Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Becoming Our Mothers

If you are now, or ever have been, a daughter perhaps you'll understand. I can't say if these observations hold true for sons. (Does it seem strange to you that three out of four nuclear family roles are two syllable words: mother, father, daughter and then bam! - son - showing up with just its single, solid syllable?).

If you were lucky, like me, and born to the best kind of mother, there was a time when she could do no wrong. Your world revolved around her love, her approval, her kindness, her all-knowingness, her hugs, the way she told stories or made cookies. In turn, her world revolved around you.  

But then you got older and you started to see you'd been wrong. She wasn't perfection, not really, you'd been mistaken. How could you be so blind to her faults for all those years? To hell with that, I won't be like her! you may have said sometime in the two decades between 12 and 32. Those were the years you broke away, saw how other people lived, maybe went to college, became the most annoying of creatures: a privileged young idealist. You may have turned on your family, dating someone they didn't like, moving far away, judging them harshly and often. You launched yourself out of the gravity pull of mutual orbit. All good and necessary, but never a very flattering time. 

Eventually your 20s faded and with it some of that idealism and, I don't know why, but that also may have been about time you found yourself whispering in horror, "oh my god, I sound just like Mom." Or even worse, you felt your face or body act in such a way that for an instant you looked or moved just like her. You could feel it in your guts, in your bones. You may have panicked and said to yourself and to your very best friend since childhood, "I will not be like her! You have to promise to tell me if I'm getting like her." And that's also when you realized that you'd heard those words before. You remember hearing your own mother say that about her mother, usually after a long holiday visit or car ride with your grandma. Your mother would finally be free, she'd sink into a chair with exhaustion and say, "Please shoot me if I ever get like that."  You remember laughing, nodding and promising you would while thinking, but, Mom, you kinda already are. And you thought it was funny, quaint, that your mom couldn't see the inevitable happening to her. 

As your 30s rolled along you slowly resigned yourself to "being like mom" in the way you left the toaster-oven on long after your'd finished eating your snack, or left the mail sitting out next to the garden because you got distracted by some weeds on your way back from the mailbox. The weeds made it to the compost pile, but then you noticed that the blueberries needed water and so you did that and then you heard the kettle's distantly shrill whistle and remembered that you'd been boiling water for tea . The mail neglected until your husband came home from work and noticed it gathering evening dew by the tomato plants.

When you'd get together with your mom, you'd still notice many of the patterns and habits that could get under your skin but you tried not to let them bother you. You stopped vocalizing your judgments about her life and her approach to the world. Not because you'd become a more mature person, really, but because you realized that you, too, were permeated with faults in behavior and thinking, many of them similar to hers. Calling attention to her short-comings would be calling attention to your own. Such judgement was uncomfortably close to your own skin and psyche, so self-protection kept you quiet.

But then, if everyone made it this far and you eased steadily toward solid middle age, your mother's mother - your grandmother - began to fail. Maybe you watched this process from a distance with fear and humility. The daughter became the caretaker. Illicitly, she brought Cheez-itz and candy to her mother, one small joy for both of them. Your mother's every waking thought, and probably her dreams, became filled with "how do I help her get through this?"  A mutual orbiting returned for a brief flicker of painful time until it was finished, save for your mom getting down to the business of consolidating a lifetime of memories. 

And maybe a year or so after your grandmother's death, you began to see a profound beauty in the inevitability of "becoming our mothers". Maybe you got to spend a few days with your mom, you listened to her ways of talking and saw the mannerisms you share. You no longer got annoyed with how she interrupted her own quiet reading with interjections like, "Huh!" and "Wow!", so that you always asked, "What?" as she told you about something interesting she'd just read. You don't get annoyed because you heard yourself doing the same damn thing. And you knew that she couldn't help it, couldn't stop herself from doing it, because neither could you.  That was when it dawned on you that, dammit, there isn't enough time left. This will all be over way, way too soon, even if it's 30 years down the road. You imagine orbiting around your mother again, not as a child but as the caretaker. How will you negotiate that strange and looming landscape together?  And then, how will you negotiate your own without her? 

Someday it will happen, there's no way to stop it, you can't pretend anymore that it won't. And so you let yourself imagine what it might be like.  You imagine, when you sit at the piano there will be times when it's not you playing, but her ghost, rolling the big chords and holding the sustain pedal down too much. Even in the way you play the piano you've become "like your mother". The hemming and hawing over the mistakes and difficult passages, will not be your voice, but hers echoing in your ears.  When you walk over uneven terrain and your body moves awkwardly, you will feel that your are not yourself, but her.  When you leave things behind at other people's houses or your purse at a restaurant, your best friend will teasingly call you by your mother's name and you won't feel embarrassed, but proud and connected to your past.  "Damn, it's really happened. I'm just like my mother."  And so maybe, as you imagine this dreaded inevitable future, if you're lucky, you get to a point where you realize that in the time you have left there is no room for judgment and criticism.  Becoming our mothers is how we carry them forward, not just in our memories, but tangibly, visibly in our own gestures and habits, embedded in our own flesh and bones. There is no longer room to force her to fit some idealized "mom" shape and no time to fear "turning into her".  If you're lucky, you understand that there is only room and time enough for love, however you understand it.  

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