July 10, 2002
I’ve been thinking about my relationship with my mom lately, in part due to my recent reading of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which contains many tales of women and their mothers, most of them sad. Add that to having just vacationed with Mom, and gone with her to see The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood (another tale of a mother-daughter relationship gone awry), and it’s not surprising that I’m thinking about mom and me.
I don’t know many women who don’t have at least a few complaints or regrets about their moms, and I’m no different. Mom and I both cried during the Ya Ya movie, and it was hard to tell sometimes if it was because of the story on the screen or because we were reflecting on our own story. Yes, we’ve had problems, but we’ve managed to get to the point where we can spend five days together in close quarters and enjoy ourselves enough to do it again year after year. Still, there are those sore spots to look back on.
There’s the clothes issue. My mom often complained about how, growing up, she was forced to wear clothes she didn’t like, clothes her mother picked out for her. She’s described a lot of ruffled confections in unflattering colors and fabrics, like old rose and huge floral prints, that she didn’t feel comfortable in. Not wanting to repeat this scenario with me, Mom let me decide what I wanted to wear from the time I was small. Yet because I was so eager to please, so hungry for positive attention, I ended up in a lot of things that were much more her taste than mine. In junior high and high school, when I really started to care what other people thought about me, this led to some embarrassing moments. My National Honor Society induction is a case in point. All the other girls wore outfits that would have been at home in any professional office, like skirted suits or dress pants with nice blouses. I, in contrast, was wearing a gypsy-inspired dress with a full skirt and huge puffed sleeves in a multi-colored floral paisley print, a tight, bright marigold knit bodice, and shiny satin ribbon trim. Mom loved it and thought I looked great, while I felt like the sorest of sore thumbs. I wanted to disappear, but of course my outfit made that impossible. The irony is that now I’ve incorporated so much of my mom’s style into my own that we sometimes dress in mother-daughter outfits without planning to, like the last day of our trip to Charlotte. When she came out of her bedroom, she was wearing a top in the exact same print fabric as the skirt I had on. Freaky.
There’s the grandma issue. She told me grandma Bess didn’t like me. I believed her, and gave Grandma a wide berth. After Grandma died, we found among her things a little photo album with pictures of me in it. Starting with the one taken of me in the hospital just after I was born and updated through my 4th grade school picture. (In that last picture, I’m wearing a horrid lavender and white top awash in lace and ruffles and ribbons; I still remember how scratchy that was to wear.) She had kept this album with her, preserving pictures my own mother had long since lost track of. It sure didn’t seem like something she’d have hung onto if she didn’t like me. I wish I’d tried to connect with Grandma one to one, rather than letting my mom’s poor relationship with her mother color my bond with my grandmother. Maybe I would have been hurt the same way Mom was, but maybe not. Now I’ll never know, and I regret that.
There’s the “having kids ruined my marriage” issue. My parents got divorced when I was around eleven, after years of fighting, both verbal and physical. The divorce itself was not traumatic compared to the chaos that had preceded it. My parents were civil to each other, and I didn’t feel caught in the middle or to blame for the breakup. Compared to how ugly divorces sometimes get, this was relatively painless, at least for me. Much later, when I was all grown up, my mom talked about how great her marriage to my dad had been before they had kids. “We were so happy other people came to us for marriage advice,” she said. “Your dad’s drinking didn’t get bad until he was a father.” Tell me how I can hear that and not feel guilty. I know she was just trying to explain why she, an intelligent woman, had gotten into the very bad situation I grew up with, but it still hurt to hear that things were peachy until I and my brother showed up.
I know my mom did the very best she could, and she gave up a lot so that my brother and I could do things and have things we needed (and many we just wanted). Over the years, I’ve learned more about what resources and experiences she brought to mothering and that helps me understand better some of the things that frustrated me when I was younger. And honestly, I now catch myself doing some of those things myself, so I have no doubt that if I had kids, they’d be annoyed with me, too. For instance, I sometimes take the long way home just to see different sites, and I sometimes chat up shopkeepers and thus lengthen the amount of time I spend in the store; I can imagine a child being impatient to get home squirming at my side, her mother’s enjoyment in the present moment not withstanding.
I had a dream about Mom the other night. We were driving in separate cars in opposite directions, passing each other on a commercial suburban street like the ones I drive on every day. She waved at me frantically, somehow communicating in that gesture that she had something to tell me and I needed to stop and listen. In my rear view mirror, I watcher her pull over and get out of her car to wait for me to make a u-turn and come back. I had just about accomplished that when I was awakened by that morning’s alarm, so I never got to hear the urgent message. That made me a little sad. I talked to her on the phone after that, half hoping she would know what she’d been going to tell me, but she did not. I guess I’ll have to keep sleeping and hope it comes up again. The important things usually do become clear eventually.