When I turned five my siblings were seven, nine, and eleven. My mom got remarried, adding two more siblings and on top of that she became largely absent in our lives. Before she got remarried, she’d play games, do crafts and make chocolate chip cookies with us sitting on the counter. When I turned five that ended. She was physically there after working all day with my stepfather in their business, but even when she was home she wasn’t available. If I tried to talk to her about anything, she’d tell me to ask my stepfather. It was awful, I felt like she wished I didn’t exist.

Flash forward to when I was close to graduating.  I was seventeen and my therapist (big surprise there ;)) asked me to describe myself… I said, “I’m the best friend you could ever have, but then once we’re truly close, I’ll leave.” It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I had the epiphany that I’d inherited that trait from my mother. I’d just been down to visit her, feeling closer to her than I ever had (and she really was the best friend you would ever want, loving and fun), when she pulled the rug out from under me. She called me with some kind of underhanded rejection, undoing the closeness we’d felt. That’s when I realized that every time I felt that closeness with her she would then back off.

A week before she passed away I laid in bed with her watching her favorite movie, The Help. We were holding hands, and she looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? We get to start over.” It wasn’t just nice. It was the best. Her love, when she gave it, was gold, a fluffy little puppy snuggling into me. When she would withdraw it was like a sharp bite from that puppy or worse, accidentally hurting the little guy and having him look at me in submission wondering why I was so cruel. 

When I was eighteen I went to work for a woman named June, specifically because I was looking for a mentor to help me become a better person. I was going to work my way through college. I worked for her at her headhunting business, and I worked at her house cleaning and making her meals. I was a hot mess, and I knew it. She became like an adopted mom to me, but it wasn’t easy. She was the opposite of my mom—very blunt and in your face. But she was also present. Consistent. She didn’t leave—even when you wanted her to. 

It was especially difficult because I didn’t really know how to do anything. I was school smart (kind of), but I had never been held responsible for anything and June held me responsible for everything. The first time I made her an omelet she looked at my step brother (who also worked for her) and said, “can you believe this? I thought you said she could cook.” I wanted to leave. I didn’t care that she was right. It took every fiber of my being to stay. I told myself, ’well she’s right, and that’s fair, and if she’s not fair then I’ll leave.’

But fifteen years later as her health failed and I was caring for her around the clock, I was still there although she hadn’t been fair for years. I had learned to stay.

When my husband was diagnosed with MS and later terminal cancer, I knew how to stay. It’s staying during the hard times that reaps the sweetest moments.

Last night my four nieces and nephews, ranging from three to nine years old, spent the night. During the stay at home order, my little brother, his wife and four little ones are the only ones I see, I don’t have to social distance from, who I can hug.  Lined up at the bar, I put a mixing bowl in front of each of them to make their own half batches of chocolate chip cookies. This way they could each crack their own egg. The next morning the three oldest rearranged most of the furniture building a fort while I did a puzzle with the three-year-old. The kids started bickering, I announced it was time to clean up, and everyone became quite upset. I wondered if I was handling things right. Maybe I should have been more patient.  

As planned we made makeshift homemade ice cream. Feeling inadequate, wondering if I’d failed at mothering during the bickering, I heard the oldest polling the others on where they’d rather live, home, or my house. My house was weighted heavily by the making of chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. My hurting heart filled with joy. I thought of my mom’s cookie drawer and gum drawer. And although she’d stopped making cookies with us, I had continued to make them with the little brother that she and my stepdad gave me. I’d certainly inherited her penchant for sweets. 

When that same little brother came to pick up the kids, I was telling him that he was the best brother,  craftsman, father, and his five-year-old who looks just like his daddy did when I’d prop him up on the counter to make cookies, grabbed my hand and said, “and you’re the best auntie.”

I’m thankful for my mom for passing down her natural ingredients, those qualities that made her love so sweet. And I’m grateful for my adopted mom who taught me how to stay so I can give that love, be with my family and have all that I need right here at home.