You would have never known it to look at her, but my mother had a hard time in her life. She was anxious, lonely and kind of generally unsettled. She worried about everything and everyone, and she mostly felt like she should have more to show for herself. As close as I was to her as her only daughter, I can’t even say for sure what happened in her life that made her feel this way. Maybe it was genetics; maybe brain chemistry; maybe just being a woman born in the first decade of the 20th Century.
All of that, mixed with my own challenges and triumphs, took a million different forms in our lifetime together. When I was born, she was 40, already the mom of two boys, 10 and 14. Even as a tiny kid, I had a sense of having entered a life already in place, as if I were watching it from the bleachers. And even then, I could see that she was struggling. My dad was gone a lot at multiple jobs that he worked to dig our family out of debt, the main one as a grammar school teacher. When he was home, they didn’t interact much. She wanted to talk and process life and he wanted peace and quiet after long days with noisy 6th graders. As I got older, I could see that she felt disconnected from him, but I never saw anything that looked like them working on repairing that. Maybe it's just what they were accustomed to. I used to watch Divorce Court on Saturday afternoons and wondered when they might be on it. They stayed together more than 50 years, though, and actually had a nice connection near the end of their lives.
We are bound to our mothers, literally for a bit and figuratively forever.
But even in her last years, she was agitated and lonesome, often asking me to come over and sit with her, despite him being right there in the same room. I knew I couldn’t fix the holes in her and I’m sure she knew it too. That sadness is often the first thing I think of when I think about her. But I also think of her humor, her deeply held liberal views, her love of dogs, and just the look in those deep blue eyes. More than anything, I am continually floored by the connection I still feel to her. When I consider our powerful pre-verbal relationship, it is no wonder I can never find the words to describe our bond.
These days, I come close to tears, just thinking of her. Looking in the mirror, it is her face I see—with a bit of my dad mixed in for good measure. As I scrolled through high school photos posted on Facebook this week to honor my 50-year high school reunion, I thought of me then, and her. In some ways, we barely knew each other.
As a shy, introverted kid, too scared to tell anyone I was gay, such a huge part of me wishes we could have connected in a much deeper way. I’m sure she felt that, too, as a person who felt pretty alone in the world. Maybe that’s just what we do with our mothers—a funny dance of closeness and distance until we’re ready to leave the nest, and even after. We are bound to our mothers, literally for a bit and figuratively forever. The mothers I know now are on the other end, trying so hard to hold their daughters and sons with just the right grip—enough to transmit every ounce of love and support and not enough to hold them back. I am not a mother, although I serve as an unofficial adviser to my friends who are, so I feel the pull. There really isn’t another relationship in our lives that duplicates that one with our mothers.
One of the big surprises of getting old is the huge rush of nostalgia I feel so frequently. In every scene I recall, every drive I take past an old neighborhood, every old scrapbook, I see her and whatever role she played in my life at the time. I miss my mother often and, when I do, I feel a pain as strong as anything I’ve ever experienced. Because she has been gone so long, most of the people to whom I am close never met her, never heard that laugh, the self-effacing way she would joke about herself. They never really knew how irritating she could be when she needed so much from me. But she was a thing—so much the shaper of who I started out to be.
So funny that we come back to our mothers near the end like this, but no surprise at all when we consider how it all began.