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When my mother and I are together these days it's in a hospital room, where I am sleeping on the floor beside her bed; at her house, where I sit on the closed toilet to make sure she doesn't fall in the shower; or in her car, which I am driving to pick up the many pills it takes to keep her going.
Now that we're cast in the roles of 79-year-old woman with lung cancer and devoted 50-year-old daughter, you can hardly see the relationship we once had or the people we once were. But let's roll back the clock to 1975 or so. She was a golfing, bridge-playing, stock-market-investing conservative. I was a bohemian-in-training, a poet, a hitchhiking vegetarian. Our hairstyles alone -- her bouffant waves set weekly at the salon, my insane mess brushed about as often -- said it all.
I saw her as the emblem of what I would never be. In fact, I figured out what I wanted to be by saying "not that." But for all my dedication to non-conformism, I was following a rather well-worn path. So, if a person rebels against her parents, then her own child rebels against her-- what do you think happens? I imagine many women are learning the answer to that question as I have, beginning when I gave birth to my mother's first grandchild.
Not long after he could talk, my son Hayes expressed his desire to wear designer clothes, play golf, and sell junk bonds. As soon as he could understand what kind of people were in his immediate circle -- a freethinking writer mom, a hairdresser dad, their artsy friends -- he began to wonder if there had been mix-up in the hospital. But then he got to know my mother, of whose company he was a bit deprived since we lived in Texas and she was still in my home state, New Jersey. Once she drove him to his first golf lesson in her Lexus, the matter of his lineage was cleared up. You had only to see them in the halfway house in their polo shirts discussing the NFL draft to see how much can skip a generation.
If I was Hayes's version of "not that," my mother was "all that" -- he even listed her as his hero on his MySpace page. Most of the time I found the situation funny and charming. Looking back at my own upbringing, I saw how wisely my mother had handled my choices, tolerating them in a way that communicated both disagreement and acceptance, a way that kept her in my life and in my head. When I made mistakes she forgave me. She showed up at every poetry reading I invited her to and she enjoyed them, just as I began to enjoy Hayes's football games and golf matches.
Then, as a high school junior, Hayes announced his plan to shoot for a nomination to the U.S. Naval Academy. My mother was thrilled. For the erstwhile hitchhiker vegetarian, it was a bit of a shock.
As I talked it over with friends I saw that Hayes was typical of a whole slice of his generation, rebelling against their Deadhead parents by becoming clean-cut, upstanding members of the establish establishment. Bankers. Military recruits. If there's one thing we flower-power people had to notice, it was the fact that our kids were doing just what we did -- that is, whatever would most horrify their elders.
It is the way of the world.
And so, as Hayes embarked on the arduous process of securing a nomination to the academy, I continued to follow my mother's example and hung in there with him. As he filled out applications, wrote letters, took physical exams, and made long drives to see congressmen around the state, I just kept proofreading and taking his suit to the cleaners. Then the two of us visited Annapolis with my mother and great-uncle (an alum in the '40s) and attended the Navy-Rice game. As the cadets marched onto the football field in full dress uniform at halftime, my mother had tears on her cheeks. Hayes was rapt.
It was never going to be my cup of tea but I could see what inspired Hayes about the institution -- the male bonding, the ideals of duty, honor and loyalty -- and though I was and am something of a peacenik I was ready to let him go. So a few months later, when the minor scoliosis condition I had noted on his medical form disqualified him from service, even after he scored the nomination, I was tormented. Had I sabotaged my son's dreams?
Hayes was surprisingly forgiving about what he viewed as my honest mistake. Or maybe it wasn't that surprising, since the knack for forgiving and accepting the people you love hasn't skipped any generations in this family.
A few years later the boy is a sophomore at Georgetown, where he's rowing crew and studying international business. He drives a vintage Saab, wears Top-Siders, and is still dating the girl he fell in love with in ninth grade. He still cares deeply about duty and honor, still views the Naval Academy with a touch of awe.
This past Christmas Hayes and I went together to pick up my mother in New Jersey so she wouldn't spend the holidays alone. Once she got here I wasn't sure we'd done the right thing: She was too weak to do anything but lie on the couch, draped in blankets and a post-chemo turban.
Christmas morning made it worth it, though. One amusing moment came when I opened Hayes's present. A clotheshorse and serious shopper, Hayes has always liked to give me things to wear. When I saw my brown tweed skirt and crisp white blouse, I didn't know quite what to say. I live on a farm, work at home, and am as likely to wear jeans and a T-shirt as I am to spend the day wearing what I slept in.
Of course, my mother, watching from her perch on the couch, just loved the outfit. She and Hayes began trying to explain to me all the many occasions to which I might wear it. Meetings! they suggested. Don't you sometimes go to meetings? I thought it was funny and sweet the way they were grasping at straws. And I knew Hayes would forgive me when I exchanged it.
After the gifts were opened and the family dispersed I went to the kitchen to serve my homemade bread and soup for lunch. (See, hippie earth mothers are good for something.) Every once in a while I'd remember my mother, marooned alone on the couch, and stick my head in to check on her.
Every time I looked, Hayes was still there.
Mother-Daughter Bonding: Mother-daughter relationships are about as complicated as they come. Our online forums offer you a place to vent your frustrations, hash out your questions, and celebrate your successes with other women, just like you. Talk it out at www.lhj.com/forums.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2008.