My mother died when I was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. Her last words to me were, “I just want to be left alone.” Mom always was a drama queen, and Greta Garbo had nothing on her when it came to comedic timing. If she’d had her way, my mother’s gravestone would have been engraved, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Two weeks after my mother’s death, my daughter was born, and I set my grief aside to marvel at the new life I was suddenly in charge of safeguarding and directing, confident I’d be a perfect parent while completely befuddled by the complexity of diaper changing and figuring out how to secure an infant car seat without resorting to wedging it between a couple of bags of groceries and tying the baby in place with a bungee cord so she wouldn’t flop onto the floor every time I hit the brakes.
Like most new parents, I swore my baby was smiling at me from the day she was born. But all of the instruction manuals that I read assured me I was mistaken and she was just passing gas. I considered that she could be trying out her new mouth to see if she could touch her tiny little ears with the corners of her slippery little lips, but in the end, I knew all the instruction manuals were wrong and my new baby was unmistakably smiling every time she saw me.
But then one day, when she was about six weeks old, I was talking on the phone about my mom, complaining about all the ghastly furniture she’d bought just weeks before she died. There’s only so much chintz one estate sale can pull off, I whined, offended that I had to live with the consequences of my mother’s tastes in sofas or find someone else who’d do so gladly. As I’m yakking away, sounding like the most put upon grieving daughter in all the world, I looked down at the little baby I held in my arms and I screamed.
She’d smiled the biggest, happiest toothless grin I’d ever seen, putting all the other lip stretches to shame and proving the instruction manuals to be right — everything that had come before was merely passing gas. Now this was a smile! But no ordinary smile, I realized in that instant. There was no mistaking that dimple or that mischievous twitch of just one brow. I’d know that smile anywhere — it was my mother smiling back at me, tickled baby girl pink to have stuck me with a room full of furniture that clashed with my décor. It was clear as day. My mother had died and come right back — as my own daughter!
It was just like her to do that – she had a devious wit and being reincarnated as my daughter was even more diabolical than the time she got me to quit smoking by packing all my cigarettes with little bitty explosives, or the time she scraped the meringue off the lemon meringue pie and replaced it with whipped up soap suds. She always did say death wouldn’t slow her down and apparently she’d meant it. True to her word, now that she was dead and gone, she was going to teach me the lesson of a lifetime and come back as Daughter Dearest.
As the years passed and I mastered diaper changing and car seats, my little girl enchanted me with the cute little tricks she’d learn and her razor-sharp witty observations. But I haven’t forgotten who she really is, deep down, inciting delight with every opportunity I’ve had to send her to her room, tell her she isn’t big enough to stay up late and scolding her for talking back at me.
But things really took a turn for the weird when my little girl became my little teenager, and wham! Mommy Dearest returned as Daughter Dearest and my entire teen years of decades past are relived each and every day. But this time, I’m the mom and she’s the teen. And there’s nothing like having someone not even old enough to sweat pointing out your every flaw and contradiction to reduce you to a quivering penitent begging for forgiveness for all you ever put your own mother through, no matter how imperfect a parent or a human she may or may not have been.
And to think that my own daughter is ten times better than I ever was – in fact, that makes it worse. It’s one thing to have a teenager stealing your cigarettes and lecturing you on being a bad influence as I did to my mother. It’s quite another to have a teenager organizing her closets and her contact list while lecturing you on how disorganized your own life is, prefacing every sentence with “You need to” while suggesting with a perky smile that you start eating better and exercising more because she wants you to live to be a hundred, God knows why.
When she was my mother, it was no problem just dismissing her as archaic and clueless, but now that she’s my daughter, every reminder of my imperfections stings and sticks because let’s face it, we all want to be the perfect mothers our own mothers never were but once we have the power to confine and rule them, we won’t tolerate our kids always telling the truth, at least not where our own egos are concerned. I might need to be told I look ridiculous in hip huggers and spandex, but I don’t need to be told my jokes aren’t funny or my leftovers are boring.
Yet for all I did to master baby care, when it comes to teens I’m baffled. I thought they were supposed to be sneaking off to Planned Parenthood and hiding bongs in the back of their closets. But while I was lounging on the beach last night, discussing the national budget with my neighbors while my own domestic budget crumbled, Daughter Dearest was replacing all her wire hangers with felted flat ones to expand her closet space.
When the sun set, I came in to watch some TV and there she was, holding a pants hanger in her hand as if it were a stun gun and I very nearly confessed to stealing her makeup and having impure thoughts about the mailman as I imagined Joan Crawford beating me to a pulp while chanting, No More Wire Hangers! Instead, she smiled like a cherub and offered me her organizing castoffs, the hangers that only a disorganized mother could love, and while she was at it, perhaps I’d care to live with that god awful throw pillow I thought was so cute and that wretched floral bedspread that was a waste of our good money?
The truth is, my mother makes a pretty good daughter, now that she’s come back to teach me a lesson in what it was like for her when the roles were reversed and she stood in my place. Every time I get a lecture on what is wrong with me, I remember what was wrong with me back then and what was right with my mom. Now when my daughter starts nagging me and pointing out my flaws, as teens are prone to do, after a momentary scream fest I find myself storming away and announcing, “I just want to be left alone.”
But she knows, just as I did when my mother mumbled those words with her dying breath, that I don’t really want to be left alone. She might nag me for my imperfections, she might spot every flaw and find it anything but funny and evidence of my hypocrisies, she might correct me in public and remind the whole world that I can’t tell a good story or get my facts straight when I do. But I’m not worried that my perfect little girl is going bad just because she’s turned into a terrible teen.
Because I know something she doesn’t know. I know that one day she’ll probably have a teen of her own, and when that happens wherever I am, nursing home, tropical island or cozy grave, I’ll be grinning ear to ear. Here’s back at you, Daughter Dearest, I’ll tell her, it’s your turn now. You’re about to discover flaws you never knew you had, imperfections you never thought made a difference, and an everlasting love for the source of all your troubles, your very own terrible teen. It’s rough now, but frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. It’s wonderful to know our parents and our children will never really leave us alone, no matter how weird we – or they — become. And that’s what makes our imperfect families so absolutely perfect.
Photo credit: Flikr pic by Sandwichgirl