*For my mom. I miss you.
I was hours away from the Junior Prom. The dress was laid out on the bed with both pairs of new black pantyhose. (One could snag when putting them on, so mom had purchased a back-up.) I decided that with my black dress, adorned with black plastic jewels along the neckline, and black hose, that red would be the perfect color for my nails. I went to a local salon for the arduous process of fake nail adhesion, sculpting and painting that was so popular in the early 90’s. The nail technician worked for hours to glue and shape those nails, and for what felt like hours she sanded away the surface of those newly applied fake nails along with layers of my own skin.
I sat in that chair and let the woman run the nail file over my fingers again and again. I winced and said “ow.” And she would move more gingerly for a few seconds, then start grinding away again. By the time she was done, I had ten shiny, long red nails and ten bloody fingertips to match. She used nail polish remover to stem the bleeding, all the while never showing any sign that what was going on was the slightest bit unusual. I paid (and tipped her!) for her work, and drove home.
My mother was furious. She grabbed my hands and asked what happened. I shrugged and said I needed to get ready. I only had three more hours to get dressed—barely enough time to curl my hair and put makeup on! She was fuming. She called the salon to complain but that was not enough. We were going back.
“No, Mom. No,” I said through tears.
I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that I’d said nothing while this woman had inflicted some kind of new-fangled torture upon me. Embarrassed that my mother was now driving me back to a salon where I knew other people that we knew would see us—see my mom making a scene on behalf of her wounded daughter. 16 year olds are frequent and veteran experiencers of embarrassment at the hands of their parents, but this…this was a whole new level. I tried to sink myself into nothing in the passenger seat of the car while she drove to the other side of town.
Once there, she marched me in the door and waved my hands at the receptionist. She demanded an explanation, an apology, a refund. She got none of them.
“Fine,” she said, “We’ll just stand outside and let everyone else know what kind of place you are running here.”
And we stood. The two of us, outside the door to the nail salon, with my mom holding my hands in front of anyone who dared enter the salon. “Look at what they did to her.”
She succeeded in deterring a few patrons, whether their choice was made out of fear that their hands would suffer the same fate or fear of the crazy woman and her red-handed and red-faced sidekick outside, we will never know.
After what felt like hours in my traumatized teenage brain, she finally said we could leave. On the way home she told me that I should never be silent when someone is doing or saying something that hurts me or someone else. I was going to be an adult soon and would need to stand up for myself and others around me. I wouldn’t always have her to defend me. Not soon enough, I remember thinking. God, teenagers are awful. Miraculously I still got dressed, curled and rouged in enough time to enjoy the prom.
I wasn’t always so silent as a kid or teenager. There was a time when Ed Koch was the mayor of NYC and I was particularly obsessed with the notion that there were soldiers still being held captive in foreign countries, even though the wars that brought them to those places were long over. The city was planning a parade, though I cannot remember for what holiday or event. I thought that the plight of prisoners of war needed more prominent attention, so my mom said matter-of-factly, “Just tell the mayor.”
She found the mayor’s address for me and set up the typewriter. I wrote the letter and she mailed it for me. A few weeks later I got a signed picture of Ed Koch, reclining with his feet up at his desk. The sentiments of the picture and my request were so incongruous, but I was pleased. He had heard me. Or at the very least, that was what the form letter accompanying the photograph told me. Thank you for your interest in POW-MIAs. My mom placed the letter on the fridge. She was proud of me.
Speaking up was something my mom did quite a bit. I could tell hundreds of stories about how we would see a child (or dog on a hot day) locked in a car and went on determined searches to locate the drivers, and if they could not be found, wait for the police. She would refuse to move at a green light if there was a child un-belted in the car behind us. She once quietly told a young man that his mother would be ashamed of his behavior when she saw him pocket some gum in the checkout line in front of us. Another time I saw her whisper to a woman who was screaming at her child in a grocery store aisle. The woman stopped and turned, and exhaled. She smiled a weary but genuine smile. She didn’t smack my mom which is what I expected to happen next.
My mom did all of these things without ever raising her voice or inciting a fight…the thought of it mystifies me now. If anyone offered even well-meaning parenting advice to me in public, I’m not sure I would just stand there and smile. Somehow she knew how to speak up, but do so in a way that allowed the “offender” the dignity of rectifying the situation on their own. Not always, of course. There was no dignity on either side of the door to that nail salon and at least once when I was a kid, I was confident that the driver behind us at the now-green light was going to ram us.
She said that I should never hesitate to speak up when something felt important to me. Now, as an adult, I think that particular lesson needs some modification. Never hesitate to speak up when something is important. Simply feeling important to me is not enough. The world does not need to hear all of my feelings about Michigan football or the seeming lack of a scientific (or evolutionary) reason for teething pain. And when it comes to imparting this lesson to my children, this modification will be even more important in this age of social media. Speaking up is not as hard as it used to be…computers and digital anonymity make “speaking up” pretty easy. Speaking up about important things, to the people that should hear your message is tougher. I hope my kids will learn the difference, and will not hesitate to use their actual voices, if not pens, to lend words to their feelings about what is important.
If they don’t, I can always force them to stand in a doorway with me while I shout to passersby about all that is wrong in the world—teenage embarrassment be damned.
My smart mama and me.