It may be that loving children, radically and beyond reason, expands our capacity to love others, particularly our own mothers. A couple years ago, my mom volunteered (here she might say agreed) to keep the girls for five days and nights so I could tag along with Edward on a work trip to London. We would fly from California to Philadelphia, spend a couple of days settling the kids in at Wooded Lane, and then leave on the red-eye to Heathrow. I’d bought tickets to Billy Elliot and made a dinner reservation online at some bistro I read about in the Times travel section.
In preparation for our arrival, my mother was tidying up outside, pruning her impatiens. She wanted the patio to look nice as we sipped Inglenook over ice and ate Stoned Wheat Thins with Swiss while Greenie grilled burgers as big as softballs. While my mom was moving a wrought-iron serving tray on wheels, a rock she didn’t see pushed the tray back into her shin, breaking the skin. She went upstairs to the tub to rinse out the cut, topping it with Neosporin, a favorite product of hers, and a large Band-Aid.
The morning of our arrival, a red ring had spread out from her cut, probably three or four inches in diameter. This worried exactly no one, least of all her.
“When you get old, everything takes twice as long to heal,” my mom said.
We hung around the house that afternoon, the girls making lists of activities they wanted to do during the week. The Pigeons came by, one by one, to visit. Claire shared her newest set of riddles, and Georgia told them about her lacrosse coaches while the ladies snapped photos with their bad cameras and passed on clothes their granddaughters had outgrown.
After dinner, my mom took the girls up to the tub, squirting baby shampoo into the rush of water to make bubbles. Even though I was still there, my mother was in charge. After baths, she gave them each a two-minute back rub with the Flex targeted massager I bought years ago for her birthday in a panic at an airport Brookstone. All their bodily tensions released, the girls knelt by my mom’s bed to say the Our Father and the Hail Mary. If that went well, my mom allowed them fifteen minutes of a television program.
Around seven P.M., MaryAnne popped by. After she hugged the girls and said how big and beautiful they looked, she caught sight of my mom’s leg and gasped. “Mary! That’s infected!” The ring was twice as big as it had been in the morning, and the swelling ran the length of her shin. “You need to take her to the hospital!” MaryAnne said to me, making me blush, ashamed that my mom’s friend seemed more engaged in my mother’s well-being than I was.
Within the hour, my mom had been seen by a general practitioner and sent from the ER to the third floor, where they started IV antibiotics. An infection had entered her bloodstream. The next morning, Edward went to the airport without me.
My mom’s behavior in the hospital astonished me, the way a seasoned newscaster, usually so stern and unflappable, can shock you with a show of emotion.
She begged me to make them stop all the poking. Just getting the needle into her vein made her weep. Look! Look at the bruises. There was a nurse she thought wasn’t listening to her. The original doctor, who she liked, had not come by again, and she wanted to make sure her case had not been transferred. A new doctor, who did not shake her hand or look her in the eye, said that if they were unable to get control of the infection, they would have to “at least consider” amputation. I could see, and damn near feel, the terror coursing through her.
I stood close to her and agreed with everything she said.
Those nurses are rough.
That bruising is crazy.
This food could not be more disgusting.
Whatever she felt, I felt with her. I did not try to dissuade her; I had learned that from my own Pigeon, Betsy. It’s our job to be on their side, she told me, referring to both our children and our parents.
I sat by her side, making lists of things to bring from home: her special sleep shirt, a toothbrush, some underwear. The newspaper, a pencil for the crossword, her reading glasses.
When she got emotional, my father assured her, with uninformed optimism, that everything would be fine, while I asked the doctors hard questions and took notes. Our roles were set: my dad made the staff like us, I made them answer us. With my mom’s powers disabled, I was the glue to his glitter.
When my mom slept, I flipped through the magazines I’d brought for her, and followed the ticker tape news along the bottom of the muted TV, and looked at her. She seemed old in the hospital bed, older than I was ready for, at risk. Her skin was thin, her cheeks and neck creped. Family life wore her down. The daily mash-up of tiny, stupid tasks, like roasting chickens and finding the other sneaker, crossed with monitoring rivalries and developing emotional circuitry and soothing when possible, all the while allowing some pockets of time to feel your own feelings and pursue your own pursuits—it’s a lot to maneuver. But what compressed her into an old woman, what made her bones heavy and her joints stiff, what used her up, wasn’t the labor. It was the bottomless worrying and wanting and hoping.
Even now, I realize, there’s so much I’d like to know about this woman. What was she doing in the picture from the shore, in the maid’s uniform, with the pot on her head? What does she say to God when she prays? Why did she fall in love with my dad? Was it because of his loud jolly bigness or despite it, or because there’s some soft, quiet side of him I do not know? Did she end up telling him about my shoplifting—later that night, that year, ever? Why wasn’t I allowed to have a blow dryer?
There’s more, things I need to know. What do you do when kids play off each other? How do you stand their fits of hatred, the stomping and screaming and slamming? How do you let people talk about you, judge you, call you a witch? How do you know when to step in and when to recede? What am I doing wrong?
What does she need to know from me? Not much. Maybe she’d like to hear—much to my own surprise, not to mention Edward’s—that I’ve ended up siding with her on many matters, especially matters involving parenting or, I should say, mothering.
There are no free-for-alls in my house; I’ll hold back dessert, new jeans, a sleepover, anything at all, really, until I get whatever deliverable is due.
I’m not the kind of mother who lives a tourist’s life in her own town, combing through the paper for festivals and nature walks and community potlucks.
I have never worked all week on a homemade Halloween costume, nor do I buy the girls dresses that require dry cleaning. A big treat is going to a secondhand clothing store and picking through the racks to see how much crap we can get for twenty dollars.
I insist on seat belts and bike helmets, even in the driveway. I tell my girls to be careful every time they leave the house, and I can’t watch them climb a tree or walk through a parking lot without ripping off whatever bit of fingernail I can get between my teeth.
Many times, the high point of my day is after the house has been mucked up and I can take off my bra, pour some wine over ice, have a few nuts, and flip through the mail while the girls do their homework.
I don’t give them false praise or cheap feedback, and the thought of my girls being rejected makes me more angry than sad. I read the notes I find in their pants pockets and the journals tucked in their dresser drawers. I fret over things long after Edward clicks off his reading light and goes to sleep—croup, melanoma, insecurity, precocious puberty. Raising people is not some lark. It’s serious work with serious repercussions. It’s air-traffic control. You can’t step out for a minute; you can barely pause to scratch your ankle.
Eventually, after three days in the hospital, my mom looked over at me and said, “For God’s sake, Kelly, go home and take a shower. I’m not dying.” The antibiotics were clearly working. We could return to our usual ways. “And when you come back, bring the backgammon set and some chardonnay and the girls. Bring me my girls.”
She doesn’t need to hear any of this, but here I am, five years later, overflowing with things I want to say, more every day. And lucky me, she is still around to talk to. The trick is, she won’t sit still for a lot of blah-de-blah. She knows I love her, appreciate her. She was doing her job, best she knew how, and that’s enough of that.
It’s not enough for me.
If she could stand it, I’d tell her that sometimes she can be pretty funny—in a Maggie Smith-ish way—and has a kind of grit I don’t see in many other women. I’d tell her I’m no longer secretly trying to change her, to make her more outgoing or liberal or spendy.
I want her to know I have learned the difference between pampering and love, adventure and life experience, mothers and fathers.
I see now what she did for my dad and me, how she let our relationship stay simple and uncomplicated by drawing the fouls and taking the hits. It was her gift to me as a girl in the world, and I will give the same gift to my daughters.
I want her to know that I have seen how the light changes over the course of the day and I know that the rooms that start cold get warmer.
I’d tell her that I know now that there are no daughters who never embarrass, harass, dismiss, discount, deceive, neglect, baffle, appall, incite, or insult their mothers.
I want her to know that although I vote for Democrats and cry easily and still spend all my money going to places no one ever needs to go, I hate shopping and cooking and I have never used a douche. I live within my means and worship my girlfriends, especially the ones who play cards and rag me about keeping the thermostat set too low. I don’t long for other mothers anymore; I don’t even wonder about them. I was meant to be her daughter, and I consider it a damn good thing that she, of all people, was the principal agent in my development.
I want to tell my mom that I admire her, the quiet hero of 168 Wooded Lane, the way she marched head-on into each uncertain moment, changing as the circumstances demanded, like finding a good-paying job at forty-eight with three kids in college.
Even though I don’t always know what she’s talking about or why something bothers her or what’s making her smile, it doesn’t matter, I don’t care anymore, I love her. It’s like a good book: You don’t have to be able to decode every passage to want to hug it when you finish.
Although I spend my Sunday mornings with The New York Times and a latte, I want her to know that sometimes, when I do go to church, I kneel in the pew and cry behind my hands. I don’t know what that means, except I am overwhelmed with feeling, and that feeling has something to do with her.
I want her to know that I’ll take care of her, even when it’s not pretty or easy or cheap. Of course I will. The mother is the most essential piece on the board, the one you must protect. Only she has the range. Only she can move in multiple directions. Once she’s gone, it’s a whole different game.