This past weekend I made the four-hour journey to visit my mother.
I must qualify this by saying that I love my mother—probably to the 10th power. This was not, however, something that I always assumed was reciprocal. In fact, my mother often gave asides, although she was not an actress but we were clearly her captive audience, in which she stated she didn’t know why she had children to begin with. I suspect this had a bit more to do with accessible birth control than her yearning for a baby shower. I also suspected this was really a singular notion spoken of her dark haired child and not of the one with golden tresses
My sister was born six years before I arrived and put the cap on all things maternal. My mother was not the young June Cleaver and didn’t bake cookies, play hide-n-seek, or permit Play-Doh within a fifty- yard radius of our house. Growing up, my sister and mom discussed fashion and the latest hairstyles. I used discarded Barbie legs to stick in Kool-Aide filled Dixie cups to make popsicles. My sister and my mom discussed the sex appeal of Elvis Presley from his GI days to his Hawaii tour. I played baseball with my sandlot crew and practiced stealing bases like Louis Aparicio; often wearing holes is my mismatched gram-animals (I like the tigers and the monkeys together). My sister, at birth, was probably more like Sally Jesse Raphael in her asymmetrical haircut days, with the hour monologue while I still practiced making lip print art on my mom’s Karman-Ghia backseat windows until I was ten. Okay, maybe twelve.
Perhaps I wasn’t the easiest child to love. My mom loved cats and I loved dogs. My mom loved sequins and fur and I fancied denim and simple cotton. My mom liked glamour and Parisian lights, even giving me a dual French name (Paulette!), while all I really wanted was a dog named Eli.
If children grow up dreaming of being the misplaced prince or princess of Monaco, I imagined my mother went back to hospital to see if there could have been a baby switched at birth. Perhaps there was a gentle child yearning to play the violin mislabeled and given to an Italian family in Towson. Perhaps I, eater of the plastic grapes in the wax fruit bowl, was really someone else’s “Pain in the Ass”.
And then, just like in either the original or the remake of ‘Freaky Friday’, my mother was suddenly changed. There were two possibilities; one was that I had just turned eighteen and therefore no longer a child, and two; the doctors had just told her (the first time) that I was dying.
I remember she walked into my hospital room and I could tell she had been crying—which was always something to be alarmed about. In the past this could have been because I had either worn one of her gowns to play Robin Hood and torn a sleeve off in the underbrush running from the sheriff, or I had released the neighbor’s flock of pheasants back into the wild when they were in fact only called “wild pheasants” in some twist similar to two negatives make a positive. My mom, red-rimmed eyes and shaking hands, in a comforting mode, was frightening.
I knew immediately she either knew about my plan to be a police officer or I was dying. When she put her hand to my forehead to take my temperature, I breathed a sigh of relief, Thank God. At least she wouldn’t kill me if I were already dying.
The diagnosis proved to be wrong, but my mother didn’t transform back to woman who made me share a birthday cake with my sister since our birthdays were five days apart. (“Who can eat two cakes in forty hours?”).
My mother was always an enigma to me. She was the southern belle, and the northern siren. Although she uttered quiet one-liners, and epithets with gusto to a small gathering of followers, she could have been a Rita Hayworth or Natalie Wood. She had an appeal that drew men, some silent call or musky scent, some flash of the eyes, flip of the hand, or sway in the step. It was not a gene that she passed on to me, nothing natured or nurtured bequeathed to me upon coming of age. My mother was made for the Big Time but settled as many do, for the here and now—marriage, children, divorce, remarriage. Her men loved her forever. My father never remarried and near his death forty years later, when asked if he knew who was in the room with him, replied, “My babies. My older baby, my younger baby. And my baby who got away.”
My stepfather had watched men covertly eyeing my mother for years. I think he fought the hardest against his cancer because he hated leaving her available, a free agent.
At 71, I thought my mother might finally be ready for a quieter life. Dinner and a movie with the family. Outlet shopping. Basket Bingo.
She got breast implants.
She let a new man attach himself to her. She, who lived in Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, who vacationed in Paris, Hawaii, the Caribbean, moved the new man to a little town in Western Pennsylvania. A town with a one-story mall. A town thats main restaurant is named Eat-N-Park. A town that does not entice doctors ranked #1 in their class. A town that only has dial-up Internet service.
The town my sister lives in.
My sister could wear the T-Shirt that boasts, “Mom Loves Me Best” but that would be a lie.
When my dog Eliot died in the fall, my mother, alone, at 79, drove the four hours to my house. Not because she felt I was alone in my grief. Not because this is the type of sadness that all people understand or recognize. But because, as she has since that day in the hospital, she wanted to put her hand on my face, to let me know it would be okay, she was there.
My mom will be 80 in June. I realize now, I am a bit of hard act to deal with at any age. (My own children will be penning some tales that might get them a bit of nest egg in a few years.) I take comfort that my mother has some stability in the normalcy of my sister’s life.
But my head feels like its been home permed when I realize I may not have that many trips left to make.
When she first comes into to view, after the drive, I have to refocus for a moment. In my mind she still looks like she did when I was ten, eight, fifteen. Waving a frozen purple Barbie leg at me. Shaking me awake because “you’ll get pneumonia if you sleep in the car”. “Try these velour hotpants on, they’ll look good on you.”
In my mind she looks like she did when I was 18; the first time she told me she loved me.
In reality of course, she’s loved me to the 10th power forever.
Brown eyed girl