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Ethlie Ann Vare Headshot

M is for the Many Things...

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It's that time of year again, when the headlines are full of What I Learned from my Mother and World's Greatest Mom and I Remember Mama and all the other permutations of that sentiment. What are you supposed to do if your mother was a royal bitch?

Since I co-wrote a book called Mothers of Invention (about women inventors, though, not about mothers... or the band), I am often asked onto talk shows around Mothers Day.

"What's the best thing your mother taught you?" a host once asked me. Point blank. On camera.
My mind raced. What to answer? She taught me that... Men are more important than women? A woman is nothing without a man? Sex is a tool to get what you need in this life: Use it to bribe, bludgeon or beguile as required? Other women are the competition; don't let them get too close?

I ended up mumbling that she taught me to stick on artificial fingernails with super glue. Yet another bit of advice that later proved unhealthy. But not quite as unhealthy as "women are your enemy; men are the key to your survival." That bit of wisdom can kill you.

My mother looked like Grace Kelly in her prime and acted like Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. She sucked up attention like a vacuum cleaner inhales dust bunnies. Air fled the room when she entered. A career woman when the term was still an oxymoron, she ran roughshod over two continents and four husbands. In today's lingo, she suffered from untreated bipolar disorder and, possibly a borderline personality.

If I didn't have to live with her, I would probably have liked her.

What's your strongest memory of mommy? Baking cupcakes when you were 6? Sewing your tutu for ballet class when you were 10? Taking pictures of you and your junior prom date when you were 14? Mine is the time my mother left me behind at a restaurant in Paris when I was 16. She was sneaking back to the hotel to have sex with the boy I liked. It was late. She was still married to my father. I didn't speak French.

It makes a lousy anecdote on talk shows.

Here's the thing: I'm still pretty pissed of about that decades-ago night -- obviously -- and a laundry list of other indignities large and small. But while having a bipolar borderline personality for a mother is no ice cream sundae, it's not the reason I was a drug addict. Or a jailbird. Or even a hope-to-die cigarette smoker for 20 years. I am not laying blame for either the substance abuse or the... let's call it colorful track record in work and relationships on anyone but myself. Some of it is just unlucky brain chemistry, the rest a series of bad choices. Mom was just passing on a genetic load that she had inherited, and bushel bag of misinformation that had been handed to her.

It just makes for uncomfortable dinner party conversation in early May. And I do wish I had been bequeathed a better belief system.

My mother died at the age of 82, long alienated from her only living sister and with not a single woman friend to comfort her. he was still cruising J-Date for Prince Charming, as Husbands One, Two, Three and Four had all come up short. Note to daughters everywhere: Girlz Rule. And if Prince Charming is your standard of measurement, all husbands are going to come up short.