My mother and I have had a non-traditional association. We were hardly ever in the same place from the day I was born. I won’t go into the details because she’s 94 and what would be the point. Suffice to say I lost sight of her for twenty-three years and hired a private investigator to find her. Dear Mrs. Haas, he wrote after three months, “I have located your mother.” He probably had found her in fifteen minutes but needed to use up the hefty retainer. It didn’t matter. Finding my mother was the bravest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I had to prepare myself that she might be dead. I was already separated at the time and I remember calling my ex and saying: Look, I may find out any day that my mother’s dead and I need to be able to call someone I know well and tell them. I need to be able to tell you.
At the time, although the idea scared me into a trembling sweat, it didn’t feel tragic. Now, I know it would have been tragic because we’ve had the chance to get to know each other or, at least I’ve had the chance to get to know her. I have no clue what she thinks about me because my mother has never been able to be honest about anything. It’s not intentional. It’s a disease of her entire generation. Here is what is important to my mother: Men, marriage, make-up and what “people think.” Those are her subjects and interests although she claims not to like men because men “tell you what to do.” No matter what we’re talking about it always ends up with men and marriage and what people think. She is still certain that men she comes in contact with want to marry her. Respectability is the next thing on her list. She wants respectability. But it’s the kind of respectability that comes with putting up a good front. Yes, I married well, I live in a nice house, we have help, I have the latest appliances, my daughter is a virgin, etc. etc.
I don’t know if she sees me as a person or just as someone who has disappointed her and helped ruin her life. I don’t know what she thinks of my children three of whom she had never met until they were adults. She says all the normal stuff but there’s the distracted hollowness of a person who is saying one thing but thinking something else. She never helped me nurse these children through an illness. She never took them one on one to see a Broadway show. She has only sat in her wheel chair and said hello and judged their companions and their choice of career. I can understand it. After all, these adults have been sprung on her at an age when she must feel detached from the future and what’s the use of making emotional investments. She didn’t know them as adorable toddlers with little dimpled hands and chubby legs.
I don’t think she values my lifestyle or my life choices. She doesn’t see how she can use them to reflect well on her. She doesn’t like the fact that I’m still working because that idea strays from the men and marriage theme. She asks me all the time if I have a boyfriend. I tell her I really don’t want to take care of anyone right now.
“Me, either,” she says. “I don’t want any man telling me what to do.” That’s different from what I’m saying. It makes me think of Percy Walker’s book where the heroine wants someone to tell her where to stand and what to say and guide her from moment to moment. I wouldn’t mind trying that for a few days.
The qualities I have are not things she values. She would love to see me in a good Chanel suit with a silk shell underneath and some chunky gold jewelry and my hair nicely styled and moussed, red lipstick, a really stylish designer pocketbook, leather sling back pumps and a big diamond duet on my left hand. That’s the daughter that would catch her eye.
The most interesting part of meeting up with my mother again is my eagerness to please her and make her feel valuable. I tell her I get all of my enterprising spirit from her and that the skills to survive are from her and strength and almost everything good. I massage her swollen legs and stroke her hands. But there is one thing missing. I have no emotional attachment. I’m attached by duty and fear. Fear of not feeling good when she’s gone.
Now here is where it gets dark. I fear my mother because I feel she is capable of a detached kind of cruelty and revenge. There are people like that. I sometimes feel that everything my mother says to me is a façade to hide her consuming need to punish me. For her divorce. For loss of her respectability. For my brother’s death. For my independence. And especially for my imperfect devotion to her. Okay that’s very dark and possibly not true but I’m just telling you what I feel. That’s why writing is so important for me. It takes away the fear.
That’s why even though I live in the prettiest village in America, I have to come back to the noisy city and the irredeemable grit of the subways and be pushed by the crowd into the car and against the bar and witness the man saying: move this facking car now, I want to get the fack home. It doesn’t matter if I’m making a mistake. I’ve got to do it.