(Excerpt from the book, Random Notes)
The mother-daughter bond—that secret society connected by the blood and the pain of labor (nearly three weeks of labor, if you listened to my mother) —does not come with a secret handshake, but often a test of wills. This happens more often than not, as I learned when a friend invited me to lunch.
Unbeknownst to me, it was the anniversary of her mother’s passing. In a quiet voice, my friend told me that, when she was little, she sometimes felt like her mother hated her. After saying this, she looked me in the face, attempting to gauge my reaction. What she couldn’t have known was she had put into words and feelings, what I hadn’t shared with anyone else.
“I could never do anything right in my mother’s eyes”, my friend whispered. “Her way was the only way to do something. Her way was always better, quicker, etc. Her constant criticism paralyzed me so much that I became even clumsier around her.”
Boy, could I relate to that, for no matter how others praise you, no opinion matters or makes you more vulnerable than that of your mother’s. How I longed to tell my friend how her feelings mirrored mine. Yet, I didn’t dare interrupt because I knew how difficult it had been for her to share things that I suspected she had never told another living soul. This was her story to share and, for whatever reason, she chose me to share it with.
Yes, I could have told her that I too had searched for approval in everything I did, every decision I made, yet rarely was it forthcoming. When I did, it came with some kind of barb: “You did OK, but next time…”
Few of us had mothers like Carol Brady from the Brady Bunch or Claire Huxtable on the Cosby Show. The kind of mothers you could share things with and they understood. For example, one time out of my father’s earshot, I tried to ask her about the hair that had suddenly sprung up under my arms and down there. Frankly, I was concerned that other places might spring hair too—like on the bottom of my feet, or under my chin, which actually happened years later.
Her telling me not to worry about what was going on down there in a voice that halted any further conversation really hurt, to the point that I never discussed my changing body or my feelings about anything with her ever again.
Perhaps battling fatigue and wrestling with demons of her own, she failed to realize how fragile a child’s feelings were or how fleeting youth was. Once, I braved punishment for “talking back” when I voiced a question that had haunted me most of my young life: Why was she always so mean? Why couldn’t she be more like my friend Eileen’s mother?
“The world is not always going to be kind to you, so you had better get used to it now”, she often said. Then she added: “If you don’t like it here, feel free to go live at Eileen’s house.”
There were also a few good memories. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her in the kitchen, with an apron tied around her waist, as she peeled an entire apple in one long dangling peel for an apple cobbler for dinner. (Now that’s food good for the body as well as for the soul.)
No, my mother was not perfect-no mothers are (something I finally discovered). As I ruminate over our relationship, I have to believe she did the best she could, with the skill sets she had at the time.
Today my friend is a loving wife and a nurturing mother of two. Some years later, I shared my own story with her. We both smiled, happy for the loving, nurturing women we had become despite our upbringing/childhoods.
Still, sometimes when it’s quiet, I imagine that I hear her whisper in death the words, for some reason, she could not utter in life. “You have turned into an amazing woman, my child; I knew someday you would.” Standing next to her, I hear my friend’s mother echo the same to her own daughter.