Growing up, Kelly Corrigan didn't think she had much in common with her mom, she writes in her new memoir, "Glitter and Glue." When she became first a nanny, then a mother herself, her perspective changed. In an exclusive essay for TODAY.com, the best-selling author writes about one of those moments that changed the way she thinks about her mother.
Growing up, I saw my mother cry exactly once. The morning of her brother’s funeral. One long tear ran down her cheek through her make up until she caught it near her mouth and patted it dry with a tissue she pulled from inside her sleeve. Other than that, she did not break down. Not at school plays, first holy communions or high school graduations. Not when my brother Booker came to the backdoor with his shin ripped open from knee to ankle or when my dad lost his job or when my other brother GT crashed the Buick on 252 South. She was raised to keep a stiff upper lip, and she did.
Over the last couple years though, she’s let herself go a little bit, or maybe she’s decided I’m old enough now to discover other parts of her that, when I was young, might have been too disquieting to behold.
I moved from Philadelphia to California when I was 25, after traveling abroad for a year. I thought I’d come home eventually and settle down, but I didn’t. So for 20 years now, I fly back to Philly to see my parents a couple times a year, sometimes more if someone’s getting married or has gotten sick. My mom and dad still live in the house where my brothers and I grew up.
This particular visit, the one where I saw my mom cry, we had a 6 p.m. flight back to Oakland, so the afternoon was spent regrouping. Mucking up, my mother calls it. I hunted down every sock and barrette. My mom brought in some stickers she got for the girls, a sheet of smiley faces and hearts, and handed me a stack of paperbacks, mostly Junie B. Jones.
“You know you could get these at the library,” my mom said. She hates to see us spend our money unnecessarily. She knows things we don’t about raising a family and hard times and hidden costs and she wants to put that knowledge to good use.
“They’re all hand-me-downs,” I assured her.
She went down to the kitchen to pack baggies of mixed nuts and Clementines and Zone Bars while I gathered all the art supplies.
“Edward?” I called down the stairs to my husband. “Did you charge the DVD player?” If that battery dies before Glinda gets Dorothy—
“I plugged it in,” my mom replied.
“Thanks Jammy,” I said. My mother’s grandmother name is Jammy, because she was in Jamaica when her first grandchild was born and she thought Jammy sounded younger and snazzier than Gram or Nana.
As I packed, I called for Georgia, who was 7 and old enough to help.
“I need you to stop playing and find your other purple boot.”
I reminded her that part of coming is going, like part of making cookies is washing dishes.
Georgia got quiet as Edward carried the luggage past her. She knew we were leaving soon. She tucked herself behind a chair. Her lips were puffy. She was mad at us for taking her away from Jammy and a little embarrassed to be so fragile.
Jammy reached out for Georgia, whose cry rose in the air like a minor note, or the howl of a dying cat. “Oh sweetheart, you’ll be back soon and we’ll do the bubbles and go to the park and make Jell-O.” These were the things they did together every time we came to town.
“And the kitchen fairy,” Georgia added in a whimper. My mom liked to hide goodies in around the kitchen — candy, colorful paper clips, cartoon erasers.
“That’s right, honey.”
On my way out of the kitchen, I bumped the kerosene heater purchased during the gas crisis of 1974.
“Oh Sugarfoot!” my mom said, reaching around Georgia to steady the iron cauldron of water and potpourri she kept on top on the heater to mask the gas smell.
“Got it. But mom, how long are you gonna— ”
I stopped myself from criticizing. I’d said plenty of snarky things over the past few days. Is there anyone more superior than the prodigal child? I teased her for wearing the same clothes every day and drinking jug wine and listening to cassette tapes even though she’d been given so many shiny CDs. I even ragged on her for how she said cassette: KASS (like ass) ette. We went back and forth about how to keep warm — I said push the thermostat past 64, she said put on a sweater.
But all my “jokey” needling was offset by the crucial affinity that passed between us now. We had something meaningful in common. We were mothers.
In the driveway, Edward arranged the luggage in the trunk, and Claire approached my mom holding out some weeds she’d picked from the backyard. “Here, Jammy.”
“Thanks, Sugar. Gimme a kiss,” my mom said in a tiny voice as she slipped her a pack of Extra gum to share with her sister "even-Steven." Claire kissed her right on the lips, lusciously.
Then it was Georgia’s turn. My mom held her cheeks and kissed her forehead. Georgia stepped back but my mom pulled her in one more time before letting her get in the car.
My dad was in the driver’s seat, Claire and I were waving, Edward was checking his blackberry and Georgia was sniffling next to me. I mentioned Sadie and Olivia, Georgia’s friends in Piedmont, to help her focus on something positive.
“All right, gang, here we go!” my dad said.
“Mommy, look!” Claire burst out.
“What? What is it?”
“What about her?”
“Jammy is crying.”
And she was. My mother was standing in the driveway crying in her powder blue slippers, her swishy nylon tracksuit and a turtleneck worn inside-out because the seams bother her. Her whole face was blotchy and red. The weed bouquet hung from her hand. She stood, waving and crying, as we hovered at the top of the driveway, the car somewhere between reverse and drive.
The girls rolled down their windows and screamed out through the winter air. “Bye Jammy! We’ll be back soon! Don’t cry, Jammy!”
“Bye Sugar. Love you, honey.”
Edward looked back at me for some kind of explanation but I was looking at her, my mother, for what felt like the first time.
Kelly Corrigan's new memoir "Glitter and Glue" was published this week. She is also the author of "The Middle Place" and "Lift," both New York Times bestsellers. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Edward Lichty, their two daughters, and a poorly behaved chocolate lab, Hershey.