My Turn: Escaping My Mother's Shadow

Many kids think their parents are larger than life, but my mom has been famous in my hometown for as long as I can remember. On school mornings I'd hobble downstairs half awake to the sound of her voice drifting from the kitchen. Many times I swore she was actually there. Then I'd see the box radio propped on the counter, talking to the toaster and all of middle Georgia.

In Macon, other mothers blended together like a trunk of Barbie dolls. My mom was her own brand. A local radio personality, she was recognized at restaurants and covertly trailed around grocery stores by admirers calling, "Is that you, Jami G?" She was on billboards lining the interstate wearing boxing gloves for a promotion, or in a jewelry ad with gleaming rocks around her throat. Making a getaway after a typical mother-daughter spat was simple, as long as I didn't drive down I-75.

My attitude and predilections never meshed with my town's slow-talking, deer-hunting, sports-as-religion milieu. But while I fumbled to find my identity, my mother built her career on the countless ways she was different. Everyone listened to her morning talk radio program. A liberal, Jewish Yankee, she was the perfect foil for her conservative cohost, who argued for rights to guns but not abortions. She wore her dissent like a badge of pride and shrugged off the hate mail that poured into the studio.

I was proud of her often—this confident woman who sparred with the good ole boys. But I was also young enough to be embarrassed by her public recognition. If my friends' mothers had their own opinions, they hid them. My mother's face, voice and world view pervaded our county like Georgia's omnipresent humidity. I could hardly leave the house without hearing about her.

When Jami G hosted zany infomercials—bouncing on beds at a mattress purveyor or wearing only a bath towel to sell stain remover—I often laughed with her. Other times I was embarrassed to hear about these capers before seeing them.

"Did I see your mama jumping on a bed on TV?" someone would ask.

"Nope, wasn't her," I'd lie.

Friends and complete strangers prodded me about my mom's views, mostly because they assumed that I shared them. Galvanized by a debate on the radio one morning, I emulated her by phoning in to her show with my opinion, perhaps to prove that I had one of my own.

I picked myself apart and tried to reassemble a new me antithetical to Jami G. But the harder I worked to differentiate myself, the more like her I became in the eyes of her friends and followers. My whole life I'd been told I was the spitting image of my father, but when people learned I was Jami G's daughter, I was told I looked just like her. So I rebelled, of course. Mom was a vegetarian; I fell in love with bacon. She wore her blond hair bobbed; I let my brown tresses grow. But I wasn't always successful. I had long fancied myself a writer and journalist. I filled notebooks with tiny tales, observations and reportage, and then I hid them beneath my mattress—like wads of cash during the Great Depression. But when I told people about my ambitions, I heard, "Just like your mother."

No, I wanted to say, just like me.

Sure, my mother and I shared a journalist's ardor for elevating the everyday, but I was determined to cut my own path. Since Mom wasn't involved in TV news, during high school I interned at both networks in town. A pop radio station gave me my own weekly entertainment segment. People who heard it swore that my voice was Jami G's. I was flattered, but I wanted my own voice.

I decided that skipping town was the only way I could truly be me. My first week at college in nearby Athens, I walked the campus without overtly being my mother's daughter—until I met my political-science teacher, who was a frequent guest on her radio show.

It was only when I trekked farther up the coast to New York that I escaped the shadow of my celebrity mother. She encouraged me to go, saying that finding a job you love means never working a day in your life.

When I got laid off from my first gig as a television producer, I wiped my tears and picked up the phone. Mom assured me that with hard work I'd find something new, and she was right. I was farther away, but feeling more like her than ever. It took a few years and a thousand miles, but I finally figured out that it's not such a bad thing to be like the people you love.