Our Mother's, Ourselves

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The mother I have today, is not the mother I had growing up. In fact, there’s very little about today’s Mom that looks like the, say, 1958-1981 version.

Today’s iteration is a sweet, patient, optimistic and happy (x2) Golden Senior... some would say, akin to Betty White. She smiles at strangers, gives generously to charity, and sees the bright side of everyone and everything. She keeps complaints to a minimum, and maintains a simple, manageable life. ..Generally, at one with the Universe. 

My original Mom, on the other hand, had four young children, a high maintenance husband with a stressful job (and a very public persona), and lived through a nasty bout of cancer. She also packed and moved her young family of 6, five times , virtually alone, and once - half way across the country. It would be difficult for anyone to be sweet, patient, optimistic or happy amid this kind of chaos.

In 1969, our family Christmas letter was peppered with words like “jail,” "dropping out,” “hotwired,” and “getting fired.” This honest, raw and real written account of our family antics had recipients begging to be retained on our mailing list. (I believe that was the same year the KKK burned an 8’ cross on our front lawn...). Back then, airing a family’s dirty laundry was taboo. But yep, there it was, and maintaining a June Cleaver-like façade was not a practical priority for Mom.

I think Mom was just plain tired by the time she got to me, the last of her four kids. With years of therapy under my belt, I no longer hold her hostage for our history together. Or, at least, I try not to. Like everyone else, she did the best she could with what she had at the time, and clearly, we were not an easy group.   

Fast forward 35+ years, and those of us left standing, have changed. At 91, Mom lives a pretty stress-free life, particularly since she lives Right.Next.Door. and gets ample help from me. During the course of this eight year arrangement, I’ve had the opportunity to spend more time with, and enjoy the new-and-improved Mom on a regular basis.

Our daily visits often include viewing old photos from her bottomless file cabinet. Memories we share are bonding... like cement or glue in between the cracks of our life experience. Certain stories are retold with predictable regularity, as if to remind us that we have, in fact, shared the past 59 years as mother and daughter. Devoid of these (limited) collective memories, Mom and I could easily be from different families... or planets. Most of the remember-whens begin with a smile, but in a nanosecond, our bliss can go sideways with both of us insisting that our version of the story is the “right” one.

Mom recalls outrageous (sometimes frightening) historical family incidents with her current optimistic tone of nostalgia. Take, for example, the time she and Pop went to Moraco and left me and my siblings with our oldest brother (17 or 18 at the time). I distinctly remember his epic, 2-day rave that ended with a “guest” passed out in my bedroom, and a VW parked on our front lawn. Despite a police log detailing the same, Mom would say this event never actually happened. AND that it was a figment of my imagination. La, la, la...

But as life would have it, opportunities to wear my mother’s shoes abound. Like Mom, the original version of my own mother-self was tired, irritable, and often impatient with my family. Just getting through the day was enough. The new-and-improving-me is calmer, lighter, and able to see the “bright side” of things more often. I’m beginning to see the humor in past events, which might not actually have been so funny... The power of the empty nest.

These days, when my two (mostly grown) daughters share their perceptions of our family history, I’m often stupefied. Situations that I recall happily, with a smile on my face (as Mom would do), apparently caused PTSD in my children. Things I don’t recall ever doing, apparently took place “all the time.” And sometimes, when I remember an event as laugh-worthy, my girls can barely hold back the tears. Although I want to correct their memories, I try not to, because I’ve been in their shoes.  

I doubt Mom ever performed these kinds of mental gymnastics, but here I am, tumbling all over my mat and turning into her. It’s not that I don’t want to become my mother, I just don’t want to stop becoming her. I don’t want to get stuck at the beginning of this new calm. I want what she has now.... what looks and feels like peace and serenity.

If it’s true that we “become our mothers,” then I’m lucky to be headed towards Mom’s 91 year old version of herself. My father use to say to Mom, “You’re just like your mother.”  Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Emily Gaffney