Not the Daughter She Had in Mind
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Not the Daughter She Had in Mind

My mother hoped for a spunky cheerleader-type daughter. Instead, she got me -- clumsy, nerdy, bookish. And yet, I've discovered that we're more alike than I ever dreamed.

The Daughter My Mother Imagined

The daughter of my mother's dreams was a cheerleader. She jumped higher than anyone else. Her splits were perfect scissors. She cartwheeled straight into the arms of the handsomest football player around.

Instead, my mother got me.

As a small child, I fell all the time -- up the stairs, down the stairs, over my own feet. A pair of strong glasses stopped the stumbles, but then I suffered the humiliation of lenses as thick as Coke bottles and frames in varying shades of gray and brown. My mother had been the social-committee chairwoman in high school, a popular girl with gaggles of friends. As I entered my teen years, it was plain that I was clumsy, nerdy, bookish.

When she read my dark haiku about the ocean, death, and loneliness, she must have seen how different the two of us were. But somehow she still harbored hope that I would become the daughter she'd imagined. For a time I tried hard to be that girl -- with little success. I was banned from ballet, thrown out of tap, and embarrassed off our church group's basketball team for girls.

Yet when cheerleader tryouts were announced in ninth grade, I took my place in the line of hopefuls. I knew how happy my mother would be if I made the squad. As I watched the other girls doing backflips across the gym floor, I tried to calm myself by reciting the words to the song "The Sound of Silence," finding comfort in its melancholy poetry.

Even now, 30 years later, I blush when I remember my cloddish jumps, my off-key chanting, my way of keeping one hand on my glasses to keep them from falling off. I must have known it was impossible, but the next morning I raced to the list of newly minted cheerleaders posted on the wall, as if my mother's sheer desire could put my name there.

My disappointment was only made worse by having to tell my mother that night, over what should have been a celebratory dinner, that I had let her down. There was no scolding, no sigh of frustration. But her averted gaze, followed by a quick change of subject, said it all. Somehow, the daughter she had ordered -- the funny, popular one who could cheer a team to victory -- went to some other family, and I landed in ours.

Accepting Our Differences

"Go outside!" she'd admonish me as I sat in my room reading or writing or listening to Simon & Garfunkel records. "They're playing kickball!" How could I explain that the ball's ferocious speed scared me? That I hated to run in front of a crowd of neighborhood kids or, for that matter, in front of anyone at all?

Then my mother would do the most amazing thing -- she'd go outside and join the game. She could ride a bike, kick a ball, and pitch a baseball better than anyone I knew. Her accomplishments were not all athletic, either. She worked as a tax auditor for the IRS, adding and subtracting and punching numbers into a calculator, and actually liked doing math problems for fun. Fiction did not excite her. She could not feel my pride in having read more than 40 Nancy Drew mysteries one summer, or writing my own novel, 32 carefully handwritten pages.

But long ago, perhaps in that junior high gym, I began to stop trying to be that other daughter and simply became me. When my mother would ask, "How can you read so much?" I'd simply shrug.

This isn't to say my mother and I did not get along. She was the kind of mother who would come along when I wanted to drive past the house of a boy who had broken my heart, just to see the light on in his bedroom. She liked Simon & Garfunkel, too, and let me play their tapes perpetually and loudly.

If I couldn't sleep, she'd get up out of bed and the two of us would get in the car and go to Dunkin' Donuts, sipping coffee and eating glazed doughnuts in the middle of the night.

An Unlikely Friendship

But the differences were always there, and as I grew into my 20s, new ones emerged. I eschewed matching outfits from Filene's for vintage clothes, the kind that my mother derided as things "a stranger wore and threw away." And I chose a life in New York City with an actor boyfriend over staying in our small town with a brand-new house full of coordinated modular furniture. "Aren't you ever going to settle down?" she'd ask me when I changed apartments or restlessly traveled. Even after I had published my first novel, she worried about me, wondering if I was ever going to get a real job. My mother believed in being a career woman -- she had worked her whole life -- but her ideal was a position with a pension plan, health benefits, and paid vacation.

Sadly, our small family of four suffered its share of loss. First my brother died in an accident, and then my father passed away from lung cancer, and suddenly just the two of us were left. I'm not sure when -- or even if -- my mother let that other daughter go, but somehow we have found enough that is similar about us to forge an unlikely friendship. There was not a single turning point. Rather, over time, I slowly began to see and appreciate her, and to understand that she believed her dreams for me would lead to my happiness. But luckily, I am stubborn and determined and opinionated and independent, just like her. If I weren't, I would have forced myself to be what she wanted rather than who I was. I would be living unhappily in my hometown with a nine-to-five job and an unfulfilled desire to write. But the traits I got from her allowed me to leave her dream behind.

We still don't understand each other's interests. My mother likes to spend a day at the mall shopping, or playing the slot machines at a nearby casino; I still like to stay inside, reading or knitting, away from crowds and noise. When my husband and I bought a 200-year-old house, she shook her head in disbelief; she dreams of shiny floors, a kitchen island, sliding glass doors. How did she end up with a daughter who loves old houses and fills hers with mismatched furniture and folk art, who wears clothes smelling vaguely of mothballs?

Like Mother, Like Daughter

My mother told me on the phone the other day, "I had the strangest dream. I dreamed I was married to Paul Simon." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. My mother did not know that for years I had had dreams in which I was married to Paul Simon. "Wait a minute," I interrupted. "I've had the same dream." She wasn't at all surprised. "Like mother, like daughter," she said.

She told me something else, too. "I am so proud of you," she said. "Of your work, of your parenting, of the way you are living your life." I wonder whether she knew, in that moment, how I jumped, higher than anyone, and cartwheeled across the floor, out of joy that I'd made her proud.

Maybe she got the daughter she had dreamed of after all.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2005.