My mother isn’t the type to be angry about her age being revealed, because at 57 she really doesn’t look much over 40. I used to complain that I still look twelve, but as I get older, I’m finding it to be less a problem, and more a feature of our genetics that most of the women in my family don’t really look their age.
She was born, as she’ll tell you if you ask, in Valley Forge, PA, on what was then Washington’s Birthday. As a small child, and a Catholic school student as well, she and her younger sister, born on the day of the Immaculate Conception, both got their birthdays off from school. Of course, it took them several years to realize it wasn’t all about them. Actually, I think my mother has yet to truly realize this.
I complain about her a lot. She runs my life, even from Baja Sur, she re-arranges my house to suit her, and uses a different mug for every cup of coffee, many of which travel upstairs, never to be seen again. I sometimes think we’ll find a treasure trove of old coffee mugs under the guest room bed if we ever leave this house. She has lost the art of conversation, since leaving the States, making strings of declarations without pausing for breath, or to allow a response. More frightening, is that she seems to have also lost the art, the joy, in being alone. I don’t mean permanently, I mean, she’ll say, “I want quiet time,” and then five minutes later she’ll be talking, as if the quiet she used to revel in has suddenly become oppressive. Watching this, I wonder if older people become slightly batty as a sort of self defense against being inside their own heads. Not that my mother strikes me as being ‘older,’ in any sense other than ‘older than me.’
The thing about mothers and daughters is that even when we hate each other, we still have a bond. There have been times when I’ve wanted to completely purge my mother from my life. I’m sure there have been similar moments on her part. Ultimately, though, the umbilical cord, the metaphysical one, is still connecting us, even though it’s often stretched thin to the point of breaking. The other thing about mothers and daughters is that even when they hate each other, they love each other unconditionally, or at least, that’s how it is in my family.
For the most crucial parts of my life, our family, the nuclear version of same, was just Mom and me. In a slightly grittier, more politically active version of Gilmore Girls, the two of us faced the world as a united front. It’s like soldiers and their buddies, only cleaner, and with less bloodshed. Some of the lessons from my mother still resonate with me. Some I have yet to learn. Most have helped to form and inform the person I am today, and I mean that in a good way that goes beyond, “Always wear clean underwear.”
Random things my mother taught me include always having odd numbers of design elements, like flowers or candle sticks, because even numbers look weird, and that when decorating for holidays, you should carry the decorations throughout the house. She taught me how to write the ultimate sales pitch for MS read-a-thons, and that you don’t have to marry the first person you sleep with. She gave me my love of reading, my joy in music (despite her complete and utter inability to carry a tune), and my adventurous spirit with regard to foods, places, and culture. She weaned me on coffee, served me my first bloody mary, and taught me how to make the perfect meatball, but she also gave me the ability to write sincere thank-you notes, and to enjoy giving gifts as much as receiving them. She’s tolerated every experiment with various religions, and equally various hair colors, not even shrieking (much) when I came home one year with gothic black hair and fuck-me-dead red lipstick. She learned to make hats for me, and made sure I had tap lessons, cello lessons, voice lessons, and entry fees for writing competition, even if sometimes that meant she didn’t have money for lunch.
The present I WANT to give my mother today is a real, face-to-face coffee date, where we’re not constricted by schedules or other plans, followed by a walk on the beach.
The present I’m actually sending is a gift certificate for Amazon.com, so she can buy a frou-frou magazine and have it sent down to Mexico once a month.
Happy birthday, Mom.