A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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My mother never looked or acted the way real mothers were supposed to. She wasn’t soft or huggable, she didn’t sew clothes or bake cookies, and she never volunteered to be class mother. Also, unlike my friends’ mothers, she never looked completely done in by chores and child rearing. On the contrary, she remained untouchably glamorous.
My mother had great legs and she knew it. She wore short skirts with a pair of green lizard-skin high heels. Every afternoon at three o’clock, the house in perfect order, she took a “beauty break” for a half-hour or so. (God help me if I did anything noisier during her nap than turn the pages of a book.) Then she made herself a cup of tea and renewed her manicure. She had pretty hands and flawless nails that she enameled every day. It was a great honor to sometimes get to choose the shade.
My mother could also be funny and irreverent. Shopping for an Easter bonnet could easily end in a comedy routine, the hat perched at a ridiculous angle on my mother’s head and her tongue sticking out in a parody of a country bumpkin while the salesgirl sniffed scornfully at our hysterics.
While she prepared supper, my mother would play pretend with me, entering willingly into my fantasy world. During my cowgirl phase, she’d drawl, “Waal, Slim, mosey on over to the bunkhouse and fetch me some rice for the ranch hands’ supper.” And off I’d trot to the pantry.
Before my father got home, my mother changed her dress, brushed her hair into a shiny halo, and made up her face. Upon his arrival, I receded into the background. They shared an embrace, a drink, and some conversation before we sat down to eat.
On Sunday evenings, my mother took a bath, put on an appliquéd, peach-colored satin dressing gown and matching mules, and retired behind the closed door of their bedroom. My father read me the funnies for a while and then joined her, leaving me to get my things ready for school the next day. I was barred from their sanctum until my bedtime.
My mother never let my father see her without the dentures she was forced to get at age thirty.
She never failed to praise me for good grades, but she also never told me I was pretty or well dressed.
She never let me squeeze between her and my father when they were sitting on the living-room couch.
She never made me feel I had done an adequate job at anything she asked me to do — except once, when she was dying.
I was taking care of her on weekends, to relieve my father. One day, trying to get her settled comfortably, I said, “Ma, is there anything else I can get you? What else do you need?”
She shook her head and pointed one of those still-graceful fingers at me.
“You,” she whispered. “You’re all I need.”
It was all I needed to hear.
Cutchogue, New York
Soon after the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, my mother was offered a job at a new medical clinic that provided, among other services, abortions and contraception. Shortly thereafter, my parents’ marriage ended.
I was crushed when my mom had a party to celebrate the divorce. Only nine years old, I couldn’t understand how she could be so happy that her marriage to my father was over.
My brother and I lived with my mother, who was working at the clinic full time and going to school. When she got home, she was occupied with homework. She never asked us how we were doing after the divorce. I don’t remember being happy.
For my twelfth birthday, my mom said I could have a party. I didn’t have many friends, but I managed to come up with five girls to invite. We all sat in my living room waiting for my dad to arrive with the cake he had made from scratch at my request. He was late, and my mother was growing fidgety. She had not planned any games or activities for us.
Suddenly, my mother went out to her car and came back with an easel. There was something she wanted to show us, she said. On the easel was a large board, which my mother removed, uncovering an illustration I did not recognize. She explained that it was a picture of a woman’s uterus. She then proceeded to give me and my friends a lecture about the female reproductive system, describing, in great detail, how girls got pregnant and various ways to avoid getting pregnant.
My father arrived shortly thereafter, but too late to save me from the humiliation.
West Hollywood, California
All my life, I’d been mortified by my mother’s tastes. My childhood home was a strange combination of garish and gloomy. Heavy, dark antique furniture filled the rooms, and paintings in ornate frames covered every inch of the walls. The upholstery tended toward jungle or African motifs, complete with giraffes and lions. Plastic souvenirs shared shelves with fine china and exquisite engravings. Every surface was buried under mounds of paper, clutter, and knickknacks.
When my new husband and I completed our dream house, I was blinded by the bright, shiny newness of the light-filled rooms. It had everything my childhood home didn’t: muted colors, unadorned walls, and modern furnishings.
I remember unwrapping Mother’s housewarming gift with a familiar feeling of trepidation: what god-awful thing had she found for me this time? True to my expectations, the gift was all wrong: a handmade pillow with an old cross-stitch on top that had been done by my grandmother more than forty years ago. The pattern was a floral print in dull pinks and greens set into a faded brown background. Mother had dug the cross-stitch out of an old trunk, attached it to a piece of burgundy linen, stuffed it, and hand-stitched some cheesy black-and-gold rickrack around the edge. Nothing about the pillow fit the sleek décor of my new house. I choked out an obligatory thank-you and hurried it into a closet.
Weeks later, I pulled the pillow out again to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It was. But now I thought of my mother’s hands, gnarled by arthritis, fingers bent and kinked, struggling for hours to make this gift for me. My mother had once been a talented seamstress, sewing slipcovers and pleated, floor-to-ceiling curtains on her ancient portable Singer. Now, stitching the pillow together and attaching the trim had required every bit of her abilities. And I couldn’t even muster the grace to display it for the week that she’d stayed with us.
My mother died less than a year later. I had some good times with her before she died, but we never spoke of the pillow. Though I suspect she forgave me, I will never forgive myself.
When my daughter came home from school today, she was sad, and I made her happy.
I laid out on the kitchen counter a package of cookie dough, powdered sugar, food coloring, frosting, and sprinkles. I also got out cookie cutters in the shapes of leaves, gingerbread boys, candy canes, witches, cats, and pumpkins.
As the smell of gingerbread filled the house, my daughter and I mixed the brightly colored frosting and piped it onto cookies, dressing the boys in tie-dyed shirts and glazing the fat cats hot pink with lime green polka dots.
When all the mixing bowls were empty, I said, “It’s time to get ready for dance.”
My daughter just nodded without a word of complaint, swabbed the last bit of ice blue frosting from the lip of a bowl, and popped it into her mouth. Then she smiled, put her arms around my neck, and disappeared into her room to get ready.
I wished with all my heart that today could make up for yesterday, when she came home happy, and I made her sad.
The day before I left for India, my mother and I had our biggest fight ever. A simple argument, fueled by our shared anxiety about my departure, turned ugly and personal. We screamed at each other for an hour, and then both cried alone. Neither of us apologized.
A month later, I was shouting into a phone in the public-call office in Varanasi. My mother’s voice sounded far away, and the connection often broke up. She seemed tired and worried, but glad to hear from me. I was trying not to cry, even as I felt the burning in my throat. I had barely spoken to my family in the month I’d been gone; the price of a phone call to the States was hard to justify on my modest budget. But now I needed to hear my mother’s voice. I could barely remember her face.
As we filled each other in on recent events, I closed my eyes and found that I could begin to see her dimples and her dancing eyes. I could tell that she missed me, maybe even more than I missed home. I heard the dogs barking in the background and pictured the kitchen where she was standing.
I realized then that our terrible fight had been forgotten. All the hateful words had somehow vanished into the space that separated us. All that remained was our love for each other.
As a girl, I thought horses were magical, graceful, powerful. I would run in the field across from my house, imagining I was a horse, galloping through the grass. I read all the horse books I could find at the town library.
I wanted horseback-riding lessons in the worst way, but my father thought my desire was snobbish, in part because the only nearby place to get them was a venerable — and snobby — country club. My father said that if I got good grades, I would be allowed to take lessons, but we always fought about it. During these arguments, my mother would sit at the table, casting a distant look through the curl of her cigarette smoke, and offer no opinion.
I eventually met a woman who boarded horses in a small stable behind her house. I would walk or bike to see her, helping out in any way I could. She taught me how to bridle and saddle the animals, how to pick their hooves clean without hurting them, how to curry them until their coats gleamed. I oiled the tack and mucked the stalls, all so I could take her Tennessee walker out in the woods for a ride.
When my mother found out about this, she forbade me from going to the stable and called the woman a gypsy.
Finally, my unhappiness wore down my parents’ resistance, and we all went horseback riding together as a family at a local stable. It was a raw April day, and the parking lot was mud and ice. The sun’s glare hurt my eyes so much that I could barely see the horses to tell which one was best.
The ride leader, a dashing young man with dark hair, rode a handsome, spirited horse and held another horse by the reins: one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen, with a fine, arched neck, prancing dancing feet, and a tail like a fountain.
His own horse bursting with energy beneath him, the ride leader yelled, “Does anybody know how to ride? I need a seasoned rider for this mount.”
As much as I yearned to speak up, my neck and face burned with shame that I would even for a second consider myself worthy. I was an amateur.
I was assigned an ordinary horse, not bad, but nothing like that horse. I stayed all the way in the back of the line, apart from my family. The horses walked nose to tail through the woods for about an hour, made a loop, and headed back the way we came. I might have had more fun galloping through the woods on my own two feet, but I didn’t complain: I was getting what I wanted, a chance to ride.
By now, the sun had risen in the sky and no longer glared in my eyes. I could see clearly the two lead horses and their riders, talking and laughing. One, of course, was the young ride leader. When the other rider turned her laughing face to me, I felt a wave of hot, confused emotion. It was my mother, completely at home on that magnificent horse.
I found out that, when she was a girl, she’d had her own horse, a thoroughbred. But she waved off the rest of the story. “Forget it,” she said. “It’s in the past. And anyway, it’s none of your business.”
Jeffersonville, New York
“Whose baby are you tonight?” my mother would ask, holding out the fluffy green towel as I carefully stepped from the tub into her arms. She called it “catching” me. I might be “Chocolate-Cake Baby” or “Skinned-Knee Baby” or “Halloween Baby.” Sometimes she would put the towel in the dryer while I was in the bath and then catch me in its heat.
I caught my own babies in this same towel. I have moved this towel across the country twice. It has been washed and dried so many times it barely holds together. In the dryer, the loose green strands wrap themselves around socks and napkins and nestle into the sleeves of T-shirts. My husband laughs and says, “When are you going to throw that old towel out?”
Throw out my towel? What could he be thinking?
My children are now too old for me to dry them after their baths. I bring my towel with me to the pool for my daily swim. I catch myself now. I am “Lap-Swimming Baby.”
My mother is in her seventies. When she dies, perhaps I will catch her in the towel and softly tuck her in. Then I will be nobody’s baby anymore.
When I was a little boy, one of my favorite books was Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans’ tale of a clever French Catholic-school girl. I loved Madeline’s school uniform, especially her yellow boater hat. One morning, I ran to my mother’s bedroom with the book and pointed to Madeline’s picture. “Look, Mommy! Can I have a hat like Madeline’s?”
“No, honey,” she answered sternly. “That’s for girls.”
It is my first memory of hitting the immovable gender wall.
My mother often took me shopping at the downtown Baltimore department stores. She would try on lipstick and eye shadow at the cosmetics counters, then turn to me and ask, “Is your mother pretty?” I would smile and nod. I’d told her more than a few times that I wanted to be pretty when I grew up, too, but she seemed not to hear. I learned not to try on the lipstick at the store, but to wait until I got home and nobody was around.
I wonder if these incidents stand out in my mother’s memory. Does she wish she had picked up on these clues? She was in fierce denial when, at age thirty-seven, I began the change from male to female. Try as I might to convince her that the things she loved about David were still here in Sara, she saw me simply as a murderer, the woman who was killing her son.
In the midst of this turmoil, Mom asked if I would see a family therapist with her and Dad, to help them understand. Though I was still living publicly as David, privately I was Sara. In the name of honesty, I decided to see my parents as the person I was. So I put on a conservative blue dress, did up my hair, and climbed on the train to Baltimore. At the station, my mother did not recognize me, even when I walked straight past her.
In therapy, my father and I exchanged harsh words, and I began to cry. My mother handed me a kleenex and told me not to make my mascara run. This kind gesture was the first step in her eventual acceptance of me as a woman.
I’m a concert pianist, and my professional debut as Sara was accompanied by some media attention. Afterward, one of my mother’s co-workers offered her sympathy: “Poor Elizabeth, I know how ashamed you must be of your son; anyone would be.” I’m grateful for those ugly words, because they shocked my mother into seeing how insensitive she’d been.
We are close again now, years after my change. No longer does my mother criticize my makeup, hair, and clothing, fearful that others will see me as a badly dressed drag queen — and her as the mother of a freak. She seems at peace with my new identity, though I wonder if she feels slightly guilty and apologetic to the absent son.
A few months ago, my mother mentioned casually over the phone that she thinks of me simply as her daughter. It was the acknowledgement I’d been waiting for since I was little. I felt embraced by her words. Yet, at the same time, I felt a twinge of pain for the emotionally denied son who never got this type of understanding from his otherwise loving mother.
Sara Davis Buechner
Bronx, New York
As a liberal mom, I expected that my daughter, Leslie, would begin experimenting with sex in her late teens, so my talks with her emphasized honesty, caring, and trust in relationships, along with responsible birth control. I liked Eric, Leslie’s first love, from the moment I watched him tenderly tie a lavender bow around a lock of her curly hair. Still, I was not prepared to be awakened one summer night by the sound of the sliding glass door opening and closing. From my bedroom window above, I watched Leslie slip out into the darkness for what I assumed to be a rendezvous with Eric.
While waiting on the stairs for her return, I struggled with my conscience: What would my mother say about my permissiveness? What would the other parents I knew think of me for not chasing after her? On top of this, I was worried about her being out who-knows-where in the middle of the night. By the time Leslie returned, several hours later, I had worked myself up into a fury.
Leslie was surprised to see me sitting there, but she stood quietly while I let loose all my worries and fears. After I had run out of steam, she said, “I’m sorry this upsets you, but I love Eric, and he loves me. I went to Planned Parenthood, and I’m taking the pill. This is something I’m going to do, no matter what you say, and I don’t want you to worry about me.”
And after that night, I didn’t.
Three years later, Leslie was diagnosed with a tumor just above her brainstem. An unsuccessful attempt to remove it left her confined to a wheelchair, with labored speech and virtually no physical coordination. The chemotherapy and radiation had removed all of her long, curly hair.
One day, three months before she died, I helped lower Leslie into a deep tub for physical therapy. As the warm water enveloped her awkward and unruly limbs, she sighed heavily with pleasure and said, “This feels almost as good as sex.”
Las Cruces, New Mexico
We came back from a trip to the shore to find the cucumber vines running wild over anything standing. My five-year-old sister and I watched, pushing each other in the tree swing, as our mother cut the vines down to size. When she’d finished, still in a cutting mood, she told my sister to come and get her hair cut. They argued, as usual, and it built up to a slap across my sister’s face so loud it hurt just to hear it.
Then my little sister slapped our mother right back.
Our mother picked up her hairbrush and started to smack my sister, who took off up the street. Our mother raced after her with the hairbrush, caught her, and whomped her good.
When the beating had ended, my sister said, calmly, that she was leaving. Our mother said that if she left, she shouldn’t bother to come home again. Without looking back, my sister headed for the big street where the bus ran.
I begged my mother to go after her, but she refused, and forbade me to go, as well. Then she went into the house, pretending nothing was wrong.
Hours went by. My mother made lunch, and I ate it without tasting a thing. I read a book without remembering a word. I closed myself in my playroom and cried.
It was getting dark when I heard a knock at the door. I sprinted down the stairs and peeked through the drapes. It was my sister, looking tired and smaller. I urged our mother to let her in, but she refused until my sister had apologized, pleaded to live with us again, and agreed to have a haircut.
My sister gave in. She didn’t seem to care anymore. Our mother fetched the scissors.
I decided right there that I’d never call our mother “Mommy” again. It was too friendly. From then on, “Mom” was the best she got.
The year before she died, my mother invited me to Atlanta for the weekend. While we sipped coffee in her den, she brought me a few rolled-up linen handkerchiefs that contained heirloom jewelry. “If anything happens to me,” she said, “I want you to know where everything is.” The pile of handkerchiefs sat on top of a scrap of paper. “Oh,” she said, handing the paper to me, “here is a list of acceptable second wives for your father.”
She had a stroke four months later, then several mini-strokes leading up to her death.
The following year, my dad proposed to Mary, a family friend we’d known for many years. At the engagement party, I told the story of Mother’s list and revealed that Mary’s name was at the top.
© Joyce Tenneson
My mother started smoking when she was seventeen and kept it up until a few days before her death at eighty-six (although she maintained that, for most of those years, she did not inhale). She acknowledged that smoking might have had something to do with her emphysema and circulatory problems, but she insisted that it didn’t cause her congestive heart failure, or her repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia.
After her second hospitalization for pneumonia, my mother went on daily oxygen, and I staged a small rebellion. “I’m not buying you any more cigarettes,” I said. “I feel like a criminal going into Tobacco Town” — a large store that carried her favorite brand, eerily named More White Lights.
“Fine,” my mother snapped. “I have other friends.”
She had recently moved into an assisted-living facility and had made friends with a few other elderly smokers. They huddled in chairs on a covered porch several times a day in spite of the cold and rainy February weather.
About a week later, I picked up my mother to take her out to dinner. She barely smiled when I hugged her. As I helped her into the car, I said, “My, you look angry. Does this have anything to do with me?”
“Well,” she snarled, “I had a daughter, but she wouldn’t give me the things I need.”
It seemed that her friend couldn’t find her brand. “So she got me these Virginia Slims instead.” My mother brandished one long, slim white wand. “And they don’t have any flavor at all!”
I started laughing. Her reluctant grin only made me laugh harder until, finally, she was laughing, too.
“I give up,” I said. “I’ll get you some cigarettes.” So we stopped at Tobacco Town on the way to dinner, and I bought her a carton of More White Lights. She lit up with relief on the way to the restaurant.
A week and a half later, my mother was hospitalized for pneumonia; she died a few days after that. Packing up her belongings, I found her last carton of cigarettes on a shelf in her closet. She had smoked only three packs.
I walked into Tobacco Town and laid the carton on the counter. “My mother died before she could finish these,” I said. “Can I get a refund?”
The clerk said all she could do was give me store credit. I looked around: row upon row of cigarettes, fancy ashtrays, and lighters. Spotting a cooler of beer and wine, I picked out a tall bottle of cherry ale brewed by Belgian monks. It cost about as much as the carton of More White Lights.
I served the ale at her memorial service. It was delicious.
Mt. Shasta, California
I am on my way to pick up my sixteen-year-old daughter from volleyball practice, nervous but determined to talk with her. I have taken the whole day off in preparation, breathing calmness into my body, inhaling and exhaling my fear of confrontation.
My daughter’s verbal attacks carry the primal, all-out intensity of a cornered animal. The last two years of this have been the worst, destroying both my sleep and my appetite, but the behavior started long before that.
When she was three, my daughter could not get dressed without a screaming tantrum because something was not right — the scratchy tag in her underwear, a wrinkle in her sock. When she was eight, no matter how perfectly I did her hair, she would go wild over a bump somewhere in her ponytail. Every Halloween, within five minutes of putting on her costume — the one I’d carefully made according to her wishes — she would turn hysterical because something about it was not right.
I tried everything: problem solving, sympathizing, active listening, ignoring, angry ultimatums. None of these approaches made the slightest bit of difference. What angered her most was when I would simply walk away; she would follow me around the house, insisting that I help, but just as furiously refusing anything I offered.
Since my daughter became a teen, her desire for control over her world and her image has intensified. I have, on occasion, fled her tirades to avoid hitting her. And I have hit her twice. But the next morning always brings a new start, and I soft-boil eggs, spread jam on toast, drive her to school, and try to be present to this moment and let go of the past.
In one rage, my daughter swallowed a handful of Tylenol, claiming it was the only way to get me to listen. That night, in the emergency room, awaiting word that her liver would not be permanently damaged, I hit bottom. There is nothing that I have tried harder to do than to listen to her, but she has never been able to feel heard.
As we pull out of the high-school parking lot and head for home, I begin to speak, but before I finish the second sentence, she is off and running with a litany of grievance and blame. Mile after mile, I try to listen, to sort out the reasonable from the hateful, hoping as always for a breakthrough.
Suddenly I pull over to the side of the road and tell my daughter to get out of the car. She is surprised. “Get out,” I say, “or stop talking. Now.” I am shaking. She starts to protest; I open her door. Then she is quiet, and we drive home.
All this time I have been hoping for a breakthrough, thinking it would be hers. Instead, it turned out to be mine. There are some things I don’t have to listen to.
After my mother dies, I find one letter after another, apparently planted to be discovered and read after her death. Excitement runs through me as I read her words, but I also feel crushed. In each letter, as evidence of her wonderful life, she lists her marriage to my father, her three children, her four grandchildren, her one great-grandchild, and her home in the hills of southwest New Hampshire.
I feel crushed because everything she cites as having made her life worth living is not a part of my own life. At forty-five, I have never been married; I don’t even have a steady boyfriend. I have no children and have never owned a home. I live in an apartment, thousands of miles from my roots.
My mother’s letters leave me asking, “What has made my life worth living?”
Over time, I am able to answer that question to my own satisfaction: the value of my life is in simply living, being fully myself, and experiencing deeply the things I love and enjoy. Still, I wonder, Is that really enough?
Nearly two years later, while working at my dad’s desk, I come across a sheet of notepaper covered with my mother’s familiar scrawl. It is titled “Various Aspects of My Life That Have Enriched It.” In the list that follows, there is no mention of her marriage to my father, nor of her children and grandchildren, nor even of our beloved home in New Hampshire. Instead she lists living abroad; traveling and visiting friends; listening to music; reading; woods, hills, water, and flowers; conversation; writing letters, journals, and memoirs; “antiquing” (though not necessarily buying); word games; archaeology (she loved to dig for things); and long-term friendships.
I feel like crying and laughing both at once. Suddenly, I see her living day to day, finding satisfaction in the little moments of life — just like me.
My mother and I never had much in common. I craved adventure; she preferred the comforts of home. I kept in shape; she was uninterested in exercise or dieting. I liked to read; she liked to watch television. I finished college; she never finished high school.
The one thing my mother did read was the tabloids. She believed everything in them. I encouraged her to develop a critical eye, like I thought I had, but it was useless to argue with her. In fifty years, I never won an argument with my mother.
My father and his mother taught me to disapprove of my mom. She was too dedicated to pleasure, they said; she was a terrible money manager; and she catered excessively to us children without teaching us the necessary social skills. If there was one thing my sister and I always agreed on, it was that we did not want to turn out like our mother: fat, complacent, stubborn, and ignorant.
After I got married and had children, the two weeks every year when Mom came to visit were always difficult for me. She made constant demands on my time and energy, wanting me to play cards or Scrabble with her, rather than pay attention to my children, my husband, and my job.
My friends did not understand my frustration with my mom. To them, she was the always-smiling, all-approving mother they’d never had. My children got a kick out of her because she regularly sent them money on birthdays, Easter, Halloween, and so on, even after they had grown up and left home. For Christmas, she gave useless gifts: big boxes of cheap radios that never worked, or new watches with broken minute hands, or tiny dust vacs that ran on batteries. We always unwrapped Mom’s presents on Christmas Eve, knowing we would get a big laugh. We were never disappointed.
Last week, I went to California to move Mom into a board-and-care house. She is eighty-three and suffering from dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s. She’ll never play Scrabble again. We’ll never have another argument about the tabloids. My family will never chuckle as we open her presents. I don’t think anymore about how much trouble she can be. I think about how, no matter how critical I was of her, she never disapproved of a single thing I did.
My mother often told me that she’d had me only because my father wouldn’t let her work. And she was eager to remind me how disappointed he was that I wasn’t a son. If my father became upset, she made sure all blame was placed on my head. Nothing was ever her fault.
Pleasing my father became an obsession for me — and a source of conflict with my mother. If I made him laugh, she slapped me. If I monopolized a bit of his time, she sent me to visit relatives. In her mind, I was competition.
My parents are old now, and my mother still tries to keep my father to herself. I avoid displaying affection toward him for fear of being cut off during his last years. (He has emphysema.) I am allowed to drive her to the hospital to visit him, but I can’t go by myself. I’m allowed to sit in the room as she hovers over him, but I’m not allowed to speak. Her fears and jealousies have robbed me of both mother and father.
As the end of my father’s life draws near, my mother has tried to reach out to me. She has realized that, when he is gone, she will be left alone. My head screams at the thought of having her in my home, disrupting my life, heaping more blame. But my heart whispers, She is still your mother.
My only daughter, Carolyn, was very much a child of the sixties. She wore undershirts in public and metal-rimmed glasses. At age fifteen, she hitchhiked to Woodstock. By seventeen she had dropped out of college and moved to California, where she married a high-school friend after getting pregnant. Thankfully, she went back to school and managed to get several degrees. Her radical ideas caused me plenty of anguish before I finally realized I had to accept them if we were going to have a relationship.
After my husband died, I moved to California to be near Carolyn. She had a new baby girl with her current husband (her third), and her older daughter was now in high school. Carolyn and I decided to buy a house together. Soon, though, I began to feel lonely. I wanted to meet a man. So I started going to senior dances by myself.
One evening, I noticed a short man dancing with a succession of tall, attractive women: laughing, whirling, and having a great time. I must have looked wistful, because he came over and asked me to dance. I was thrilled. His name was Charlie and he was a marvelous dancer and told funny jokes.
Charlie said he’d been married three times and had eventually realized that marriage doesn’t work. “But there are alternatives,” he added.
“Like what?” I asked cautiously.
“Did you ever hear of polyamory?”
He told me about a book, written by a psychologist, that said we’re not meant to be lifelong partners with just one person. Several people living together made more sense, he explained. For people our age, it was an insurance policy: if one partner got sick, there’d be more than one person to provide care. The book also dealt with the problem of jealousy. “You should read it,” he told me.
“I already have,” I admitted.
Charlie looked at me with new interest. Then he took my hand and led me across the floor to meet a short-haired, chubby woman named Sarah. Charlie and Sarah had been together for fifteen years, he said. They’d had a third partner, but she had left them to get married.
Feeling confused and overwhelmed, I decided to go home. Charlie walked me to my car, and I let him kiss me goodnight. I must be crazy! I thought.
The next day, Charlie called to invite me to another dance. When I found out that Sarah was going, too, I felt jealous, but at the dance I discovered that she was interesting and I even liked her.
Charlie and I kept seeing each other, mostly alone, until one evening, he asked me to become a partner in their relationship. I told him I couldn’t decide, and for several weeks I was in a quandary. Charlie and I talked more about the ideas in the book that was their bible. I told him I just wasn’t sure. After all, I had been married to the same man for thirty-one years.
The truth was, I explained, although I had read the book, I hadn’t enjoyed it and didn’t subscribe to its philosophy. In fact, it had caused me much heartache. My daughter had written it.
She was coming over after school, the new girl who’d moved in down by the lake. I knew it was risky to have Linda visit, but Mother had been good for days now. She was dressed when I came home; she talked; she even laughed. It would be OK.
And everything seemed OK. Linda and I played outside and had fun. Mother called us in for a snack. She asked Linda about her family and school, laughing and chatting just like any normal mom. It was great.
Then I spilled my grape juice. It flowed between the table leaves and onto the rug. I flew to the sink, grabbed the paper towel roll, and sopped up the mess as fast as I could, keeping an eye on Mother all the while.
“Oh, don’t look like that!” she said. “I’m not going to hit you for another twenty minutes.”
Linda gave a nervous little laugh, and Mother laughed with her. They returned to their conversation while I dabbed at the rug.
Mother suggested that Linda and I watch TV while we waited for Linda’s mom to pick her up. We were halfway into Dark Shadows when it happened. Mother came up behind me and slammed me in the back of the head. I fell forward and stayed down, wishing I could push my way through the floorboards, could be anywhere but there.
My mother was a Betty Grable blonde who spent six days a week working at the beauty shop that bore her name, the Beti Weitzner Salon. I was a brooding, intellectual Jewish girl who had glasses and The Diary of Anne Frank and a little dark storm cloud above my head. I hated my mother for being at work all day, fought with her about hair, and thought she was shallow. I knew that my friends — the Unitarians, the overweight girls, the bad girls — had inner beauty.
Now my mother is dying. I fly back and forth from New Mexico to Florida while my brother coordinates her health-care by phone. I am driving to the drugstore to fill her nitroglycerine prescription when I realize I have fallen in love with my mother. I am flooded with gratitude.
But my gratitude is a weak reflection of hers. Every phone call and visit, my mother says that she is blessed to have such children, that she must have done something right. She sits on her balcony by the beach so she can breathe the oxygen-rich air flowing in over the waves. “Who would have imagined,” she says, “a poor girl from McKeesport living by the ocean? Never in my wildest dreams.” She tells all visitors how important and beautiful they are. One of her home-health aides cries when she talks to me about my mother: “She’s like an angel. I never met anybody so good.”
“What have you been up to?” my hip friends in Santa Fe ask. I answer, “My mother is dying,” though she would be the last to admit it. She always came from behind in golf tournaments, winning many a club championship. “Nobody likes a complainer,” my mom used to say. Now she is a miracle of noncomplaining. A few years ago, I made a vow not to complain. I struggle with it daily. But for her, it is a natural state.
I sit at my mother’s feet and study my complaining heart. Physically and emotionally, I am like my father: tall, laid-back, with prematurely white hair and dark, sweaty skin. Beti is one of four optimistic Hungarian sisters, and her optimism is starting to grow on me. Never in my life have I felt such joy: that she got to live this long; that she got three holes-in-one; that I have three healthy children; that my marriage has lasted.
My mother’s no saint: just a little old beautician, a Jewish mother who never cooked for her daughter. But I can feel gratitude coming off her like that oxygen off the sea. How could I have missed her own inner beauty for so many years?
The next time one of my Santa Fe friends asks what I’ve been doing, I will answer, “Studying gratitude with my spiritual teacher.”
“Who?” they will ask: “Mother Meera?”
No, Mother Beti, the beautician.
Espanola, New Mexico
Coming out as a lesbian at forty wasn’t nearly as difficult as it might have been at eighteen. My identity was firmly in place. I knew exactly who I was, and between having a house to run, bills to pay, children to love, and cats to feed, there was just no time to worry about what anyone else thought.
My coming out wasn’t so easy, though, for my daughter.
At home, things were all right. I was still just Mom, and my sexual orientation was a theoretical issue anyway, because I was single. At my daughter’s middle school, however, the worst thing you could call someone was “gay”: “That’s so gay”; “You’re such a dyke”; “What are you, a faggot?” These taunts were not directed at my daughter — only her closest friends knew anything about me — but she heard them constantly. She grew angry and afraid.
Inevitably, my daughter blamed me. She wanted me to pretend that I wasn’t a lesbian and to hide my magazines and books so that our house would look “normal” again. While I didn’t like this, I understood. She thought that if she could ignore my identity completely, maybe she wouldn’t care what the kids at school said. But of course she did care. There were times when she wasn’t sure whom she hated more — herself, me, or the world.
This past summer, things started to change. My daughter sometimes glanced at an article in one of my magazines before tossing it across the room. We talked about homophobia and cliques and why people tease. When she found out that a classmate’s father was gay but had never talked to his son about it, she began to value my openness.
She returned to school this fall with a bit more confidence, and a lot more questions. She still comes home angry sometimes, but she often knows why and at whom. One night last month, she told me that she’d decided to talk to her social-studies teacher about the way other students used the words gay, dyke, and faggot. I mentioned a magazine article about dealing with homophobia and hate in school. My daughter read it that night and brought it to her teacher the next day, explaining to him about me and about her struggles. He was supportive and promised to bring the issue up in class.
A few weeks later, when the teacher still had not broached the subject, my daughter asked him what the problem was. He shook his head and said that it was going to be harder than he had thought: the faculty was almost as bad as the students. She came home, indignant and confused, and said, “Mom, what am I supposed to do? Doesn’t anybody get this?”
That afternoon, she decided to join a group for teenagers whose parents are gay and lesbian. That was when I realized that this isn’t just my coming out anymore — it’s hers, too.
Linda D. Bernstein
When I was seven, my mother sat me in her lap and told me that she had “a problem with alcohol.”
I had known something was wrong. My best friend’s mother always greeted us after school with cookies and never got “sick,” like mine did.
There was a brief time, many years later, during her longest period of abstinence, when I felt close to my mother. She came to visit my family one weekend and was an easy guest. She played Chutes and Ladders with my daughter, watched my son float his handmade boats in the creek, and listened to my husband play his dulcimer.
Late one night, after the kids were asleep, my mother and I went to the grocery store. I usually rush through the shopping, but that night we walked slowly up and down every aisle. We admired the shiny, tight-skinned eggplants, and discussed the merits of different brands of pot scrubbers. We laughed a lot, though I don’t remember just what we found so funny about grocery shopping.
That was our last good visit. My mother started drinking again soon afterward. She had told me once that if she ever drank again, it would kill her. She was wrong, though. She didn’t die; she fell while drunk and broke her neck. Now she’s paralyzed. But I can still remember one night when my mother walked beside me.
“During the surgery, I’ll be pumped up with water to make my veins and arteries float. The cardiologist says it makes it easier for them to operate.”
My mother, the schoolteacher, is lying in a hospital bed, explaining to me over the phone about her pending heart operation as if I were one of her third-grade students. I can tell that, beneath her surface confidence, she is frightened, perhaps even terrified. I assure her that I will fly out in the morning and arrive at the cardiac-care unit just about the time she’s being wheeled out of the operating room. She reminds me to drive safely from the airport.
The next morning, my flight is delayed. As it finally sets out crosscountry, I imagine the nurse preparing my mother for surgery, the team of cardiac surgeons scrubbing underneath their trimmed fingernails.
I run only one stop sign on my way to the hospital. I haphazardly park the rental car and dash into the building. A man in green scrubs gives me directions, and I climb the stairs two at a time, weaving my way through the maze of sterile hallways. The sign outside the cardiac-care unit tells visitors to wait in the lounge area, but I push through the swinging doors anyway.
In the hallway, an unattended patient lies on a gurney, head wrapped in something resembling a turban. I can’t tell whether the person is male or female. I inch closer and see a woman’s nose. Her face is swollen, and her eyelids are dark and puffy.
“Mother?” My voice quavers.
Her eyelids flutter, and a hand reaches out for mine.
“How are you, Mother?” I ask.
“I’m so glad you are here,” she rasps, slowly opening her eyes.
But my mother’s eyes are blue, not brown. This is someone else’s mother. I look around for help. Where are all the doctors and nurses?
The woman clutches my hand tightly. “You’re a good daughter,” she says.
Cheryl A. Clarke
Mill Valley, California
My mother believes that everyone in California runs around naked, including her daughter. She knows this to be true because Life magazine told her so. In the sixties, Life was delivered weekly to our house. Between photographs of train wrecks, racial strife, and war were snapshots of life in California: tan surfer girls grocery shopping in bikinis; movie stars in group therapy; housewives primal-screaming; nude people sitting in hot tubs discussing their feelings; naked folks in communes; and hairy, unclothed teens doing God-knows-what.
It’s true, I once lived on a commune in Santa Cruz where clothing was optional. I kept mine on, but Mother didn’t believe me.
When she came to visit me recently, we walked around San Francisco’s North Beach. “See,” Mother said. “Naked people everywhere.”
At a spa in Calistoga, we took off our clothes and let a stranger pile hot dirt on top of us. “Isn’t this fun?” I asked, mud oozing around my chin.
“Yes,” Mother answered in a tentative voice, careful not to breathe mud into her nostrils.
The following day, we headed to Carmel. I had made reservations for us at the nearby Tassajara Hot Springs and Spa.
“Mom,” I said as we sped down Highway I, “there’s something you should know about this place.”
“It’s clothing optional.”
Upon our arrival, we put on bathing suits and headed for the women-only tubs. Everyone there was naked except for us. Someone suggested we take off our suits.
“No, thank you,” Mother replied.
After our soak, we hiked through a narrow canyon and stopped to rest on some warm rocks. We were staring up at the cloudless blue sky when out of the woods appeared a naked young man, tall and muscular, headed in our direction.
“My God,” Mother said, peering over her bifocals at the fellow.
As he walked by, he said hello. I answered him, but Mother, holding her breath, said nothing. We watched him amble away, his firm buttocks glistening in the afternoon sun.
“My God,” Mother whispered again.
“Are you all right, Mom?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m OK.” She let out a big sigh. “But I do love California.”
My eighty-two-year-old mother walks stiffly through the front door carrying, as usual, plastic shopping bags overflowing with gifts: fresh pickles swimming in brine, a five-pound tub of olive oil, a box of black raisins, and ten crisp hundred-dollar bills. Except perhaps for the pickles, I do not want or need any of it. I am just looking forward to a pleasant visit with my mother. I want us to share some mother-daughter time, like those fresh-faced women on vitamin commercials.
It takes her only seconds to shatter my fantasy.
“Uch, I’m sick,” she wheezes as I kiss her. “I have to go home tomorrow.”
I plead and prod, promising Advil, chicken soup, and plenty of care. Finally, she agrees to extend her stay by one day.
My mother is a most unhappy person, but somehow I always expect her to be different. Perhaps this time she will take some pleasure in the pink tulips brightening her room, the dinner I’ve cooked, the massage I’ve scheduled. Surely, she’ll enjoy seeing her grandson. But no. Not a chance. My mother, I am convinced, has a lead weight tied tightly to her soul. Of course, as a Holocaust survivor and one of the few remaining members of her family, she has more than enough reason to feel burdened by sadness.
Tomorrow, we will go shopping at Guido’s, a local gourmet market. There, we will play our usual game. My mother will squeeze and smell, ooh and ah, clearly want this smoked cheese or that box of couscous, but refuse to buy it. Then she will proclaim that she should contract cholera before I buy it for her. This way, we can both leave the store feeling deprived, sharing a kind of post-Holocaust bonding.
When I was growing up, it was hard to imagine a time before the war, when my mother had led a normal life. The year 1939 seemed to mark the beginning of time. Everything before it was unreal and shrouded in mystery; everything after, so large and painful that nothing could penetrate it.
Recently, however, my mother handed down to me a brown leather photo album filled with pictures taken before the war in her Polish village of Mentow. She carried these photos on her back, in a knapsack made of rags, throughout World War II. The yellowed photos reveal young men and women, with their arms around each other, their faces bright with laughter.
In one photo, my mother looks directly at the camera and smiles shyly. It’s a summer day. She is around sixteen years old, in the full bloom of youth, and holds a bicycle by the handlebars, as if preparing to mount it. Perhaps she is going to ride into the village, or visit Yanka, her friend across town. Or maybe she will meet a boy for a picnic in the woods by the river.
In a few short years, she will be hiding for her life in those same woods where she frolicked with her friends. What did she dream, before she learned that she could not dream? What were her desires, before survival became the only desire possible? What did she think of sex, before sex came to mean procreation and not pleasure, before procreation became an antidote to death, and death a palpable force to rage against?
There is another photo that I equally cherish, taken on her eightieth birthday. My brother and I had arranged a trip to the Bahamas to celebrate. We booked rooms in a fancy hotel and casino, where our mother could shop, gamble, eat, or simply bask poolside and sip pink tropical drinks. None of it appealed to her.
On our last day, her birthday, we managed to coax our mother into going swimming with dolphins. Forgoing her usual apprehension, she climbed into the pool. Suddenly, a dolphin emerged from the water, balanced on its tail, and kissed her on the cheek. In that instant, my mother lost her lead weight. A smile unfurled from one side of her face to the other, and her eyes shone with pleasure as she relaxed into the water.