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I'm looking at a photograph of my mother and myself, when I was eighteen years old and she was forty nine. My mother was a striking woman, but she looks old in this photograph: tired, a little discouraged, and more than a little melancholy. In this photograph she is dressed in clothes that would be described as "matronly," and underneath, I know, she would have been wearing a tight and binding girdle. In the picture, her hair is set with beauty parlor stiffness, where mine hangs straight, well past my shoulders, in the style of my idol that year: Joan Baez. But it's not just an unfortunate hairstyle that makes my handsome mother look old beyond her years in the photograph: It's the sadness that comes through, the look of a woman whose marriage ended years before, except that nobody moved out. There's sadness on my face too, of course. Because I was the daughter of unhappy parents. Trying desperately to fix things, and unable to do it.
The girl in that photograph -- me -- turned fifty last year. So I am older now than my mother was then. My own daughter, too, is older than the girl in the picture. As for my mother, she 's been dead fifteen years now, making me only a mother now, no longer anybody's daughter.
But after all these years, my mother remains a daily presence in my life, as I know to be true for most of my friends, like me, whose mothers are no longer living. I think of her at all kinds of moments: when something happens in the lives of one of my children that I'd want to tell her about, when I suffer a loss or a heartbreak, and when there's good news. I wished she was there to put her arms around me when I went through my divorce, of course, and when my daughter -- her only female grandchild -- graduated from college, wearing her grandmother's graduation cap, spilling over with flowers.
I think of her at funny little moments too: when I try to make gravy (and it doesn't work, and I can't call her up to ask what went wrong) or when I reach for the line of a poem, and I know she'd be able to quote me the whole thing. She's suddenly there again, when I hear a passage from Don Giovanni (an opera she loved, whose arias she sang along with the record, while vacuuming, in a big, beautiful off-key voice). And I think of her when I pass through the perfume department of a department store, and I see a bottle of Rive Gauche -- her fragrance -- and feel a need to squirt a little on my wrist, just to breathe her in for a moment.
But lately, I have been thinking about her in a particular new way too. Reaching the landmark of age fifty, I found myself calling to mind who my mother was at the age I have reached now. With no living mother around to guide me, I look to my mother's life for the lessons it may have for me, at the half-century mark. And I find them, too. I see the similarities between us, and the differences
Then came the bitter lesson: The discovery that the man she loved was an alcoholic. She had a child (my sister) and then another (me), but even in those early years, she told us later, the relationship between my parents was impossibly strained, though she put up a good show.
And then there was a second sorrow: In that small town, my brilliant, educated and accomplished mother was unemployable by the university where my father had a job, for no reason but the fact of her gender. She was supposed to attend tea parties of faculty wives and keep house, not go to work. And so, unable to find regular employment, she got a job selling encyclopedias door to door, and another job tutoring French, for a dollar an hour. The PHD she'd worked so hard to earn mattered less, in that world, than the tidiness of her kitchen or the question, "Do you play bridge?" (She didn't.) No career to speak of. Not a lot of loving closeness with her husband. Her family far away. As the product of a culture virtually unknown in chilly New Hampshire, my mother lived a lonely and isolated life.
And so, for all the years I was at home, my mother's greatest and most ambitious accomplishments, as she would have been the first to announce, were her two daughters, my sister and me. Those were times when a woman defined herself by who her husband was, how many children she had. And who they became.
Later, she would say she had stayed in an unhappy marriage for her daughters' sake (not words that any child feels good about hearing), and of course we also knew, she'd given up her career, her Jewish heritage, even her country (Canada), to make a life in that small town where my father taught at the university, while she exchanged recipes with the faculty wives. (Few of whom would ever have heard of a knish, or tasted matzoh. None of whom could quote Chaucer, as she did. )
When you grow up seeing yourself as the repository of your mother's aspirations -- her emissary into the world of acknowledgement, success, and big world achievement -- you are not simply pursuing your own dreams, but hers. I know that even as a young child I felt it: the burning need to lay at my mother's feet the kind of success and acknowledgement she had deserved, and never gotten. Not surprisingly, the weight of carrying around all that responsibility for my mother's happiness, as well as my own, left me with a certain ambivalence. Always love too; love was always the dominant emotion. But resentment was somewhere in the mix, I know. And so, as close as we had been when I was growing up, I put some distance between us.
I attended an Ivy League college, once an all male bastion, and from there, moved swiftly into the world of New York City and a life of publishing success. Early on, I won recognition for the work I did. If there was struggle in my life (and there was) it had less to do with the challenge of making a career than with what happened on the home front, where, as a young mother of three, I had found myself in my own version of a deeply troubled marriage. But like my mother, I kept that part under wraps, presenting only my successes to the world, and to the one whose applause always mattered the most to me: my mother.
She loved it that
I had a career, as she loved my sister's successes. Sometimes, I have
to admit, it felt almost claustrophobic, how much she loved my accomplishments,
how much it mattered to her, that I had gotten what she'd been denied.
When my mother was fifty, her twenty-five-year-long marriage to my father had finally ended. With her children grown and gone from home, and no particular reason to stay in our big old house in a town whose college had never seen fit to give her a job, she returned to her native Canada and made a career for herself as a writer. She met a man she truly loved, and at the age where so many people are winding down, retiring, cutting back, she created a whole new life for herself.
It's funny how this works: All those years, my mother had sacrificed herself for my sister and me -- cooking special meals, sewing us dresses, knitting a sweater, even, for a doll of mine, so small she had to use toothpicks for knitting needles. All those hours she spent, going over our writing with us, typing our manuscripts, taking us to plays and concerts and museums. All to ensure that our lives would have what hers had not. And yet, there was probably nothing my mother ever did for me, more truly inspiring -- nothing that I ever admired more, and nothing that serves me better as I go about my life now, without her -- than the model she provided, when she finally stopped living just for us, and made her own good, rich and independent life.
The picture I carry of her, in my mind's eye, is not so much the mother bent over the stove, stirring soup, as it is the bright eyed woman in a ribbon-decked hat (over fifty, by this point) who, shortly after moving to Toronto, decided to throw a party to which she would invite only men. One hundred of them. Many of whom she'd never met. (She just wanted to.) And the best part was: they showed up.
Photographs of my mother, from that final happy decade of her life (she died, way too young, at sixty six) show a far happier woman than the one who looks out at me now, from that photograph of the two of us, as she was closing in on fifty. It's clear to me, from looking at her face, that in the last years of her life she found a kind of joy that was mostly absent from her forty-eight-year-old face.
I think it was having witnessed my mother's joyful rediscovery of her independent self -- her great talents, her ability to make her way in the world without a husband at her side -- that brought me greatest comfort when, shortly after her death fifteen years ago, my own marriage ended. My mother had been fifty one when she divorced; I was just thirty five. And the fact that my marriage ended sooner than hers did was due I think, in no small part, to the summer I spent in Toronto, helping to care for her as she was dying. That handful of months I spent sitting in her garden with her, talking over our lives, had revealed to me, finally, the source of my long-held resentment I'd felt towards my mother, over nothing more than the guilt her own unhappy marriage had left me to bear.
That summer, as my marriage crumbled away, I saw myself repeating the old pattern of self sacrifice for my own three children, saw how I'd substituted the creation of a life that looked good for a life that was truly happy. I looked in the mirror, and saw the same tight, strained expression I remember on my mother's face, when I was young. I did not want my daughter, one day, to look in the mirror and see the same thing -- didn't want to pass down, one more generation, the legacy of mothers living only for their children, and weighing them down, as they did, with a heavy sense of obligation.
What came to me, finally, the summer of my mother's dying, was the futility of trying to keep alive -- for the sake of the children -- a union that had died long before. Child, myself, of parents who stayed together in that kind of marriage, it came to me that no parent can truly protect her child from the pain of an unhappy marriage.
I'm no advocate of divorce. In fact, there's nothing like having lived through divorce to make a person understand, as I do, that two people in a troubled marriage should do everything they can to work things out, make things better, stay together, so long as they can do it in a way that is true to themselves, and not simply out of fear for the alternative, or a belief that they somehow owe it to their children to remain under the same roof.
For my parents, it was simply not possible in the end. And for my children's parents, the same was true. The same year of my mother's death, in fact, my marriage ended. And that is not entirely a coincidence, I know.
My mother, in her later years -- the years after her marriage -- finally revealed to me what her face looked like, when she was happy. Not all the time of course. But more so than at any other time in her life.
And actually, the same is true of me. I look at photographs of myself, when I was thirty, and though I may feel a certain stab of regret, that I no longer possess that unlined skin, or those knees, the woman I see in the pictures looks anxious and unhappy, often. Not that I don't feel that way now sometimes, still. But the face my children see when I greet them now is more my own than it has been at any other time before.
I like to think that whatever sadness my children experienced over their parents' divorce (and there was plenty), this much at least has been a good thing for them. They are the children, at last, of a mother who no longer depends on them for her sense of well being, any more than they depend on me, for theirs. They've seen me mourn my own mother, mourn my marriage. But they have also seen me become, at last, a woman who is true to herself, same as my mother became one, in the end.
It is a part of my mother's legacy, I think, that a year beyond the half century birthday now, I can truly tell my sons and daughter, their mother is a happy woman. The only happiness they are responsible for creating, now, is their own.
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