I am a captive audience, tilted way back in the big chair at the dentist's office. While he works away, my dentist starts talking about his search to find the right incentive to get his youngest son off his duff. And that reminds him, he says, that he's the youngest of three boys and that his mom always pointed to the accomplishments of his older brothers whenever he did something--good or bad. Even today, he tells me, when she comes by to visit and sits in his waiting room, if a patient tells her, "Your son Steve is an artist of a dentist," she'll say, "You should see my son Norm." (Norm is also a dentist.) And, my dentist Steve continues, she does the same thing to Norm.
There's a breather in the dental work. I get to ask a quick question. "So how did that make you feel?"
"Oh we're used to my mom," Steve answers. "Our family was always indirect. We never told each other anything. We'd tell one brother to tell the other something. That's just how things worked in my family."
So he seems at peace with his mom's continuing "critical" approach to parenting him as an adult son. And yet, when the dental work is done and I am hauling myself out of the dental chair, Steve brings the subject up again. He starts telling me "Mom" jokes--jokes in which a Mom is the butt of the humor. The jokes are unkind at best. He winds up with this one: "My mom, she put the "fun" in "dysfunction."
Whew. That isn't what I'd want my kids saying about me. And it makes me wonder whether Steve wouldn't be thrilled by a direct compliment from his mom. A grown child is never too old for a positive word of encouragement. When it comes from a parent, it's mighty powerful. I, too, had a mother who withheld praise. I still have a little note she wrote when she was well into her 80s that told me how proud she was of my writing career. It was the first and only time she shared that sentiment with me. The note still makes me choke up.