It was second grade, I believe, when Pat Nelson got up and shared during Show and Tell that he was adopted. Pat went on to explain that being adopted made him a cut above the rest of us because his parents chose him, while our parents had pretty much played celestial Lotto when it came to the baby they’d gotten.
The wheels in my 7-year-old brain started spinning. If Pat Nelson had been adopted, someone who ate the clay vegetables he made in art class and was convinced the lead character in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” was also our crossing guard, wasn’t it possible that I, too, had been plucked from the nursery at the local hospital and adopted by my parents? I’m not sure why that idea filled me with such hope—maybe I was already picturing an obscure royal family as my true blood relatives, true blood relatives who realized the mistake they’d made and now wanted me back—but I knew I had to find out.
“Was I adopted?” I asked my mother the moment I got home after school.
My mother didn’t miss a beat. “Why would I adopt a fourth child and another girl?”
I thought about it for a moment and realized she was a hundred percent right; no one would adopt a fourth child and another girl, especially not in my family where I’d known since birth I was supposed to have been a boy so my brother would have a built-in playmate. What had I been thinking? My dreams of living in a castle dashed, I went to play with my Barbies.
At the time I wasn’t hurt by my mother’s offhand and entirely truthful remark. But it stuck with me over the years, as bald truths so often do, and as I grew older, I often found myself thinking, “What kind of mother would say that to her child?”
Easy. My mother.
My mother had a hard early life. She grew up during the Depression and more or less raised herself. She joined the Navy during World War II where she worked as a code breaker. Her independence made her a mom who didn’t believe in pulling punches. You always knew where you stood with her, which was sometimes good and sometimes bad, but one thing was certain: If you wanted to have your ego stroked, find someone else. If you wanted the truth, go talk to mom. She’d tell you if your new jeans made your thighs look big, if your haircut made you look like a prison guard and if your plans for the future were not only completely asinine but a guarantee of lifelong poverty as well. Yes, more often than not, mom’s critiques stung, but at the same time they certainly cut to the chase and saved an incredible amount of time.
It wasn’t just me, of course. Mom taught sixth grade at the same school I attended, much to my chagrin, and I regularly heard negative comments about how tough she was as a teacher. It wasn’t until years later that I heard follow-up remarks.
“I hated your mother when she was my teacher,” a former classmate told me at our 20th reunion. “I finally realized how much good she did for me by not letting me get away with being a slacker. I still don’t like her, of course, but not as much as I used to.” Believe me, it isn’t easy to come up with a response to that kind of compliment.
Life, I have learned, is like that. It’s a rare thing to realize someone is doing you a colossal favor by being tough on you or being completely honest with you. Growing up, I wanted a mother who only said nice things to me and complimented my art work instead of telling me it looked like something Picasso might have painted in the dark. I wanted a mother like Mrs. Tyler, a neighbor who looked like Nancy Reagan and wore high heels when she cleaned the bathroom. Or Mrs. Garnett who baked cinnamon rolls from scratch and was convinced her daughter was going to grow up to marry Prince Charles. My mother advised me to marry someone with a sense of humor because, as she put it, “he’s going to need it.”
My mother was not a fan of any kind of pretense, refused to read Dr. Seuss because he was silly and didn’t believe in fairy tales. (“Give me a break. Those step-sisters would have fixed it so Cinderella never got to the ball.”).
But there was a flip side to her personality. In spite of being the most down-to-earth person on the planet, she had wild flights of imagination that were always a surprise. Such as the time we watched a mystery movie together where the heroine was convinced someone was trying to kill her. “Who would ever honestly think someone was trying to kill her?” I asked.
“I do all the time,” my mother replied. “Especially your father. I’m convinced he messes with my tea bags when I’m not looking.”
That was Mom.
My mother died in the late spring of 2011. I think about her a lot, especially on Mother’s Day when I’d love to sit down, watch a movie with her and drink some of that possibly tampered tea. I think about her when I’m not sure what color to paint the living room or which dress to wear to a wedding or how to make my spaghetti sauce taste as good as hers always did. I still check the answering machine every single time I come home, hoping for one split second there will be a message from her.
Then I remember.
My mother gave me many gifts. Money when I needed it and when I didn’t, a love of reading everything but fairy tales and a hard-boiled pragmatism. But the gift I treasure the most, the one I wouldn’t trade for anything, was the truth. My mother always gave me the truth, even when I didn’t want to hear it. Maybe she wouldn’t have adopted a fourth child and a girl, but at the same time I always knew she wouldn’t have traded me for anyone else in the world. Nor would I have traded her for another mom, not even a high heel wearing, cinnamon bun baking version.
“One thing you can say about me,” my mother said shortly before she died, “I was never boring.”
She was so right.
Nell Musolf is former Mankato Magazine columnist and writer who lives with her husband in Mankato.