I don’t know about other households, but my extended family gave guilt like you wouldn’t believe. Especially my Grandmother on my Father’s side. She gave great guilt. She made it seem as if she was joking, poking you a bit. But you knew that somewhere deep down she meant it. When we would go to visit, we would be met at the door with, “I’m glad you came to see me today, I might be gone tomorrow.” followed by more food, fun, laughter and love than you thought anyone could pack into a visit. Yet, as we left she would say, “Come back soon. I might die before you get back to see me.” She would laugh, and hug, and play it off. When I was younger I thought it was just her schtick. It was just part of who she was.
My other Grandmother didn’t do anything like that. She was very stoic, and to be honest I was a little afraid of her until I was in my teens. Nana was practical and strong. She was the fatalist in the family. Whatever it is, is what it is, and all you can do, is what you can do.Those thoughts, that way of thinking, has served me more than well throughout my lifetime. She said to me once, “If somebody is hittin’ you in the head with a hammer, and you don’t tell ’em to stop…you deserve to be hit in the head with a hammer.” She took a good picture, didn’t she? Regal. And don’t think I chose well. All the pictures of her are like this.
But here was Granny, doing what I likened it to later as, the best Jewish mother impression she could muster. As she got older it got more insistent. The grand kids started a running joke with her. She was not allowed to go anywhere until her last grandchild graduated from high school. She didn’t make it. At the end, she got to see all of her grand children, and her great grand children, and then I told her it was o.k. to go.
Then I got to thinking about my mother, and all the things that she and I have been through. Just like all other mothers and daughters we have had moments where we didn’t like each other very much. Moments where it seemed we were in competition. Moments where I couldn’t comprehend why we could not see eye to eye. There’s nothing new there right? All of us go through that with our mothers. Then we learn and we grow and somehow miraculously time seems to smooth out all the rough patches.
Today my mother is my best fiend. I tell her everything. Something my sweetheart can’t understand, but has learned to accept. “And you told her?” he still asks with astonishment. My Mommy (which is what I call her) and I laugh, talk, go on trips together, and wax poetic about my relationship with my own daughter.
During one of those rough patches with my own daughter, my mother said something to me over the phone that struck me, like I’m sure gravity and relativity struck Newton and Einstein. “You know there was a time when I thought I had lost you. And it hurt. But you came back to me. You just have to wait it out,” she said. There were tears in her voice and she ended the conversation abruptly. I was confused for a moment after hanging up. I was bewildered. When did she think she had lost me? As I quickly went through my life in my head, like a movie on VHS on fast forward, it became clear. In college, my mother was more than two hours away from me. My parents had separated the year before. My father was only half an hour away. So he saw me more. It was proximity, and the fact that I didn’t have a car. I was wrapped up in being a college student. Making friends, and learning how to be “on my own” consumed my every moment. I never stopped to think that she might need me. It never occurred to me. And to her, that was me abandoning her. That equated to me shutting her out of my life. It also, to her, felt very purposeful. It hurt.
The rough patch with my daughter you might say is still going on to some degree. She’s in college. She’s dating. She’s busy trying to figure out who and what she wants to be, what she wants from her life. And yes, at times I feel abandoned, shut out, a pariah, if you will. I leave messages on her voice mail in my best Jewish mother voice, “Call your mother. I could be dead soon.”, to no response. Not because she has no particular feeling toward the inevitable truth that I will die, and probably before her. She remains silent because she doesn’t get it. She isn’t a mother yet. She has no grasp of what it feels like to carry a child inside you, nurture it, love it, feel its movement and personality meld with yours. She cannot know how life altering, and mind blowing that experience is. She doesn’t know how it changes you. She doesn’t know how or why it hurts.
There’s a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, delivered by Lady Macbeth, “….I feel the future in an instant.” A friend and I were talking about it. He didn’t know what that meant. I knew. When you become pregnant, you feel as though you are no longer the sum of your parts. You are literally carrying your future. You are the future, the past, and the present all at the same time. That’s the glow that people say pregnant women have. It’s a knowledge that only a mother can have. And throughout the life of that child it is a curse as much as it is a blessing.
Then I thought again about my grandmothers. Those wonderful women who fed and clothed and nurtured anyone they came in contact with their entire lives. Granny who had found an everyday way to vocalize what she was feeling. Nana who stoically accepted it as part of her journey. I realized their pain. How lonely it must have been as children left the house. How joyous it must have been to have grandchildren come back at different points to stay. How their souls must have ached when they got on their feet again and left for homes of their own. How used and abandoned they had to feel, even though in those instances, knowing that was the way it had to be. They had to leave. They had to grow. They had to leave her. That knowledge is deafening. It is soul crushing. It is a pain that can make your heart ache in ways you could never imagine, in places you never knew you had. It is especially ruthless when it is by choice not by circumstance.
This is the pain that every mother feels. This is the pain every mother knows is coming. This is our curse. It is a curse we accept over and over again with a smile on our face and open arms waiting for you to return. This has been what led me to an apology. Just a simple, “I’m sorry.” for all the unintended pain I caused her. I may never get that from my daughter. She may never realize the enormity. If she does, she may never be able to vocalize it. A part of me will always be waiting for it. While the rest of me knows it isn’t coming. So I will do as every mother has done before me. I will smile. I will laugh with her. I will offer counsel, and console when asked. I will love and shelter her as much as she allows. I will keep that innate hurt, that curse, to myself and try to concentrate on the joy of it all. One day she’ll understand. One day she’ll be a mother too.