Perhaps it was this whispering that made me hold myself back from the sweet, mothering figures I encountered over the years. Always polite, I still kept a safe emotional distance from friends’ mothers — brought them chocolates and tea and a strained smile when I saw them. The voice lingered: These people don’t care about you. You’re unlovable.
Then, in my late 20s, I started dating Joey. Joey is a real Queens boy. The kind of man who pronounces human yoo-man and whose favorite food is eggplant parmigiana, which he ate with his mother in Ridgewood at least once a week. I first met Joey’s mother, Margaret, at Christmas in 2016.
That year, she gave me a stack of presents that went up to my neck. Jewelry holders and salad bowls and sweaters and socks and mascara and moisturizer. Her generosity was so astounding that it made me feel awkward and guilty: How could I ever reciprocate? But that missed the point. She never wanted anything back. Her love was given freely, abundantly, without expectation or entitlement.
I started showing up to those weekly dinners, and Margaret was so full of warmth, every single time. When I finally had to explain to her why I was there for every holiday, every Mother’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas — because my own parents didn’t want me — she grabbed my hand and said, with tears in her eyes: “Forget them. You’re ours now.”
Margaret was always like that. She gave birth to four children, but she was a mother to so many more of us: gutter punks, orchestra kids, goths and geeks. Anyone who was struggling without their parents’ love came to Margaret’s house, and she made us all feel like hers, would feed us and give us her extra tablecloths and Chapsticks.
Eventually, I began calling her Mom. That word always felt strange coming out of my mouth. It felt loaded, freighted with abuse and resentment, and I think she could tell. “You can call me whatever you want,” she’d remind me, gently. “You can call me Margaret, or Mom, or anything.” But I said it anyway, my arms laden with gifts: “Thanks, Mom.” And in those two words were all the things I wanted to say: “Thank you” and “You’re healing me” and “I love you.”
In the fall of 2019, just a couple of months after Joey and I got married, Margaret started falling, cracking her head on the counter, on the sidewalk. She went through a bevy of tests and found that she had multiple system atrophy, a neurodegenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s. Shortly thereafter, in February of 2020, Joey and I moved into the apartment above her in Ridgewood to help care for her.