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.”

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