It’s simultaneously the best advice my Mom ever gave me, and the hardest to apply.
Just to clarify, this is meant to apply to romantic involvements alone. I know that in her capacity as a parent, my Mom would have rivaled any mountain lion in ferocity if her cubs were threatened. If you are a parent, please love your kids more than yourself.
I’d also cite exception in any instance where someone acts in defense of human life. I sincerely believe that everyone should have someone in their life who is willing to kill or die for them. Sometimes, to protect those who can’t protect themselves, the greatest sacrifices are called for. Mom’s number one rule is amended here as well.
Mom gets recognition as an authority on relationships because her marriage flourished for fifty-six years* and bore five children. My parents adored each other; they were best friends who never stopped dating until my Dad’s passing eight years ago. The secret to my parents lasting loving relationship?
Simple. Mama ain’t take no mess.
In the six decades she knew my father, Mom demonstrated over and over again that, no matter how much she loved him, her love for herself established the terms on which her relationship would be conducted.
Mom spotted the guy who would become my Dad walking through Harlem to church on a bright Sunday morning in 1943. She followed him, and when she realized he was the organist at the church he attended, she switched churches and joined the choir.
Way to go after your man, Mom!
Fast forward three years and my Dad is playing piano for Louis Armstrong. He’s got one thing to lock down before he hits the road with the band: make sure your woman is still your woman when you get back from touring. He proposed, Mom said yes, and the wedding planning–and the problems began.
My father’s parents–immigrants from the proper Caribbean island of St. Kitts–were excited about their eldest son getting married, and began to construct a grand, elaborate affair. My mothers parents–equally proud immigrants from Barbados–simply couldn’t afford the extravaganza their future in-laws were creating. Seeing tensions rise as the whole thing ballooned out of proportion, my Mom applied her number one rule in a way that would reverberate throughout my parents marriage:
She called the whole thing off.
She refused to see or speak to Dad for weeks. Finally, my Dad showed up on her doorstep one morning before work, unannounced. ”Listen” he pleaded, ”we’ve got rings, we’ve got the license, we love each other. We don’t need a wedding. Let’s just go down to city hall.” Mom didn’t give him a chance to rethink his position. ”Fine” she said, “you want to get married, let’s go, right now.”
On the morning of November 13, 1947, childhood sweethearts were pronounced man and wife by a civil judge. Mom kissed Dad, fixed her make up and then went to work, as if nothing had happened. She got home that evening and casually announced “I got married this morning; I’m packing my things and leaving tonight.”
Is it any wonder I fall so hard for strong women?
The ability to live by her own first law came up again when my father converted to Islam; Mom remained stalwartly Christian. The potential schism was over before it began, as my Mom laid down the law flatly.
“You worship your God in your own way” she said “and I will worship my God in my own way. Don’t ever make me choose because you will lose. The kids can make up their own minds when they are old enough.”
The hardest challenge of all came when I was a teenager. If anyone noticed the asterisk I appended to my parent’s fifty six year marriage, it’s because they separated for four years when I was thirteen years old. My Dad cheated on my Mom, and when she found out, she expelled him, literally. In front of the three children still living at home, Mom physically threw my father, his clothes and all of his belongings into the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, while we watched in horror.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must have taken to evict her partner of thirty five years. Mom hadn’t dated anybody but Dad since she was fifteen years old. Now at fifty three, she was suddenly single, raising three teenagers, alone.
We went through incredibly tough times. Mom had been a research scientist, but had stopped working when my elder sister was born. She’d been out of the workforce for almost two decades, and couldn’t find a job anywhere. As kids we did everything we could to contribute to the household. As soon as I could get my working papers, I found not one job, but two. Everybody pitched in; we supported Mom in every way we could, but it was her emotional fortitude that pulled us through.
Mom and Dad never officially separated, or for that matter, dated anyone else while they were apart. My Dad basically spent four years begging to come back from banishment. Somewhere around the middle of my senior year in high school, Mom sat me down. “You know son, your father wants to come home” she said. “What should I do?”
I rested my hand on hers. “It’s your life, Mom” I replied. ”You just have to decide if you want to live the rest of it with or without him.”
With great suspicion and amid much lingering animosity, my father rejoined his family. A triumphant return it was not. Trust once broken takes years to repair, and my mother made him work every day to earn back what he’d lost. She forgave, but on her own terms, after having established empirically that, no matter how much she loved him, she was willing to let it all burn if he didn’t act right. In true contrition, my proud father humbly worked his ass off to reprove his loyalty to his wife, and repair the damage he had caused his family. This included figuring out how to earn his children’s trust and love again as well.
It took years, but they worked it out. Transgressions were pardoned eventually, penance was served, “Pop” became “Dad” again. He didn’t dare put Mom to test, and they resumed their life long love affair. Unintentionally, Mom had taught me lessons that would resonate throughout my life.
I have never once cheated when I have been in a committed relationship, because of what I saw my parents go through. As a thirteen year old boy, as I watched my mother put my father out of his home, I thought to myself: I never want my kids–if I have them someday–to see me go through this. And I never want to make a woman feel the way my Mom felt that night. Imagine the lesson I would have learned had she tolerated his behavior, or stayed around “for the sake of the kids.” Mom is directly responsible for Jax Maxim of today:
The amount of bullshit you tolerate is directly proportionate to the amount of bullshit you receive. So set your bullshit tolerance to ZERO.
I’m pretty good at enforcing a no bullshit zone, but I suck at applying Mom’s best advice to my own relationships. “Never give up the edge” Mom says to me, shaking her tiny fist and smiling, the corners of her mouth turned down. This feels counter-intuitive to me; I know relationships are about compromise, but I haven’t figured out how to be simultaneously vulnerable and intransigent. When I fall in love, I want to be more, do more, give more. I don’t exactly know how to divest when I sense inequality building.
But I know for certain that loving anyone romantically more than you love yourself always creates a deficit. Like Rumi said, “Through love, the king becomes slave.” I’m learning, and the master is still teaching me.
© Jackie Summers 2012