My mother and I share a superficial cutesiness that belies the deep, fundamental disparities in our natures. This has been so since I was a child. Back then, you would have noticed our similar girlish features, soft voices, and tendency towards over-animated facial expressions and concluded that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. In reality, though, the apple was so far afield of the tree that it wasn’t quite sure it came from the tree at all. In fact, the apple considered herself a mishapen pear that by some tragic circumstance was forced to live as an apple, even though she bore no similarity to apples save for a common membership in the Rosaceae Prunoideae family of fruit.
I have participated in enough writing critique groups to know that I am “telling” as opposed to “showing”, so let me show you what I mean. My mother had a very conventional suburban childhood in 1950’s Los Angeles. She attended a ballroom dance class with future members of The Mickey Mouse Club. She went to sock hops, joined her high school sorority, and wore rabbit fur collars with her twin-sets. She married and had my brother and I before she hit thirty. I don’t remember her as a harried young mother, but as a preternaturally good-natured and even-keeled one. She became a parent in the seventies, when a lot of her peers were divorcing and/or holding in their bladders at EST sessions, ostensibly in order to “find themselves”. My mother — luckily for me — didn’t need to find herself. She knew who she was and what made her happy — a good breakfast joint, a good murder-mystery, and any rom-com starring Doris Day or Debbie Reynolds. She didn’t waste a lot of time mulling over her life’s direction; she preferred to mull over her flowers and shrubs (which were spectacular, by the way). Once, when I was a teen, I saw Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters with her. The rest of the audience was laughing or dabbing their eyes at all the angst and irony. But when it was over, Mom exited the theater with me, shaking her head in bafflement. “The family in that movie?” she said. “Those people are screwed up.”
Somehow, this supremely agreeable woman managed to produce me: a quivering bundle of nerves from Day One. I was a freaky child, prone to insomnia and tears. I gravitated towards pursuits that fed into my perfectionism — ballet, piano — then despaired over every stumble, every botched chord. I was shy and self-conscious, and the few friends that I had were charitably called “quirky”. At around seven or eight, I went through an intense phase where I talked to trees, imagining them to be animated by woodland spirits. I chalk this up to the fact that (1) I’m Celtic, so there’s no doubt a Druid or two lurking somewhere in my ancestry, and (2) I’m more or less crazy. While my classmates were obsessed with Shawn Cassidy, I was obsessed with Little Women, primarily because Jo was so relentlessly aspirational and uncompromising in her quest for betterment — just like me. I spent a lot of time worrying over what I wanted to do with my life and if I would succeed.
So, in short, my mother and I were very different, even though we were both cute as buttons. If I haven’t shown you enough, here’s a picture to illustrate:
As an adolescent who was significantly less cute than a button, these differences bothered me. The primary gripe was that my mother didn’t “get” me. Pubescent Me was riled that my mother didn’t get why it was so important for me to master Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major. If I didn’t execute it flawlessly, what was the point? What was with her, and all her gibberish about “having fun”? Teenaged Me was pissed that my mother didn’t get my restless dissatisfaction with life, or what she liked to call my “moods”. Didn’t she ever feel dark and stabby and angry that shows like ALF existed and, what’s more, people liked them? Wasn’t she — like me — bored with our hick-ass town, with its Jesus-freaks and pickups-with-gunracks and complete-lack-of-ethnic-food? And even Adult Me, on occasion, wonders how my mother has managed, year after year, to face life with the same cheerfully accepting equanimity. Doesn’t she ever face a pile of mouldering laundry and have the following breakdown?
No, she does not. My mother’s reaction to a pile of mouldering laundry is as follows:
Admittedly, there are advantages to my mother’s approach. For one, it’s pretty exhausting when a mere load of laundry can send you into an existential tailspin. Also, the laundry tends to just sit there whilst you implode.
Before I had children, I thought the disconnect between my mother and I was a tiny bit sad. I felt loved by her, certainly, but with that love was the awareness that we vibrated on different frequencies. I was towards the spastic end of the continuum, whereas her energy was more like a mellow, slow-rolling wave. If I had a child like myself, I used to think, what a relief it would be for us to know that we’re both a bit more sensitive, more excitable than most. What a gift for my child, to have a mother that “gets” him – a fellow fragile flower.
That turned out to be not the case at all. I had a child like myself: my son, who shares my introversion and perfectionism and preoccupation with Big Questions. But unlike me, he has his father’s probing, skeptical mind. He latches onto a line of inquiry like a pit bull onto a chicken, refusing to yield until he gets an answer, however unsettling. This is a great trait if you’re a trial attorney like my husband. But when you’re a kid, it means you take a small, worrisome question and tease it out until its ramifications enlarge into something overwhelming and scary. Battered with enough questions, a kernel of unease explodes into a mushroom-cloud of anxiety. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m really bad at handling this:
In retrospect, I see that my mother was much better at quelling fear — of failure, of rejection, of even death. When I had Big Questions, she always had answers. And even though, in my gut, I knew her answers were half-assed and glib, I also knew that she was not troubled a whit by this. This was hugely comforting to me. Yes, there was darkness, but my mother chose not to get too worked up about it — especially not when Pillow Talk was on! So why should I tie myself into knots? Our exchanges on the Big Questions typically went something like this:
Even though she never satisfactorily answered my questions, the fact that my mother was calm made me calm. Her cheerful composure leeched into me. Being a nervous sort, I struggle to provide my son the same comfort. When he starts in with his questions, I involuntarily tense and twitch, since his questions feed on my own anxieties. Yet no matter how placid my face or casual my voice, he picks up on my unease, absorbs it, then sends it back to me amplified. We’re like two highly-tuned signaling devices, detecting and emitting waves of tension:
The upshot of all this is: being different than your parent ain’t so bad. Your disparities can soothe and complement each other as much as they alienate.
Also: sometimes you have to suck it up and just do the damn laundry.