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Last week my teenage daughter's friend Esme came over to watch "Some Like it Hot." When my daughter lost interest in the antics of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, I wandered into the family room to check on Esme, whom I've known since she was a baby.
"Mind if I watch with you?"
She slid down to make room on the couch. I grabbed the afghan and draped it over our legs. We giggled through the movie to the end when Marilyn Monroe rides off with the musicians in the motor boat.
When I was a girl I had Gracie, our next door neighbor whose couch and kitchen table were always available to me. "Come over anytime, Sandy," she said.
And I did. When my parents fought, and I had to flee the hostility that regularly poisoned the air in our pretty white Colonial. When my mother hit me and called me a brat. When I needed someone to pour me a glass of milk, set a pile of cookies on a plate and tell me I was just right.
"You're better than right," Gracie said. "And I know what I'm talking about."
"Gracie saved my life," I tell my daughter when I reminisce about the woman who died 10 years ago. If she didn't exactly save my life, she definitely kept my spirit from getting clobbered. Together we did crossword puzzles, took walks on the golf course in winter, gardened together in summer and had countless conversations year-round over milk and a plate of cookies.
Mothering, in my opinion, can be less about biology and more about being.
I am not Esme's Gracie. Esme doesn't need a Gracie, not the way I did growing up with a mother who, for reasons likely having to do with her own challenging childhood, lacked the ability to lovingly mother me. As far as I can tell, very few of my daughter's friends need a Gracie, but I can still be one now and then.
Sometimes that means sympathizing with the story of a broken teenage heart or listening to some hardcore complaining about a parent who doesn't get it—things my daughter surely says about me sometimes.
Then there are my own female friends. As we struggle with the complexities of middle-age, of career issues, of ailing parents and impending empty nesterhood, or just emptiness that stalks us in the pre-dawn hours, I like to believe that we can all offer each other a little much needed mothering. That doesn't necessarily mean butting into anyone's life with unwanted advice. No, it's much simpler. It just requires us to notice our friends who might look lost or alone, then remind them that they are not. Sometimes cookies are involved.
Two summers ago my own mother died on a beautiful June day, and in the weeks that followed, every one of my close women friends offered me something from her heart. I received phone check-ins, a homemade chicken dinner delivered to my door, flowers, visits and a box of chocolate-covered strawberries that I ate on the floor in one sitting. One neighbor who had lost her own mother years earlier and was just becoming a trusted friend, drove three hours in the rain to attend the wake. "I know what this means," she whispered.
While my friends all understood I had a complicated relationship with my mother, they knew I loved her fiercely. And they held that dichotomy without judgment. They also knew I needed some serious mothering in those months of conflict and grief. And I still do, sometimes.
But it's a give and take. And mothering, in my opinion, can be less about biology and more about being. Being there. Being an ear. Being a shoulder, a walking buddy or sometimes just being the friend who sets down the plate of cookie and says with conviction, "You are just right."