One of the 5 million things I love about Alyssa is that she cares not a whit for convention. She may or may not know that Mother’s Day is coming this weekend (likely her sister has hit her up for her half of flowers or a gift) but she just unwittingly handed me the best present ever. I came in late from choir and she bounded down the stairs, gave me a huge hug and asked me to sit down and listen to all the details of her day—which was action-packed and mostly positive. From a 16 year-old that was gift enough, but then she went on to hug me again and say how VERY glad she was that I was her mom, that she was proud that we get along when so many other mom-teen daughter pairs don’t and that she sometimes forgets to truly APPRECIATE me. Ok, that would’ve been a lifetime of happy right there, but then she said with great gravitas and feeling “Thank you for raising me” to which I replied “It has been a pleasure from start to finish” which, except for that brief period of infancy when she was not hitting developmental benchmarks and I spun out of control looking for adult group homes 18 years in advance, is the God’s honest truth.
She told me she was called an old soul in one day by two very different people—one teacher, one friend. Never have truer words been spoken. A wise and wonderful girl for whom music-making is the highlight of her school day. She may even like it more than lunch time chatter with her friends. It feeds her soul as it does mine and in that one small/huge thing we are deeply genetically connected. We are Myers-Briggs personality opposites and very often struggle to understand each other even in basic communication, but music is our language. She asked me once if I was disappointed that she wasn’t a singer or pianist. I explained how her clarinet playing has enriched my life by exposing me to the finer points of band and orchestral music that had formerly put me to sleep. I can now pick out most individual instruments while listening to a symphony and have volunteered to write program notes for her outside orchestra, thus getting the music history lessons I never got in school. We have come through divorce and driver’s training still loving each other—a modern miracle. She needs me for next to nothing but did today inquire about the logistics of how people had sex in the olden days in twin beds. (Me thinks she has found Father Knows Best or The Dick Van Dyke show on TV Land). She also wondered if anybody back then had sex just for fun rather than to procreate. I assured her that recreational sex has never been out of fashion in 2000 + years.
Franny refers to herself as my “practice” kid and she’s not wrong. She is a very different personality from Alyssa (much more like me) and that plays a role in our relationship, but it is true that I made a boatload of mistakes with her that I have corrected for Child 2.0. Still her love of all things beautiful, her fascination with the finest points of film making, her God-given artistic talent (albeit in mothballs at the moment) and her ability to sit at a piano and have beautiful original music flow out are but a few of the things that make her wonderful and fascinating. She is such a work in process. I have learned that all my buzzing and fluttering and worrying and nudging is a complete waste of time. She is going to do what she is going to do when and if she decides to do it. I do not envy her current life which seems boring and small and so very much less than she deserves, but that is not, I have FINALLY learned, for me to say. I can see a million paths to higher ground, but she fears rocky trails or avalanches or running out of supplies or who knows what. She will either figure it out or she won’t. She has full time employment with benefits, her own car, savings and a place to live that is not under my roof so I will have to trust the universe and her own fine mind to sort out the rest.
My brother called my mom his “forest ranger” because of the hours of wise counsel she gave him, helping to sort out the forest from the trees, but I never really had that relationship with her. By my tween and teen years my dad was in a mid-life mean-ish phase and she seemed wounded and weary all the time. I had plenty of things I could’ve used advice about, but I feared that letting her know that I was hurting in any way would only deepen her own pain so I kept mum. (ha! That really was no pun intended) I loved her and I remember many wonderful times with her and the occasional good advice she provided—notably “If you seem upset and angry with everyone around you, go look in the mirror as that’s where the problem likely lies.” I think of that often. She also came through in a number of crucial moments in my fraught-with-peril adult years. Right after marrying Ken there was a nasty incident in front of my entire family. I later said to my mom, “I think I made a big mistake in marrying him” and she looked me right in the eye and said “Mistakes can be fixed.” It took me 16 years to get there, but knowing I had the endorsement of a woman who stayed married for 65 years to someone I don’t think she was really happy with meant the world to me. I also remember being in a car with her after my first divorce and starting to cry and then apologizing. She said. “Please don’t apologize for crying. Cry as much as you want. You didn’t do nearly enough of it as a child.” Permission to lay down my lifelong stoicism gave relief beyond measure.
I think of her every time I am at the cottage. She loved it there and is the woman who first taught me how to be a beach blob. I was born in Grand Haven and all my siblings were in school so she and I would head for Lake Michigan several times a week and there is a photo of me at age two or three lying face up on a towel wearing those little egg cup goggle things to protect your eyes. Nobody knew from sunblock back then and I have the skin of an alligator from years of mother-daughter sun worshipping. We would take long walks along the shore at the cottage and have great talks. Every night there would be a Scrabble game where I struggled to hold my own. She once challenged me on “wok” and I went nuts when it did not appear in the ancient dictionary we used as referee for all disputes. And yet it contained “cunt” which she laid down with a small victorious smile. Argggggggh! She made the best three-layer chocolate cake on the planet and although it was from a mix, her homemade buttercream frosting was nonpareil. In fact, all of her baking was wonderful and knitting and crafting in general. She loved words and reading and music and has passed all of that on to me.
In her very late years her four children cared for her as each of us could. My oldest brother was close by and handled all the doctor’s appointments and also pop-in visits and made sure she got to church to fold bulletins and attend services. My sister visited regularly, usually once a week, although she lived over an hour away. She would organize outings and birthday parties and found and hired a terrific caregiver. My brother in California called faithfully every Sunday and listened to decreasingly coherent stories from our mom. My role was money manager. I could do it from home and it meant I didn’t visit often. I was ashamed one day when Alyssa, who was young, said “I miss Bubba. Let’s go see her.” I never went without wing men, usually my girls, as seeing the woman who had been my mom slowly lose her words and keen mind was heart-breaking. What I did do was give her pedicures. It gave me something to do and seemed to bring her pleasure. And on one occasion I talked all my students into driving 45 minutes to do one of our concerts for seniors in my mom’s Assisted Living facility. I remember she was a little confused, but very happy and Tom sat and held her hand through the whole thing.
The best gift she gave me was the assurance that having a late-in-life baby (she was 39, pretty old for childbirth back in 1954) was the best thing that ever happened to her and kept her young. I was able to give the same assurance to Alyssa when I topped my mom’s record and gave birth at 45. People say I neither look nor act my age and I give all props to my mom’s good genes and my darling daughters who have kept me young even while moaning at my adolescent taste in clothes.
After I stopped thinking corporate America was the be-all and end-all of life, the only thing I really wanted was to be a mom. I made a staggeringly poor choice of a father for my kids, but being their mom has been everything I had ever hoped for and more. Thank you, God, for letting me be in the lives of these exceptional people. And thanks to the amazing women in my life who held me up and commiserated endlessly along the way. Mothers are a fearsome tribe. So grateful I belong to it.