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Tough Love: My Mother’s Gift To Me

Tough Love: My Mother’s Gift To Me

Shock absorbers.

That was my mother's greatest gift to me. I never thanked her for the set of Bilstein B6 Heavy Duty shocks she strapped on me when I was just a kid. Shoot, until recently, I didn't realize they were there or that she was the one responsible.

It's taken me years to figure out why my mother never let me win at checkers, told me to fight my own battles and insisted on being unblinkingly honest.

She was preparing me for a world she knew was not always kind.

I've written about this peculiar brand of parental tough love before, but it wasn't until I was giving a speech on motherhood last weekend that I figured it out.

What can I say? I'm a slow learner.

I remembered, for example, how my mom laughed out loud when I announced that I wanted to audition for a singing role in my dance school's recital when I was about 10.

Every year, that particular honor went to a trio of adorable redheaded sisters.

"Sing?" she gasped. "Are you crazy? You can't sing."

No one would say that to a kid today. In the single-minded pursuit of self-esteem, parents lie to their delicate offspring, assuring them they're smart when they're merely average, beautiful when they're not and have terrific voices when they sing, well, like me.

Everyone-gets-a-trophy starts in the crib these days. Odd, because most Baby Boomers weren't raised that way.

Oh, and about that dream of being a soloist: I decided to show my mother just how wrong she was and auditioned anyway. I knew it wasn't going well when I saw the pianist and the dance teacher exchange horrified glances as I warbled my way through an off-key rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." In April.

As usual, the harmonizing redheads were in the spotlight. Once again, I tap-danced in the chorus line.

"I told you not to try out," my mom said later. "It's a dance recital, not an opera. Keep practicing your step-heel-ball-changes. You'll be able to dance rings around those girls.”

Always a fashionista: black leotard, navy tights and a crooked tutu.

Always a fashionista: black leotard, navy tights and a crooked tutu.

That, my friends, is how you build self-esteem. You don't tap dance around the truth. You tell it.

In that respect, my mother wasn't much different from the others in my working-class neighborhood. They'd survived the Great Depression. They'd lived through World War II. While life was better in the 1950s and 60s, their generation knew the good life could end with a pink slip, a stock market crash or nuclear war with the Soviets.

So they toughened us up.

They made our clothes. We made our beds. They made dinner - without consulting us about the menu - and we ate it. Finicky eaters, like me, went to bed hungry.

They didn't let us drive until we knew how to change a tire. They knew how to say "no." They bought only what they could afford.

My mother feared debt the way many of today's mothers fear gluten.

Underneath their tough exteriors, our mothers were just moms. They loved us, worried about us and made us laugh.

Still, they didn't think it was their job to smooth out all the bumps in the road for us. Instead, they equipped us with shock absorbers so we could negotiate life's potholes.

Every time I click on another nasty piece of hate mail or listen to a message laced with profanities so foul that even I wouldn't utter them, I smile and shake my head.

I hear a voice - which I only recently recognized as my mother's - saying, "What's wrong with people? Who says ugly things like that to someone they've never met? Sheesh."

Yep, "sheesh" was hers long before it was mine.

Thanks, Mom.

A version of this story ran in The Virginian-Pilot on May 10, 2015.

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