I don’t know the circumstances under which my mom stopped going to college in the late 70s. She had a full ride scholarship to Kearney State, which later became the University of Nebraska at Kearney, one of three main campuses in the University of Nebraska system. I graduated with a bachelors and masters from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, where my youngest sister is currently a sophomore, and my middle sister is nearing the end of her bachelors degree at the University of Nebraska – Omaha.
We might’ve been a University of Nebraska legacy, all four Sisneros women graduating from the system, except mom dropped out of college despite her full scholarship “because she wanted to party.” That’s the reason she gave me, an absurd cursory excuse that undoubtedly doesn’t even scratch the surface of the truth. But I never pushed the subject, in part because I always knew that deep down my mom felt regret, maybe even embarrassment, at not having finished college. But in larger part because she was my mom, she’d only ever been my mom, she had no other discernible identity outside of the fact that I emerged from her womb about 28 ½ years ago and she renewed her Mom Card twice after that. What else did I really need to know?
It’s only as we get older and gradually adopt the crucial self-awareness that makes us tolerable as human beings that we concurrently are able to multi-dimensionalize our awareness of other people. My sisters and I were pushed toward that sooner than a lot of kids are: my mom was divorced by the time I was two, and again about seventeen years later when my sisters were barely able to conceptualize of themselves as whole beings. How we came to terms with the circumstances that were handed to us varies widely between us. For me, my mom’s second divorce was a long overdue rush of relief after a thirteen year long marriage in which I was as much at the center of tensions as my parents were. Afterwards I could finally try to find a sense of calm, a peacefulness to replace the more than a decade of emotional damage that had settled itself comfortably onto my life like a scratchy wool blanket. But for my sisters, who were mercifully shielded if not altogether actually then at least more or less emotionally from the gurgling magma below the surface that would regularly explode, their dad was leaving, and not un-messily. I resented the care with which both my mom and my dad would drape themselves over my sisters, protecting them from the brunt of the force, a force that for me was a constant reminder that I was the only kid in the family who was the birth product of only one, not both, of the parental units.
Selfishness is always a symptom of the unfortunate disease of teenagerdom. But when it’s compounded with all the “why me”s and “what if”s of divorce, it’s hard to remember that it’s not your divorce. It took a long time before I was able to make myself start to understand the chasm of pain my mother had felt for years, the impossible catch-22 between keeping one child in a disastrous situation or forcibly removing two others from what they’d always known as home. And when I finally got there, by the time my self-awareness stopped pouting in her bedroom refusing to come out, I suddenly felt so overwhelmed by the enormity of what I’d been ignoring for so long that I still couldn’t fully deal with it. I still couldn’t sit down with my mom and talk about her life, her marriages, her fears, her hopes, her dreams, like she was as much a human as I am.
What does any of this have to do with my mom going back to school? If our lives are stories – rambling, unedited, first-draft-don’t-get-a-chance-to-draft-agan stories – then my mom’s plot line is coming full circle. If that sounds a little dramatic to you, then you clearly haven’t quit your job and dropped your life to go back and finish something you’d started almost thirty years ago. To say that takes chutzpah would be woefully understating it. My mom has always expressed interest in finishing her bachelors degree. But the first time she actually sounded like she was going to do it was a little over a year ago, and her first concern was money. But whereas four year college students nowadays haven’t had a lifetime of experience with which to fully comprehend what it means to throw yourself at the mercy of the federal loan system, my mom has spent almost four decades making ends meet. And she isn’t without her critics who point out the ludicrousness of that.
I’m honestly having trouble figuring out how to write about this, because I can’t really comprehend it. I’ve spent my entire life as the poster child for first child syndrome. I’m driven to a fault, absolutely terrified of failure, bossy, overbearing, assertive, and have absolutely crippling self-esteem issues. The latter trait may sound like the odd man out from all the prior ones, except it really isn’t: my self-esteem problems simply manifest themselves in trying to accomplish everything it’s possible to accomplish so I don’t inadvertently allow to become true all the latent feelings of inadequacy I harbor. Yup, I am a total first born. But my mom is fifth in a line of five daughters (followed only by her brother – I still remember my mom’s impression of my grandma trying to remember which child she was yelling at. “GwenSusanJulieMarshaJanetBOBBY!”), and fuck if I have the slightest idea what that feels like. My mom was 25 when I was born, went back to school briefly for her paralegal degree when I was five or so, and since then has never not been the hardest working person at her job. “It doesn’t matter what you do, you have to do it well. And you have to treat people well while you’re at it.” That’s the advice my mom has always given me, even and perhaps especially when she worked as a cashier at the local grocery store in my tiny hometown of Gothenburg, Nebraska.
Damn if my mom isn’t the wisest person I know. Because the truth of that statement is inversely proportional to the number of people on earth capable of fulfilling it. Even though she’s almost always walked the fine line between being able to support her family and not, especially after her second divorce, she has always taken pride in her work no matter what it is. I’ve had the enormous fortune to be able to be brazenly selfish in my life so far: aside from my relatively un-demanding responsibilities as the owner of a small, easy-to-carry dog, I’ve stormed through college degrees childless and unattached. That’s not to say that degrees are the be-all-end-all of success. Personal development is far more nuanced than that. But this was something she’d always wanted to accomplish for herself.
My mom got her first semester grades in last month, I happened to be lying in bed with someone when she called me. “I got all A’s!” she said, obviously proud of herself. I was proud too, but totally unsurprised, given the tenacity with which she approached her school work. As a college instructor, I could confidently say that any student who puts as much time and effort into his or her work as she does is all but guaranteed to ace it. But it didn’t stop her from worrying constantly, in that special neurotic way that moms worry. After I hung up, the man next to me asked if I’d told her I was proud of her. “Sure I did, she knows that!” I said. “Yeah, but did you actually say it out loud?” he asked.
No, I hadn’t. Not ever, actually. Not once during the entire semester had I told my mom I was proud of the work she was doing. I never told her I was beyond impressed at the bravery it took for her to drop everything and pursue a goal she’d laid aside for decades in lieu of raising three smart women. I never told her that it breaks my heart when she expresses uncertainty, discomfort, and embarrassment at the idea of sitting in a classroom full of twenty-somethings. I never told her how funny and cool I thought it was when she’d call me to ask very detailed, almost ridiculous questions about MLA style formatting or World War I or structuring a persuasive essay. In fact this is the first I’m saying any of that at all, because we’re a family of emotionally damaged whackos who have trouble expressing anything to each other that isn’t snide or yelly. Sorry, family.
My mom called me the other day, clearly upset. She was on her way back to her home town, the town I was born in, Grand Island, Nebraska. She’d found out that morning that one of her oldest friends, her prom date in high school, had committed suicide. “I always made sure to see him every time I was in town, you know,” she said to me. “I made a point of it.” Which I know is true, half because she genuinely wanted to see him, and half because she wanted to make sure he knew she cared about him. Because that’s my mom: if you’re a good person, she’ll be the first to tell you. If you’re a shitty asshole she’ll be the first to tell you that, too. She’s cool like that.
Such is the selflessness of a woman who’s spent her life finding ways to make everybody else’s life better. And I feel a mixture of guilt and pride and uncertainty and a general sort of heaviness that sits on my chest like a stubborn elephant when I think about the fact that it wasn’t really until she was 53 that she finally found something she could well and truly do for herself. As someone who lives her whole life thinking primarily about numero uno, that’s pretty mind boggling to me.
My mom is unabashed in her pride for her daughters. She freely admits how awesome it is that she can learn so much from us and watch us tackle life goals left and right. Which feels good, except that it’s always twinged with a level of self-deprecation that gnaws at your heart a little bit, that makes you wish your mom was as proud of herself as she is of you. Finally, she’s getting there. I could tell in her voice when she told me she’d gotten all A’s, and I regret not having expressed as much excitement back at her as she was giving me. “I know it isn’t nearly as hard as what you do,” she always says to me. “All three of you girls work so hard.” To which I always roll my eyes, but never bother to say what I’m actually thinking.
So let me just say this, ma: knock off that deflective bull honkey. College is hard as hell, whether you’re doing it at 18 or 80. And I cannot fathom anything more impressive than looking back on a life well lived and having the courage and fortitude to say “I can still do more.”