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Her mother was cynical, sophisticated—and full of really bad 1950s-style advice. But when the chips were down, she came through with pizzazz. A generation later, Jeanne McCulloch wonders what kind of wisdom she'll pass on to her own baby girl.
My mother and I did not always get along. But there was a time, when I was about 16 and my father was still alive, when we did. Late at night, we'd sit up in the living room, drinking diet soda and smoking cigarettes. I had just learned to smoke then, and I was working for a certain look, a special controlled nonchalance that I saw my mother as having perfected. So I puffed as she puffed, watching her every move. The way she'd inhale deeply, then let the smoke out in a long dramatic waft. The way she cocked the cigarette just so between two fingers, her head leaning on a hand, the elbow casually grazing the arm of the couch. She looked both poised and wise, I thought, even in her pink nightgown and fuzzy slippers, feet up on the coffee table. The topic was inevitably men.
"He left her flat," she'd say about one of her friends, or "With that weight gain, c'mon, she had it coming." Above her head, the cigarette smoke curled languorously, but her free hand cut the air as she spoke, her dark eyes snapped.
High above the honks and shrieks of the New York City streets, my father and sister far away in sleep, this is what I learned those late nights in the living room: that to my mother, after the ballet lessons, the braces, the first pair of high heels, the next essential item was a man. "The army of women" is how she referred to her friends who were divorced, or widowed, who were suddenly alone. "Don't be one of the army of women," she'd warn, and though I didn't know what she meant, I pictured them all: gray, elegant, with shiny black pocketbooks and Chanel suits, shuffling together down Madison Avenue. I believed that was something bad, something to avoid.
But this was long ago, long before my father died, and she followed some years after. Now I have a daughter of my own, Charlotte, a 7-year-old in high-tops and cargo pants, who cruises our neighborhood on a Razor scooter with her baseball cap on backward, her penny-colored hair flying up behind. I can't imagine I will ever be offering her the things my mother offered me those late nights. Certainly not the cigarettes, or the diet soda, or god forbid the particular brand of parental wisdom that made young girls believe they would be nothing in this world without a man. Yet as I watch Charlotte skirt the bumps and divots in the sidewalk, hop her scooter in the air, I wonder, what can I arm her with that will make her safe from hurt in this world? Once she's done with Razor scooters and cargo pants and other things that make 7-year-old girls happy, no helmet rules or parental controls on the computer are going to protect Charlotte from mistakes of the heart.
As for me, I took my mother's advice. Not long after college, I married the boy next door—if one counts the boy in the next dorm room as the boy next door—and let the wild tide of romance funnel into one settled stream. Dean was a tall, decent boy from Maine. We had never really spoken until a week before college ended, when he stayed up one night until dawn explaining Einstein's theory of relativity to me. By the time the birds were announcing the coming day and we had moved the discussion to my bed, I decided this boy, this New England boy destined for a lab coat, was a better choice than anyone I would muster out of the gang of guys in Shakespeare 101, with whom I spent most of my time. Besides, I liked his cleft chin and his whisper in the dark. Even if what he was whispering that first night was E = mc 2.