a candy bar. I think I later did. It was my mom would did that. Who raised that girl who later on got her first tattoo and chose puzzle pieces to represent that nephew she’s always willing to go to bat for. Who taught us by living it, even back when being special needs was looked at as an ugly, shameful thing.
My mom was the butterfly, and here in another generation, we can still feel the wind from her wings.