Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Next month I will turn 37. As much as that number surprises and daunts me, it mostly reminds me how much I've been dwelling on being 36.

Almost like a mantra, I have thought countless times this past year, "I am 36 and my mom is 63. Opposites." Yet never have my mom and I shared more in common.

This year my mother and I, from 3,000 miles apart, shared similar caregiving struggles. I called her often to help me find my way through the rooster's autism diagnosis, questions about medication, frustrations with the medical world, concerns about his behavior, fears about his future. On her end, mom dealt with my grandmother's failing health, sometimes inadequate medical care, confusing behavior, emotional outbursts, poor prognosis. And we wished we could be there with each other; I wished I could help my grandma (who is also my hero, my heart, my cherished dear grandma), and my mother wished she could help the rooster (the first baby she ever watched be born). We shared the internal struggle of not being able to travel easily, of having parts of hearts beating in beloved family members in crisis across a country but not knowing how to go to them.

My mother and I talked to a lot of doctors this year. We stood in many pharmacy lines. We cried. We worried. We struggled. We lost a lot of sleep. We cursed. We aged. We aged way more than just a year's worth. We had a lot in common in that way during this inverse, backward-forward, mirrorlike year, 36 and 63.

But that doesn't tell the whole story of my preoccupation with age 36 and the mother connection.

My mom's 36th year happened to be a milestone one in my both our lives as well. That year, my mother finally decided to leave my father after about 16 miserable years of marriage, and to start a brand new life with my brother and I far away from the wreckage; we left just in time to narrowly escape the implosion of my father's fraudulent business and the arrival of the authorities. I didn't know about any of this before it happened. I simply went to school as usual one Friday, took a social studies test about explorers, and rode the bus home eager to show off my A. My mom would not have really cared that much about my A, as she let it be known since kindergarten that she had no interest in talking about school related matters, but surely my perfect score never came up after I arrived home to find our valuables loaded into two cars and my grandparents ready to escort us out of the city to our new lives with them.

The year my mom turned 36, I absolutely could not stand her. In my young mind, she ruined everything. And, she didn't seem to care one single bit. Selfish, cryptic, uncooperative, angry, unwilling to talk to me, loudly talking to everyone else, my mother seemed to me to represent the single great flaw in my life. I wanted to know what just happened to me, and why, and when she would fix it, and how I was supposed to survive never seeing my old school and old friends again. I wanted to know why she brought me only clothes, but not prized possessions, and what happened to all of our stuff. I wanted to know if this meant we were poor now, and if I'd ever see my father again. But my mother wasn't talking to me. If only my grandma had been my mother, I thought. It didn't seem fair, in all my Pollyannaish overachieving goodytwoshoesness to have a rebellious teenage-like mother, darkly tangled in a shameful mess with my no good father. I resented her for making a mess out of both of our lives. I resented her for telling everyone within my ear shot not to worry about me because kids are "resilient."

Since turning 36 myself, I have often wondered what it would be like for my mother at age 36 to sit down across the table from me and have a heart to heart. This kind of time-warp imaging is something I confess I am prone to, and something I think you should try if you never have. More often I have pondered talking to my grandma during her youth, because grandma, the person I've always identified with most, always seems to have so much to teach me, such wisdom to reveal, and I have always wished I could have had more time to spend with her. I know if I could borrow Michael J. Fox's car back in time to visit only one person, I'd go find grandma, probably circa 1956. But over the years I've come to realize that my mother has her own wisdom, and in this past year my appreciation for her strength has grown; I know for sure that my mom knew a lot more at age 36 than I gave her credit for at the time.

If my mom from 198oish sat down across from me in my living room right now, I'd want to ask her very different questions from the ones I had when I was in fifth grade. I would start with, Are you scared to raise these two kids without a husband? Are you happy? What makes you happy? Why don't you get along better with grandma? What is it you are searching for? Do you like the 10-year-old me? Why don't you talk to me more? I might even ask her if she liked me, the grownup, and if we two 36-year-olds could be friends. But then I'd want to know about her past: How did you survive taking care of a baby with such severe seizures that she almost died? How long did it take after I started having seizures before you learned to sleep again? Did you watch me breathe all the time? Was it hard to let the doctors prescribe such strong meds for me? Did it make you nervous when you gave them to me? Was I a nice kid when I was ten? Did you resent me for being so different from you? Were you hoping for a mini-Me? I've asked her these things already of course, squeezed a few answers out of her, but I'd like to get her age-36-perspective nonetheless. I'd like to see not just what she'd say, but how she'd say it; would we sound at all alike? Would we, both 36, enoy one another's company? We are friends now, but it took a long time to get there.

My mother and I have opposite ages right now, but we're more alike than we've ever been. The shift started happening gradually after I moved to the West Coast in my early twenties. My mom had just met and married a wonderful guy, the first nice guy I ever knew her to love, and she started shocking me on the phone with comments like, "Did you see Martha Stewart on tv today?" After I got over thinking aliens abducted my mother, I began to get used to her newfound passion for gardening and her forgiveness of pastel colors. I actually got her to send me some family recipes. I leaned on her through some difficult times, including a bad breakup of my own, telling her how un-resilient I could be sometimes (with scars dating back to that fateful year of my childhood), and her support across the miles solidified the reparation between us. I briefly considered staging a late rebellion of my own in my twenties now that mom had normalized so much, but, nah, I was too set in my boring ways. My mom and I talked more and more as the years passed, finding more and more common ground (not only as she changed, but as I grew less judgemental and stubborn), and now, here we are, 36 and 63. Opposite. But the same. Two moms doing the best we can; two daughters, doing the best we can.


pixiemama said...

Great post!

My mom and I only had one really rough patch in our relationship - when I changed my major in college. She was so afraid I was headed for a life of financial instability. (Aren't we all languishing there now?)

I think it's also very interesting to consider my relationship with my mother as I consider how my relationships with my children with evolve over the years. Will I be closer with my daughter than my sons? Will my daughters-in-law like me? Will I be an overbearing menace to my children their entire lives - the way I am now? Will I become more laid-back as they get older, like my mother did?

Niksmom said...

Gayle, this is beautiful!