When it came to worrying, my mother was an Olympian — with good reason: Sally escaped the Cossacks to come to America. But the one thing I never wanted to replicate about my upbringing was inspiring fear in my child.
When it comes to worrying, my mother was an Olympian, and she tried her best to train me to win a gold medal, too. I came close, but in my mother’s eyes, I never worried enough.
I’ve logged many sleepless nights perseverating about making the right choices, saying the wrong things, whether I would meet deadlines, having a car accident, being a good-enough mom.
Frequently the choices I made were good ones; my comments that made me think twice rarely caused problems; I always met my deadlines; I usually got to my destination safely; and I raised a wonderful daughter.
Yet I am a skilled enough worrier that one of my good friends, Kym, used to call me “Snow Chicken” in honor of how I would stress out thinking about driving on snow-slicked country roads when I commuted from New Hope to Princeton.
At least I still drove to work. My mom would have stayed home.
Learning to worry
When my mother was alive, she regularly mailed me newspaper clippings highlighted in neon colors with precepts for worrywarts:
“Don’t let the meter reader in your house.”
“Don’t walk alone at night.”
There were lots of don’ts and a few do’s. When I lived in a ranch house, she wanted me to put bars on my windows, even though I lived in a safe Philadelphia suburb.
I couldn’t help but pooh-pooh her many admonitions. Emotionally I was apprehensive, but intellectually I was fearless.
Granted, my mother had good reason to be fearful. At the beginning of the 20th century, when she was a small child, Sally, then Sarushka, hid with her brother and mother as the Cossacks ransacked her home during a pogrom in Belogorodka, the shtetl where she lived.
Later, in an essay she penned while attending night college, she wrote, “Destiny plays peculiar tricks for they fumbled with the lock for a while and then passed on. Otherwise we would have probably been murdered and by now I would be an accomplished virtuoso in the harp section of heaven.”
Provoked by what she called that “twist of fate,” my mother, grandmother and uncle took one giant risk, probably the last one they ever took. They left Russia and came to the Golden Medina, the Golden Land of America.
It was a move that cut them off from the life they knew and the rest of their family. And those who stayed, my grandmother’s brothers and sister and their children, all disappeared during World War II.
Learning not to worry
Coming here was one of many things that my mom did right. She made me feel loved; she encouraged me to develop my talents; she praised my accomplishments; she shared her joie de vivre and her love of laughter. But, the one thing I never wanted to replicate about my upbringing was inspiring fear in my child.
My husband Craig and I worked hard to encourage our daughter Rebecca to be independent, confident, wise, and not fearful. I tried to keep my worrying to myself, not always successfully, but Rebecca always had her dad to pattern herself after.
Craig is a bit of a daredevil. As a teenager he climbed every tall structure in sight, including Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge, without getting caught.
When a crazy worrier mates with a crazy warrior, you get a warrior child who knows how to worry, but doesn’t let it stop her. She takes on challenging physical pursuits, such as rock climbing and qualifying for the Stockholm Roller Derby Fresh Meat program, a training team in Sweden, where she lives. Like her dad, Rebecca is a bit of an adrenaline junkie. However, she has always also been sensible, cautioning her father if she thought he was driving too fast.
When she was young, she hated sports and insisted on going to arts camps, where board games were the most strenuous activity. So, when Kym saw a photo of Rebecca hanging high on a rock ledge, she was surprised. “Snow Chicken Lisa’s daughter is a rock climber?” she asked.
When Rebecca decided to try out for roller derby, I told her, “If you make it, Ma is going to come back from the dead to grab you off the track.”
She laughed. “I don’t think so, Mom. If she didn’t come back because of my hair,” — which has been on separate occasions pink and completely shaved off — “I don’t think she’s ever returning.”
“Well remember to use a helmet and a mouth guard,” I cautioned. The team requires it, but I had to make sure.
Turned out, on her 24th birthday, this past October, Rebecca missed the cut for the official team. She skated as a referee instead. But she didn’t give up, and she just passed the test, including completing 27 laps around the court in five minutes.
Now “Snow Chicken” Lisa has a daughter with her own nickname, a skating name, “Stockholm Sindrome.” I’m happy she’s doing what she wants.
I’m embracing both my worrier mom and warrior daughter, balancing on my small spot on the continuum and looking to the future — with my usual fretting, and a lot of optimism, too.