The Women Who Raised Me
What a treasure to have known the women I have known. The amount of inspiration, support, love and family I have felt is my anchor, and without these very important women, I wouldn’t be here, smiling, and so grateful for what’s been an amazing journey of magic and random fortunes. Oprah once said something I’ll never forget, and that I try to live by:
If you look at what you have in life,
you’ll always have more.
If you look at what you don’t have in life,
you’ll never have enough.
These are the women who have raised me and have taught me that I have more than I ever thought I could deserve. Every day I am more fulfilled and enriched by their influence, and today, I want to honor them.
Fiona Apple – The conversations I wasn’t ready to have with other people, I had with you. The things I didn’t understand about myself quite yet, you informed and helped me define. Whenever I had a rough day, you did too, and we could hang out in my room, flat on the floor, legs up on the bed, singing into the ceiling. Once in a while, you’d give me a look into something I’d never realized about humans, about women, about boys, and I was always grateful. As I’ve aged, so have you, and as I’ve loved, so have you. When I’ve lost, so have you; but we’ve both continuously gotten back up, and despite all odds, we’ve made more of ourselves than we thought we would. You are a woman who cherishes the things around her to an almost crippling degree. I relate to your intense feelings and how they put you in a hole or on a high. One of my wishes in life is to drink with you, listen to Nina Simone on a couch, and breathe in some smoky air. You say all the right things and for a person who sees the world differently than most, that’s always made me feel OK.
Kim D. – When I met Kim, she was also looking for a babysitter, but essentially took on another child by hiring me. I was in the seventh grade when I first sat on her small apartment couch reading a book to stay busy while her little guy, Vinny, slept in his super-boyish room. Kim was also a single Mom, a paralegal and on the weekends she was a server at a restaurant to make extra money to support her boys’ sports and other needs. She made sure they had good food, things to do and although they were a handful at times, she spoke their language. On our car rides, she would always ask about my life. She was the first adult to really do that and stop long enough to really listen. I cried my fair share in her Jeep Cherokee Sport, and she gave me plenty of hugs. She always smelled like Aveda products and was incredibly fit. Perhaps it was because she was always on the run, eating bites rather than meals. She taught me so much about being pretty, the value of smelling good and how to smile through incredible obstacles. She told me if she ever had a daughter, she’d want her to be like me. This is still one of the greatest compliments of my life, and as a teenager, hearing those words anchored me in a way I hope she understands probably saved me.
Marguerite Conrad – My high school Spanish teacher was the queen of my favorite class. She was also regarded with mixed reviews for being a tough maestra who expected a lot from her students. Her worldview amazed me, her dress, her tall, skinny figure. She made us sing, dance, play games and by the time her hour was up, she’d had her fun getting us to pack in as much as possible. She taught me to love the Spanish language and that there are people who expect a lot of us in the universe, and that pressure is so productive. And although a good chunk of my relationship with her was my vitamina de verbos, there was a very special tie between us. I’ve always needed mentorship to feel on track, and she played that role. On many lunches I’d sneak my small snack into her room while she had her down time, and I’d sit at a desk in the empty classroom so we could chat. Her daily lunch was a Diet Peach Snapple. I never bothered to ask if she ate (which it didn’t look like she did), but I always felt that this particular drink symbolized something about her efficient nature. She told me I was going to do great things, wrote a college recommendation letter that floored me and she gave me a lot of credit for being such a great student despite some of my background. She taught me how to wear scarves, and even after high school, we met annually for a Mexican lunch buffet in Kenosha. I miss her, and I wish more people were like her.
Grandma Jolly – I spent many summer days and nights under the guidance of a woman who was as delicate as the tulips growing alongside her tiny house and as strong as a charging hippo. Grandma Jolly did the crossword every morning and would give me back scratches if I’d do her little favors when she didn’t want to get up. I did her a lot of favors because she taught me to LOVE backs scratches. She had an old-timey voice and sang like a juke box. Singing women have always done something to me, and this singing woman taught me hilarious jingles, tunes and rhymes that were from a time when nothing was funny so people had to joke to survive. Her history taught me that anything can change at any moment, and you have to be prepared to be on your own and ON. She took the Internet by storm in the early 90s, sharing her huge volume of recipes under the moniker Wisconsin Gramma. She taught me that the Internet is where you share. I can’t believe I can say that a 70 year old woman taught me that — in the 1990s! If you didn’t earn something, you simply didn’t deserve to have it under her regime, and if you thought you were great, you could probably be a little greater. She showed me how things were EXACTLY to be done, something that children who spend a lot of time with an elderly person growing up learn — and I observe in them, too. Grandma cared for each thing she owned in a way that made me understand value. I loved sitting with her while she reviewed her stocks in the newspaper and cross-referenced all of the paperwork she kept close by, in a very organized file-folder. She taught me that ladies don’t go in public looking like poop — ever. One day we went through the meticulous binders of her college days (which she pursued in her 50s), and she told me I’d go to college at the right age. I wrote my college essay about her, about a woman who did so much, delayed so much of her happiness for others and who deserved to see me succeed.
Aunt Vicki – There was a crucial time when things weren’t going very well for me. Or for those around me. As high school came to a close, a lot of traumatic events took place, but one thing was positive, beautiful and comforting. That’s my Aunt Vicki. Uncle Mark’s wife whom he met later in life is the closest thing to a Mom I have in non-Mom form. It’s uncanny that she shares my biological Mom’s name. She’s so much like my Mom, really. When things were tougher than I felt I could handle, she took me on walks and listened to me cry. She taught me how to drive. She rubbed my back, pushed my hair to one side gently and asked if I wanted some cheese and crackers. She smells like whatever pink and powder and clean smell like combined and has a way of wearing clothes that always makes her insanely huggable. She dances in the kitchen, where she spends most of her time showing love to those in her life by cooking and baking meals of magic. We sing together in the car and laugh about family and other matters. She always packs me an extra water bottle and calls the spare room at her house my room. Which is nice because sometimes I feel like there’s nothing in this world that is rightfully mine. Everything she owns, she shares, and every difficulty she faces, she creates a silver lining. There’s no woman in the world I view as more gracious and good. She’s an amazing wife and homemaker, and she is loyal as all get-out. For every sore spot I’ve ever felt, she’s given me twice as many remedies. If everyone in the world could have the support of someone like this in their life, we’d all be a lot better off.
Tracy – I don’t like the word Step Mom, so I won’t use it. Sometimes when you look back at your life, you’re able to find key moments where if things had gone just a little to the left, everything would have gone catastrophically wrong. Tracy is the factor in my life that ensured we didn’t die in the fire we were so used to dancing too close to. Tracy saved us. Tracy has saved a lot of people. She is the woman in my life who has taught me that you don’t give up and that you can handle a lot more than you thought. She’s taught me that most of what makes success in relationships is the work, not the nature of simply being. She’s taught me about fairness, understanding one’s strengths and how to forgive. This important force my Dad so fortunately met over a decade ago changed the path of my future, giving me access to educated women who seek inspiration and fulfillment in substantial, active ways. She gave me access to Judy, the Grandma who kicked so much butt there were no butts left. She gave me Tasha, this insanely smart and unique woman who I am so lucky to call my sister. She has rescued more animals than I can count and Dad, Domenic, Amy and I are certainly the most grateful of them. She is a self-preservationist who comes out of her shell after a few glasses of wine, which is always a treat. While her job is mostly to keep things afloat in every area of her life like the good project manager she is, she also has a fun, silly side that is child-like and wistful. Tracy makes everything an event. She organizes games, scavenger hunts and puzzles for family get-togethers and gives the best high fives. She taught me how to live in lists and to crave accomplishments, even of the smallest kind. She isn’t a very talkative person — because she’s really just a great listener who loves to observe others — but when she delivers a compliment, it counts. Big time. A letter she wrote me when I was 20 is in a small box I go into when I need some cheering up. I love her handwriting – it’s consistent and scientific. She’s a right-brained woman who knows so much more than most people but is crazy humble. She should brag more, really. She has always given me responsibility because she knows I benefit from it, and she’s always asked the right questions to help those around her — like me — arrive at the best possible answer. Her ability to see the best in everything and in others has helped so many. And while she can love and hug like the best of them, she’s the firmest thing I’ve ever known. Her example has given me much to aspire to.
Mom - One of the stories she likes to re-tell me with admiration and awe is the time we sat on a bus in Racine, WI and I looked her straight-faced and said, “Mom, why am I ME?” She recounts the moment as a big one for her as a parent. “Mom, why I am ME, like — not someone else? Why was I born ME?” And although she gives me so much credit for who I am, looking back it’s not difficult to pay her a huge compliment — albeit a conceited one — in saying she did a lot of this. This person that I am? She was molded from a young age by a wizard, a magician, a fairy godmother, a gentle, mythological creature. What we have now is sparse and can feel confusing, but I’m not confused about the beginning. I’ve had a long life to learn about this woman and understand why she’s HER, and let me say that nothing has taught me more about how to love the human inside of a parent more than the honesty of my Mom. What she’s been through makes what I’ve been through look like a paper cut at best. She never hid the truth from me because she saw no point. What she could give, she gave plenty of. We lived in imagination. We parked in front of mansions and each told a story about the people inside, what their lives are like. We met so many wonderful strangers on so many forms of public transportation. She taught me to thank every bus driver for being my way to the places I needed to go. She taught me to see homelessness as the cause of something terrible rather than to see a terrible person. She taught me how to do things from scratch. Even though she didn’t provide constant love and attention, her knack for big gestures taught me how to LOVE gift-giving. My Mom knows how to get a present for someone — the best, most meaningful kind — and deliver it in an over-the-top fashion. She taught me to love people for who they are by taking in a lot of misfits over the years and giving them a place to feel at home. She gave me this laugh and the ability to get the greatest satisfaction out of the smallest things. She taught me how to not need much and to be happy with not that much. She taught me to fall in love with the stories of others and to feel compassion for strangers. She taught me how to write. Her ability to see a person on the street and care for them, worry about them and reach out to them so they feel seen is a gift that few have. People fall in love with her, too. She has a magnetic heart. This magnet is what brings good things and makes them feel so real.
Mom didn’t teach me to do makeup and be girlie but she did teach me that bras are mostly silly and the best accessory is good hair. From her I learned to establish trust through eye contact. Sometimes when I shrug things off and move on, I can feel myself moving on the way she would from pettiness and unnecessary drama. She taught me to reserve time for what I love and not to waste it. She taught me to cuss right. How to dance. How to hit the highest notes. How to be myself. When I got picked on every day, she’d just tell me the other kids didn’t understand me, and that was probably a good thing. She was right. She gave me the simple pleasures of long walks, long car rides and the power of the nap. We spent a disproportionate amount of time in libraries. Mom calls herself the nicest bitch you’ll ever meet. I can feel that in myself at times. At the ages when I needed her the most, she really was there the most. She was my best friend. And I wear our best memories like a charm every day.