It’s a certain fact of my life that I’ll never be as cool as my mom, and not for lack of trying. I’ve interviewed fascinating people for a living, lived in some of the most exciting cities on earth, dyed my hair pale purple (before Nicole Richie), and even adopted a cat that already had the name Beyonce. None of that matters, though, because my mom is cool as hell and always has been.
Long before she had me, my mom rambled around Baltimore with her friends John Waters and Divine in the late 1960s. She’d become neighborhood pals with the shy and soft-spoken Divine (known to her as Glenn) and, before long, was getting to watch the aspiring director and soon-to-be-famous drag queen begin the first of their many offbeat film collaborations.
On a trip back to Baltimore some years ago, she pointed out the old church where she and the gang would screen Waters’s films in the basement after hours, having no clue the cultural imprint he and they would eventually make.
My entire life, Waters’s influence was always around us. Mementos from his film premieres -- which my mom usually attended -- were scattered around the house, much to my dismay. As an pimply kid looking for some semblance of normalcy, giant “Serial Mom” cereal boxes and Odorama scratch n’ sniff cards from his movie “Polyester” (with scents like “skunk,” “dirty shoes” and “flatulence”) had no context to me and made me feel like my family was putting oddities on display for any visitor to see. Where other moms filled their homes with fragrant potpourri baskets and framed portraits of their family in matching outfits, mine had cult film keepsakes and pictures of drag queens. I would beg and plead for her to just make our house “normal” like the houses of my friends.
While I was still in high school, she decided to cover a small scar on her chest with a tattoo of a colorful feather. And when I say “chest,” I specifically mean her upper, left breast. She even brought my older sister along and together they sat in the tattoo chairs, enjoying a mother-daughter tattoo day like it was absolutely no big thing. When they came home and showed off their fresh ink, I burst into tears and ran into my room, horrified by their crass weirdness.
Over the years, I finally wised up. I became a film studies major in college and was astounded to see the reaction from my peers when I’d mention my mom’s history with John Waters. As I went through my own embarrassing period of self-discovery (raver to hip hopper to indie record store employee), I embraced my mom’s unique life and keyed into what made her tick, realizing that we were more alike than I’d realized. I understood that my decision to become a film studies major was even rooted in the fact that she’d taken me to see “Pulp Fiction” its first week in the theaters when I was barely a teenager. I remembered driving home and having her explain the term “dark comedy” in connection with why it felt OK to laugh during a scene where a man’s head got shot off.
My mom and I have continued to become close friends in the years since college. While this is something that tends to happen to many women in their mid-to-late 20s, it’s felt especially enriched by the fact that no topic is off limits with my mom. One of my favorite moments was when I was high as a kite on morphine during an unfortunate hospital visit and we held hands and laughed hysterically together while I received a rectal exam in front of a room of young hospital residents.
More than anything, I’m continually reminded of the fact that she has the innate ability to simply stay ahead of the cultural curve. Some years ago, she was up in arms over a young writer who blew her away named Dave Eggers. Being a teacher in the Bay Area, she found a way to wrangle this young man into her college classroom to speak and began a budding friendship that continues to this day. She was one of the earliest volunteers at his 826 children’s tutoring flagship in San Francisco and urged me to join up when I was living in New York. Little did I know it would go on to sprout locations around the country and serve as a hub of the country’s best writers, comedians and forward thinkers. Two years ago, my mom sat next to fellow 826 supporter Fred Armisen at a gala and gabbed all afternoon about comedy, cementing her fandom of “Portlandia” even more.
While all of this might read like some type of name-droppy self-congratulations -- after all, this is still my mom -- it’s also resulted in many moments beyond my pre-teen years where I’ve felt absolutely exhausted by it all. Much like parents who maybe smoke marijuana or drink with their children, I’ve had many moments where my mom’s ability to participate in what’s deemed “cool” or “hip” has felt confusing. It’s meant that the lines have been blurred at times between parent and child as I’ve tried to process who I am away from her.
I only realized in my late 20s that I’d inadvertently placed a huge emphasis on “cool” for much of my life in an attempt to out-cool my mom and live a life that would somehow feel splashier and bigger than hers. I pierced my tongue (gross), got a hideous tattoo (tribal gecko? Ouch.), dyed my hair pitch black, and dated boys I knew were bad news. While this kind of behavior is hardly out of the norm for most young women, mine felt connected to the idea of creating a larger “story” for myself; one that pushed boundaries and focused entirely on the view of myself from the outside looking in.
I finally realized I’d been trying on myriad personas in such a obvious pursuit of being perceived as “unique.” But I wasn’t my mom. I grew up in a small, affluent town in California and was given all kinds of opportunity -- exactly the opposite of what my mom’s youth was like. Her family life had been painfully rocky and she’d essentially run away to live with her older sister as a teen. Her mom passed away in her early 20s and she’d gone on to pay her way through every step of her education, nearly completing her PhD until marriage and kids pulled her away.
Her life had been filled with stomach-churning anxiety over how to pay the bills and build a career for herself, which was exactly why it had always been so important to her to work throughout my and my sister’s childhood. And it was also why she moved back to Minneapolis for a year when I was in second grade -- so that she could finally complete her PhD. It was a lifelong goal that my dad wanted to help her achieve, even if it meant living as a split-up family for a year and causing huge amounts of confusion for my sister and me. Now, I see it in completely different terms and applaud them both for showing us how important personal goals and education are.
There are still moments when my mom will remind us all how very ahead of the curve she naturally is. Just a few years ago, she couldn’t stop raving about a new show she’d found buried in cable called “Breaking Bad.” After incessantly talking about it, I finally caved and watched it, only to fall in love with maybe the greatest television show in history. Or when she stumbled on a website where she could work directly with artists and create art, called Etsy. She’s one of those people who just have feelers more finely tuned than the rest of us.
And while I’ve given up on assuming identities indicative of how terribly fascinating I must be, I don’t ever shortchange my mom. Nearing her late 60s, she’s more connected than ever to what makes people and cultures tick. And, most importantly, I’ve come to realize that having a hip and unique mom is what makes my own story richer and more textured. I wouldn’t trade it for all the potpourri baskets in the world.