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.

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.”)

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