The Rockwood Files: This one is for the mamas

Two weeks ago I had one of those moments of crisis when the only person I could really talk to, the only person I could fall apart with, was my mom. So I called her from my cell phone in my minivan, parked in an empty parking lot, and cried, talking incoherently through sobs.

First she listened, saying “okay” and “I know” in all the right places. Then she went to work, putting me back together one overly emotional piece at a time. Gently, she built me back up and made me believe I was strong. Then, she promised it would be OK. I believed her, because she’s my mom and moms know everything (or at least the most important things) and because she knows me better than anyone else does, sometimes better than I know myself.

That’s the thing about moms. We never get too old to need them. They know us from the inside out, and there aren’t enough Hallmark words in the world that can capture the strength, the purity of the bond between us. I called my mom that day because she loves me when I’m doing great and she loves me when I’m a sobbing mess, hiding from the world.

There are days when I look at my three kids and wonder how in the world I got to be their mother, certain I never did anything good enough to deserve the miracle of having them. On the days when I’m not the kind of mom I want to be – days when I lose patience or yell when they don’t deserve it – they love me anyway, and I’m humbled by it. There have been times when, even after I’ve disciplined one of my sons for doing something wrong and he is furious, he calms down and comes back to me for comfort. At their best and at their worst, they need me to be here. They need me to bear witness to their lives.

Different moms have different ways of bearing witness. Sometimes they collect snapshots to remind us of who we were along the way, how we grew and changed. I give my mom a hard time about our family photo albums because there are so many books full of photos of my older brother as a baby. There’s Greg in the baby bathtub. Greg by the Christmas tree. Greg wearing his Snoopy Joe Cool T-shirt and matching sunglasses.

Seven years later I was born and, well, you know how it goes. The number of photos drops way off for the second and subsequent kids. My baby album has a few Polaroid pictures of me wearing nothing but a diaper and a cherry popsicle. OK, it’s not quite that bad. In the long run, the photo discrepancy doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she was there, witnessing my life. She remembers the good stuff and the bad stuff, but she only reminds me of things that push me forward and make me stronger.

Moms may not always have the camera ready, but our minds never stop snapping images, freezing them in our memories. Last Sunday after church, Tom and I took the kids to their favorite pizza restaurant. After they scarfed down a few slices, 6-year-old Adam and 3-year-old Jack ran off to go play in the restaurant’s game room. When I went to check on them, I found only one son. “Adam, where is your little brother?” I asked, on the verge of launching into full panic mode. “I don’t know,” Adam answered unconvincingly, then quickly glanced toward the skee-ball machine. That sideways glance gave it away, and when I looked I saw Jack – actually I only saw feet – protruding out from the skee-ball machine’s metal grate.

The rest of Jack was sprawled spread eagle over the skee-ball targets with one arm elbow deep in the bull’s-eye hole. I ordered him to come right back down the ramp and told him never to climb up there again. Then I got out of there as fast as I could because I didn’t want him to see the smile about to crack open on my face. I laughed on the way back to the table because I knew I’d just snapped a great mental photo of Jack for my mind’s scrapbook – an image of him as a fearless 3-year-old, stuck in a skee-ball machine for no apparent reason.

Maybe one day, years from now, if he calls me feeling unsure of himself, his confidence shaken, I’ll tell him about it. I’ll tell him that, when he was only 3, he was proud enough to wear dinosaur rain boots everywhere he went and determined enough to go head-to-head with a skee-ball machine just to retrieve a lost ball. I’ll tell him he can do anything he’s willing to work at. And he’ll believe me because I’m his mother, his personal historian, and I know him better than anyone.

Gwen Rockwood is a freelance columnist whose work has recently appeared in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms.” Click on the word “comment” below to share your thoughts.