Someone else's mom gave me unconditional love and an open door when I needed it most.
I was raised Protestant, but for a long stretch, I was raised a nice Jewish girl from the Valley. You see, my best friend's family opened their home to me and treated me just like one more daughter for many years, as I was pretty much left to my own devices due to my parents' divorce and their subsequent upheavals and distractions. It was the late 1970s, and while my dad was discovering freedom, my mom was forging ahead in a relationship with her divorce lawyer, whose daughter was bound for the Olympics as an ice-skating champion. Don't get me wrong -- my parents were around. We had a house, and my needs were well provided for, well, except for the emotional ones.
The turbulence of my parents' problems caused them to be distracted at best and, at worst, incapable of dealing with their kid. So I went to the Strassbergs'. There was laughter and love and bagels and matzo and arguments, but not of the nature I witnessed in my house. These were the family arguments that I dreamed my family would have: loud, boisterous, raucous arguments about which movie we should watch, or what toppings we should have on the pizza.
I had my own toothbrush and set of clothes and even a drawer in my best friend's room. She had twin beds that made an "L" shape, so we could sleep head to head. Sometimes I wouldn't see my own parents for days, and at one point, when my mother was planning on remarrying, I stayed for months. Our new house wasn't ready, and they had only rented a small studio apartment to stay in until it was finished.
Mom Strassberg never said anything negative about my parents. In fact, she adored my dad -- who is pretty adorable and a great guy. But she hugged me many a time when I cried over feeling abandoned. She would say, "Just hold your chin up, Pussy Cat, things will get better, you will see." And then she would feed me something. I never had that kind of nurturing before. My mom's motto was "You're never too skinny or too rich." She dieted all my life. She still looks fabulous in her 60s. But she definitely was not going to bake you cookies or make a homemade meal that included meat and potatoes and horseradish. Mr. Strassberg was just as good to me, never complaining "How in the hell did we end up with this extra kid?" Instead, he would take us to Nathan's for hot dogs with the works, and drive endlessly so we could pick cherries in some remote part of California, the whereabouts of which I still can't be sure.
That house and the surrogate family who cared for me still hold some of the happiest memories I have from childhood and young adulthood. Mrs. Strassberg was right: things did get better with my family, and I went off to college and got married and had my own kids. I invited the Strassbergs to my wedding, but Mr. Strassberg had just passed away and the family could not make it. We keep in touch, but not the way you would expect. Mrs. Strassberg handed me back to my family, never complaining that raising me was a thankless job, which it probably was.
Mrs. Strassberg, or Mom, which are the names I still call her despite the fact that I am now an adult and could call her Carole, is very sick. She has esophageal cancer and is fighting a brave battle with her daughter, my dear friend, by her side. I don't think I really understood all she had done for me until I was an adult with children of my own.
I hope that I am able to do the same for a kid who needs it. I pray there are others that step in when a kid is having trouble. I know my surrogate mom's assurances and love kept me from making a lot of mistakes. She kept me from plummeting into despair, and doing drugs, and getting into bad relationships, and all the other things that kids do to make themselves feel better. My parents are grateful as well. They now see how their suffering caused them to drop the ball and luckily another wonderful woman was there to pick it up and carry it for them. I think my father has said as much to her. I hope so anyway. I know I have, and I continue to thank God for moms like Carole Strassberg.