My dad often tells me I am a lot like my maternal grandfather. That may seem a strange thing, but my dad loved his father-in-law, probably more than my grandfather’s own children loved him. “I missed him for years after he died,” Dad tells me every so often.
So did I. I still do.
I was not quite six years old when he died, but he was like glistening sunshine to me. Lanky and energetic, he smoked a blue streak. To this day, I get lonesome for him when I smell Lucky Strikes. He drank coffee by the gallons, walked fast, dreamed big, worked hard. He wasn’t perfect. I know he had a firecracker temper. But for me, at five, he was the man who scooped me up into his lap and taught me to butter Norwegian flatbread, called me “Grandpa’s cocklebur,” and took me for rides in his big Case tractor, played with me on the floor, put together my doll carriages, held me in his arms while watching football.
His love was big; so was mine.
Because of him, because of my grandmother (his wife), my dad, and later, my dearest friends, I know what love looks like. It is full on, vulnerable, brave, beautiful, self-sacrificing, and wild. It is “no matter what.” And it lives through fear, and anger, and disappointment.
It is not the kind of love I ever knew from my mother, and that is a hard thing in a world where mother love is celebrated as the greatest love there is.
My mother taught me many things when I was a child—to think for myself, not to follow the herd, to stand up for what I believed in, to do my best. But, contrary to popular notions of motherhood, she was not the one who taught me love.
And it’s okay.
Not that it always feels okay. But rationally, it’s okay. I receive my “mother love” from nearly a dozen other sources. From the women friends who text me in my lowest moments and tell me I am “an awesome person, mother, and friend.” From the mother of my childhood best friend who has half adopted me and told me she will always be there for me. Even from my own daughter, only six, who wraps soft arms around my neck, plants wet kisses on my cheek and says, “I will always love you, Mommy, and always take care of you.”
My daughter is, in the end, the true measure of my mother love. In many ways, my mother no more approves of her than she does of me. Heidi is, in her view, too opinionated, too vocal, too willful, too brave. She asks me about Heidi’s academics, wants to know if she is the smartest kid in class, wonders why I don’t push her harder.
And it’s simple. That’s not my way. My love is different, not wrong, but different. I don’t care if Heidi is the smartest, the most talented, the loveliest. I do care, however, if she is kind, loving, generous. When I attended my most recent conference with Heidi’s teacher, my heart swelled when I heard my daughter made everyone laugh, made people happy, made her peers, especially the new kid in school, feel welcome.
Because my life experience has taught me one can indeed get a fair distance in the working world with smarts and drive. But getting somewhere in life…that’s about love. And Heidi overflows with it.
When I tackle her in a hug and send her to the floor in kisses and tickles until she is squealing with delight, my mother will frown at the noise and fuss that no one is helping her make Christmas dinner. My dad, however, will peek around the corner with a grin and say with mock sternness, “What’s going on in here?”
That’s what’s going on.
Mother love. And you don’t have to be a mother to give it. Or perfect to receive it. One day, I know, my little girl will grow up to be the kind of woman that people miss for years after she is gone…the way I miss my grandfather. Who loved loud, and hard, and big.