If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother

Learning to let go and laugh with a difficult mother.

The author and her mother, Lee Daly (left), in 2005.
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Adair Lara.

I took my 80-year-old mother grocery shopping in my Jetta this morning, picking up milk and cat food and the extra-light Merits she still smokes, and, as usual, she gripped the handle on the ceiling with both large freckled hands as if she were in a helicopter with an open door. “Watch out for that car!” she said of a distant red truck idling at a stop sign. It was as though I were a teenager with a new permit instead of someone who is, underneath the expensively maintained red dye, as gray as she is.

There was a time when this irritated me so much, I actually confirmed my mother’s alarm by driving her into four lanes of oncoming traffic, swerving onto the shoulder just in time. Today it was only a trifle distracting. “I see him,” I said and glanced out the window at the bleached Marin hills. Behind them was the narrow San Geronimo Valley, about 20 miles north of San Francisco, where I grew up.

When I was a child, my mother was tall and perennially amused and smelled of suntan lotion. In summer she always wore a bathing suit under her clothes, as if expecting to go swimming at any moment. My love for her was almost unbearable. She called me Dare-Dare, and I’d give her blackberries with the prickly stems still attached where I’d torn them from the bush in my haste. I’d lie on the couch pretending to be asleep, hoping she would come by and stroke my shock of dark hair and the bangs she’d cut to my hairline in an attempt to get them even. I couldn’t figure out why a friend sleeping over would cry for her mother when mine was right there. I hated it when one of the other six kids in my family, my four sisters and two brothers, referred to our mother, distantly, as her instead of Mom.

It startled me to learn that we were expected to leave our mother when we grew up; I tried not to think about it.

I was shocked and hurt when my adolescence abruptly revealed my mother as an ordinary flawed person who, in her hurry to get to work, got her containers mixed up, using Pledge to iron her blouse and putting Nair on her legs, thinking it was lotion. “Good thing you weren’t washing your hair, Mom,” I said acidly. And she was busy: My father’s pickup roared out of the driveway for the last time when I was 11. She was raising seven kids as a waitress, then manager, at the local Elks Club; somehow her zeal to make me feel I was the sun and moon of her existence became less keen. As fond, motherly gazes gave way to silence and distraction, I was no longer convinced that I was her favorite, or even that she loved me. Bitter at her transformation, I’d say, “Is she home yet?” She, she, she.

I left my mother’s house and eloped with my boyfriend halfway through my senior year of high school, carrying out boxes of clothes and my Beatles albums while she was at work; I was probably acting more from a desire to punish her than a desire to be with him.

I soon returned, as a college student armed with new opinions. I was impatient with her increasingly needy victim stance. For example, her weeds. “Nobody helps me,” she always said, and went on about why none of us pulled her dandelions. I’d say wearily, “Mom, just hire somebody to do it.” When I was 24, I wanted to ask the father no one had seen in years to give me away at my wedding (number two). My mother said, “Over my dead body.” It takes two to wreck a marriage, I thought, and invited him anyway.

Much later I recognized myself in something Natalie Angier wrote in her book Woman: An Intimate Geography: “Women will romanticize their fathers and forgive them many sins and failings, but toward their mothers they show no mercy. Whatever the mother did, she could do no right. The mother was cold and negligent, the mother was overbearing and smothering, the mother was timid, the mother was a shrew.”

My mother had enough daughters to be all of those things. My oldest sister’s mother was cold and negligent: Connie, feeling rebuffed from childhood, announced that she now regarded her as just a friend and went off to Salt Lake City to live. When I went to see Connie there years ago, her friends, well-meaning blondes clinking the ice in their white wine, said to me in awed tones, “We’ve heard about your terrible mother. Can you talk about it at all?”

The mother of my twin sister, Adrian, never thought to send her to college, so it took her years to figure out for herself that she was smart.

The next oldest, sweet-natured Mickey, with her big brown eyes, had the opposite: a smothering mom. At one point Mom sent a friend to tell Mickey that she—Mom— would commit suicide (not meaning it) if my sister moved out of state, as planned. Mickey did move but phones Mom every morning still.

Robin is the youngest. Her mother was the shrew, critical and disapproving—and jealous of any attempt of this youngest child to succeed and fly away too. When she heard that Robin was writing a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian woman who painted with Michelangelo, Mom got agitated. “Who is that?” she demanded of Robin. “I’ve never heard of her! Why should you write about her?”

By the time I was in my thirties, my mother did not fight with me openly, as she did with my sisters, but there were small rebuffs, cancellations, the sharpness in her tone, the way she put a stiff Adair in the middle of her sentences.

She made me feel guilty for not giving her a bigger role in the life I made just across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. She expected to be invited to everything, so that dinner parties and other events at which moms were not usually featured had to be hidden from her. For years she complained that my husband, Bill, and I didn’t take her with us when we went to Italy. “I didn’t not take you,” I said, exasperated. “I just went.” Adrian had gone with us, which had persuaded Mom that Bill and I loved to take family members with us on vacation but for some reason had excluded her, a person widely known to be interested in Italy.

At times my sisters and I felt shortchanged by this angry, needy woman wearing our mother’s hot-pink T-shirts. Where was the perfect mother of our childhood (or at least of mine)? Where was the sweet, supportive, nonjudgmental and independent mother we deserved? We took turns not speaking to her, talked endlessly about her with one another and cataloged her moods, our disappointments.

Yet none of us could leave her alone.

We called, we visited, and we made present-laden pilgrimages to her door. Her power was still enormous. She burned bright as a fire in our lives: To draw too near was to get singed, and to draw too far back was to feel a chill. We were there not only because she demanded it but because we needed to be. We hadn’t gotten what we wanted yet—the approval, the recognition, whatever—and were going to wring it out of her.

Something shifted as I moved into my forties. I acquired a different pair of glasses. I could see her now, the way I could still read a book if I held it at arm’s length. The distance helped. It might have been that I finally grew up and found in myself the recognition and approval I had looked for in my mother. And by then I had endured the stormy adolescence of my own daughter, Morgan, now 28, and had only to look in the mirror to find a mother who made mistakes every step of the way.

In fact, I have never met any other kind.

It’s not just me. I’ve noticed this change in my friends and my sisters. Connie, the one who decided to regard Mom as just a friend, now says, “She did her best.”

My friends, too, say that once they hit this age, they begin remembering the good things about their mothers—and with that, often feel, finally, empathy for them and regret for pain they’d caused them. We begin to understand our mothers’ lives—and accept what is and isn’t in their nature to give us. My friend Nicole says, “She saw me at my worst and still loved me. She was often the target for my self-hatred: How can I respect someone who would put up with this crap from me? And then how I hated myself for being so horrible to her. This woman standing in her bathrobe, with no sleep and all worry. How I love her for not giving up on me . . . when even I had.”

As anger goes, other feelings come in. Shame, for example. Not long ago I played a home movie of my mother and my dad at some bar during the 1960s. He wore his leather jacket and embraced my mother with one arm, the other hand dangling at his side, holding a cigarette. I watched in outrage. Why couldn’t he put both his arms around her? I am so ashamed I invited him to my wedding when my mother asked me not to. I find I am struck by a thought: During all her thousands of comments about weeds, not once did it occur to me to just go out and pull them
for her.

The other feeling is love. Not the fierce child love I felt at six, but love that still makes my chest clench when I  remember she is not well and that someday, maybe soon, she will be gone.

My twin sister remarked the other day that all the novels I passed on to her are about mothers and daughters. I had no idea. But I know what the message of every one of those books is—that this relationship is so close that only disappointment is possible.

Today, after grocery shopping, I drive her back to a mobile-home park just beyond San Rafael. She is fragile from congestive heart failure, her tall figure slightly stooped, her eyes luminous. She’s not allowed to drive (except from the passenger seat). She goes to sleep every night with an audiobook murmuring in her headphones; male English voices are her favorite. “I’d listen to Jeremy Irons reading the phone book,” she tells me.

I remember that another reason my sisters and I always clustered around was that we liked her, although hardly anybody talked about that. I notice her humor. Her phone message for a time had a professional recording of a Beethoven sonata, which she interrupts to say, “Oh, I was just practicing the piano. Please call back.”

I now see her shelves of literary biographies and plays (before I noticed only the film biographies), the piano, the surprisingly good landscapes she’s painted over the years. I ask questions about her childhood. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that my mother, once a big mom-blur wearing some sort of turquoise or pink, a snappish mom or friendly mom or whatever other mom I projected onto her on any particular day, might even be an actual ordinary person. (My adult daughter, Morgan, still believes that I am a figure in mom-shaped clothes that deflates when she leaves the room. As connected as we are, she glazes over when I prattle on about a problem at work or some such. I can imagine the day when she cocks her own graying head at me and says something like, “Tell me something I don’t know about you.”)

My mother has been receiving care from a home hospice organization for a year and 10 months, to those fine folks’ consternation (the average is 10 days). We play Scrabble so much, I can’t read the paper without thinking, Crux—I should make that word next time I get an X and a C. I can buy clothes for her now. It’s as if I couldn’t before because I never noticed what she wore. I ignore her lifelong aversion to being touched—the woman has never had a  manicure!—and muss her hair playfully, getting a big surprised smile. I even tease her about backseat driving. (She says, “What are you waiting for?” I say, “For there to be no other cars on the road at all. Safer that way.”) I got her a toy wheel for her side of the car. Last week she said, “You never called up and asked me for cooking advice.” When I stopped laughing, I said, “Mom, why would I do that? You cook badly, and I don’t cook at all.” I reminded her that we used to say, “This is good. Just like Mom used to try to make.”

Her friends envy her—so many daughters! I think this time in hospice has been among my mother’s happiest, because we are no longer judging her needs or feeling bullied by them, but simply doing our best to do what she wants. “Everybody’s being so nice to me,” she says. “Somebody must have raised us well,” I answer.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I said, “I love you, Mom,” as if I’d been saying it to her all her life. And she said back, “I love you too, even though you let the cat out.”

The author’s mother passed away as this article went to press.

Adair Lara is the author of  Hold Me Close, Let Me Go: A Mother, a Daughter and an Adolescence Survived, The Granny Diaries: An Insider’s Guide for New Grandmothers and Naked, Drunk and Writing. She also teaches writing classes and does manuscript consultations.

Originally published in the December 2007/January 2008 edition of MORE.

First Published Fri, 2009-08-14 14:52

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