I grew up in a blue-collar family. My father immigrated to San Francisco, California from the European island of Malta when he was 17. He began a 40-year career as a longshoreman in his early 20’s.
My mother’s parents were also immigrants from Europe. They left Croatia and landed in Brooklyn, New York for a few years before making their journey to San Francisco in 1941. My mother used to describe her heritage as being from “the old country.”
The Mindset of My Upbringing
The mindset of my heritage was that girls were to grow up, find a man, and have children. Although it was never verbalized, I was made to understand that my primary goal would be to get married…young.
Although I was in Advanced Placement classes in high school, my parents never talked with me about college or careers. I was encouraged to take shorthand and typing as electives in school, along with sewing and cooking.
I wanted to go to college, so I funded my education myself.
My parents paid for my one-year older brother’s college education. I didn’t think much of it at the time. A college education was far less expensive back in the day. I had been working in a movie theater since I was 14 so that I could buy my own clothes. I guess I had grown used to paying for what I wanted. I became the first girl among my huge family of cousins that went to and graduated from college.
This is not to say that my parents were stingy with me. They just had their own ideas about what was important for me. Neither of my two brothers got the orthodontia work that I had, or a 325-guest wedding reception paid for by my parents when I was 23.
I have never had any doubts that my parents loved me, and I believe that they have always done the best that they could. Yet there is one decision they made for me that stings me to this day when I think about it.
A Decision that Would Influence My Future
When I was a child my mother was called to meet with a counselor from my school. Turns out I had scored high on intelligence testing. The counselor had called my mother in to suggest that my parents consider sending me to what my mother described to me as a “special” school. Although my mother reported the meeting to me, I was not given a voice in the matter.
My mother made most of the decisions regarding our education and extra-curricular activities. She was firm in her decision that I was not to be moved out of our local public school system. The decision had nothing to do with money. In her mind my having a social life with the other children in our neighborhood was more important for me than exploring the possibilities of how I might be able to excel with the gifts I’ve been given.
This became one of those topics that would surface occasionally over the years. My mother always described her decision in the same way. It was always about her desire that I have friends in the neighborhood. I would typically just sit quietly whenever she recounted the story. Although I greatly regretted her decision, I never wanted to make her feel bad, so I just said nothing.
A Different Response to Regret
As I’ve grown older, I have found myself thinking about what I might have done differently with my life if given the chance to go to the special school. Invariably, having been better focused on preparing myself for my work life ahead is at the top of that list.
Just over a year ago my husband and I were visiting my parents and the topic of the school decision came up again. This time I approached it differently.
For the first time I gently explained how I would have really appreciated the opportunity to reach my fuller potential in a program designed to challenge me. I made it clear that I wished she would have made a different decision. She took it in for a few seconds, then shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t care. I would do it the same way if I had it to do again.”
My heart sank.
To me, my mother was saying that she would rather that I live the life that she wanted for me instead of the one I want for myself. The worst part of this for me was that she didn’t even try to hide it.
The Lesson for Me
When I look to see the lesson here for me, I see it as forgiveness. That seems to be a theme in my life as I shared in My Lessons From Betrayals. I will never forget this exchange with my mother nor her initial decision, but I will forgive her from a belief that she was just doing the best that she could do at the time.
If you have similar resentments or regrets, I’d love to have you share them in comments.