No matter what I write about, my novels always seem to have a strong mother character. Inevitably, this character is inspired by my own astonishing mother, Mary-Anne Westley.
From a dorm pay phone, a hostel in Nairobi, a restaurant in Athens, or the bench at my neighborhood playground, I’ve talked with her every day of my life.
Once a writer and model for Vogue and Mademoiselle, my mother settled happily into the role of full-time mom for sixteen years. When she left my abusive father, she worked for the phone company and then a chemical gas company, trying to make vibrant copy out of dull facts and figures. She put me and my two sisters through college, commuting over an hour to work until her retirement last year.
Money was tight, but Mom never faltered, always inspiring us with her graceful acceptance of the way things had turned out. Now that I am a mother myself, I’ve been able to put some of her rules into practice.
Rule Number One: When in doubt, throw a party.
When my mother left my father, she left behind a giant house and many fair-weather friends as well. In our new, smaller house (next door to Mom’s former golf caddy), we all felt a little lost.
When Christmas rolled around, Mom refused to get gloomy. She planned her annual Christmas party, inviting not only the country-club set, but our new neighbors as well: Lou, who had a few cars on his front lawn; Jim, who we suspected was a drug dealer. The same bartender drove across town to our new address, and Mom placed the Harrington’s ham, meatballs, and cheese ball on the dining room table in the middle of our crummy new house. When we dimmed the lights and lit candles, it felt like home.
Rule Number Two: When times get tough, the tough go shopping.
My mother is always beautifully dressed; my sisters and I regularly steal her clothes. When she had to work on telephone lines due to a strike at her company, she came home with a DKNY denim pantsuit, which she paired with pearls each morning.
At one point, while I was in college, my mother lost her job. I knew she was nervous about paying the mortgage, so when she left a message saying she had fantastic news, I called back immediately.
“You got a job?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she said cheerily, “but Manda, that sweater you loved went on sale at Bloomingdale’s! I bought it!”
Rule Number Three: Believe—and believe in—your children.
I didn’t always tell the truth to my mother. I lied about boyfriends, I lied about beer, and once I lied about cashing in my meal plan in college and spending the money on a trip to Florida. But my mother always believed me.
I think now that the guilt I felt when I lied was worse than any punishment could have been. My mother always expected the best from me, and in the end, I never lied about anything that mattered.
I hope I will remember that overlooking a dumb decision (I had to eat Ramen for the rest of the semester, and learned my lesson in spades) might be better than policing my child. My mother’s faith in me, and her absolute belief that I would become an honest person, has been the guiding force in my life.
Last but not least: Mothers deserve to be happy, too.
My mother did give up a great deal to raise me and my sisters. But she never stopped wanting happiness for herself. If she came to visit us at college, she wanted to go out dancing, too. When visiting me in graduate school in Montana, she wanted to go river-rafting and skinny dip in the hot springs.
If I ask her to stay in the car with my sleeping baby while I run into Target, she says, “Absolutely! If you go buy me the New York Times to read while I’m stuck here.”
Most importantly, Mom wanted to fall in love, and the best part of the story is that she did. On my mother’s wedding day, she was just as difficult as any bride, complaining about the humidity and the hairdo, and just as radiant. She danced, threw her bouquet, and boarded a friend’s boat with her new husband.
And then she sailed off into Long Island Sound, leaving her three daughters to watch her go.
Amanda Eyre Ward is the award-winning author of How to Be Lost and Sleep Toward Heaven. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.
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