Sometimes parents have a way of surprising us. Just when you think you know what they’re going to do, BAM! They don’t do it. My mom was predictably cautious, often neurotic and always guided by Catholicism. She hated Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” so naturally I played my tape of "The Stranger" as loudly as the 8-Track player would go. She forbid me from seeing "Grease" because of Sandy’s evolution from good girl to bad, but a rebellious neighbor mom took me anyway, asking for forgiveness later. The thing is, when a good girl is leaning toward going bad, making up a bunch of rules to stop her won’t necessarily work.
The year was 1981. I was just starting high school and was determined to shake the geeky image I felt plagued me in junior high, and I had the perfect opportunity to do it as I was one of only a handful of students from my 9th grade class heading to the newest high school in Raleigh.
Up to that point, I’d been quite sheltered. I wasn’t allowed to go to parties where there were boys, except for the junior high dances where my friends and I would cluster together in the middle of the cafeteria dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” But when Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love” would come on, the dance floor would clear revealing only couples swaying back and forth, the popular girls in their Jordache jeans with their perfectly feathered hair and the boys in their Izod shirts and equally perfectly feathered hair. I’d sneak off to the bathroom so as not to get pegged as a wallflower. My fantasy was to someday be on that dance floor in the arms of a scrawny dreamboat under the disco ball while Styx sang “You know it’s you babe, giving me the courage and the strength I need...”
As much as I needed someone to dance with, I also needed courage and strength to navigate what I saw as a minefield at home. You see my mother had a tendency toward over-reaction. I’d been forbidden to use tampons and when she discovered a box hidden in my room, I came home from school to find a blizzard of Tampax wrappers, cardboard applicators and cotton inserts blanketing my canopy bed and floor.
“That’ll teach you to break the rules young lady.”
What it taught me was to hide things more effectively.
It never dawned on me that I needed to hide my yearbook.
I’d hardly read any of the entries yet myself when my mother got hold of it and proceeded to call the mothers of all my best junior high school friends.
“Do you know what our girls are up to?” my mom inquired, “Have you seen the AWFUL things written in their yearbooks?”
One friend had written, “Its been pretty wild raisin’ hell in Miss Hill’s class with you!” Miss Hill was the phys ed and health teacher who never shaved her legs. When she wasn’t yelling, she spoke in “whistle,” the silver metal piece was nearly always in her mouth and she’d blow it for every real or perceived infraction, even in health class. I am quite sure the only hell I raised in that class was when I whispered with my friends while being benched during the basketball games - until I was silenced by that whistle.
A boy I don’t even remember knowing wrote, “It was pretty great last night. Hope we can do it again. What are we going to name the kid?” At that point in my life, I’d experienced only a couple sloppy kisses and I’d yet to sprout breasts, though not for a lack of trying. I did every exercise suggested in “Are You There God Its Me Margaret.” If my mother had bothered cross-referencing his class photo, I’m sure she’d have realized it was a joke from someone I didn’t know well.
One of my best friends wrote, “We’re going to get wasted all summer long!” Several people scribbled, “Don’t party too hard this summer!” The truth was, I hadn’t partied at all at that point in my life, so I guess I figured, if I was going to get into trouble for it anyway, I may as well just do it.
So that summer before high school (after my grounding for the yearbook entries ended), I spent hours on my friend Lori Lee’s Juliet balcony overlooking Walnut Street, smoking cigarettes and polishing off the airplane bottles of whiskey and vodka her father brought home from business trips and reading a book called Dirty Little Limericks.
There was a young sailor from Brighton
Who remarked to his girl, “You’re a tight one.”
She replied, “`Pon my soul,
You’re in the wrong hole;
There’s plenty of room in the right one.”
Oh, we thought we were so daring, giggling over limericks, letting the f-bombs roll off our tongues, giddy on 50 milliliters of Smirnoff.
Oddly, my sheltered life seemed to have an expiration date. All through Junior High, when I would ask, “When can I?” (Insert: Go on a date? Ride in a car with a boy? Get my ears pierced?) My mother would say, “When you’re in High School.”
Suddenly I WAS in High School and the world opened up to me, only I wasn’t all that prepared. We’d never discussed the reasoning behind the rules and now they were essentially gone. Drink a beer bong faster than the linebacker on the football team? Sure I’m game! No one ever talked to me about not getting into cars with people who’d been drinking. I made a number of unhealthy and dangerous choices.
As part of my personal renaissance, I even got brave enough to run for class office. I still cannot believe my mother and the school administration allowed me to use my campaign slogan. My maiden name was Lowe and my tempura painted signs declared, GET HIGH VOTE LOWE! Not surprisingly, I won the election all three years. I didn’t have a platform for legalizing pot and wouldn’t ever have believed it would be something adult voters would actually approve one day.
My once omnipresent mother didn’t seem to notice my wild behavior, busy as she was with an infant and a toddler at home. The decline in my grades was likely attributed to the transition to High School. I still had a curfew, but when I would stumble into the house way past 11pm, I would set the clock back, pop in a breath mint and wake my dad who was usually asleep on the couch. I’d whisper, “I’m home,” and point to the clock which read 10:55pm.
Around that time, my father was asked to take a job in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Our family discussed the possibility of moving and decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to uproot my brother and me, so my father agreed to take the job for four months, giving his company time to find a permanent replacement. This was not a good time for “the HAMMER” to leave his wayward teenage daughter.
Always eager to test the waters, one afternoon when my mother was vacuuming the den, I lit a cigarette in the kitchen. Within moments, the whir of the vacuum ceased and my mother was standing in front of me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked sternly.
“I’m smoking, what does it look like,” I replied rudely.
She looked at me angrily at first and then she said, “Can I have one?” effectively taking the wind right out of my inflated fifteen year-old sails. “Uh, ok.”
And we sat at the kitchen table smoking our cigarettes. Though we were living in RJ Reynolds territory in North Carolina where Marlboro Man billboards lined the highway routes from the Outer Banks to the Smoky Mountains and there were designated “smoking flats” for teachers and students at our school, NO ONE EVER SMOKED IN OUR HOUSE. My dad had a collection of pipes with all sorts of flavored tobaccos, but he was only authorized to use them by the shed in the backyard.
But there I sat with my mother as she told me about how she used to smoke as a teenager in Brooklyn. How, even though doctors weren’t saying it was bad for pregnant women yet, when she found out she was having me, she quit. Nursing school had taught her that everything you eat effects a baby, so smoke probably would as well, she figured. We talked for quite a while over a couple of cigarettes each. When we finished she said, “Now empty out this saucer and don’t let me catch you smoking again.”
Admittedly, I didn’t immediately clean up my act after that encounter, but what stuck with me was her surprising approach to parenting through that situation, the meeting me head-on and joining me at that table. It threw a curve ball at my intended rebellion and softened my edge. I’ve continued the legacy of frank discussions with my children and I’ve done my best to build the trust and communication that was missing with my parents. I’ve taught them that my expectations have reasons and what those reasons are. And I’ve never forgotten my mother’s best parenting moment. In the end this bad girl turned out pretty good.