Watching my mother disintegrate over the past few years from charmingly forgetful to confused, from lucid to opaque, from the woman she was to a frail shell of emptiness-- an intellectual wisp who is barely able to perceive her own pain. At first I thought she was on a sort of voluntary mental holiday—not that she didn’t deserve a vacation from thinking and organizing, after the millions of diapers and vacuums and laundry loads-- teenage battles... not to mention the strain of enabling, of holding up the House of Cards (all Kings) that was my father whose emotional absences and mood swings colored our house fire-red and black. Still, it was hard to adjust to my mother as cornerstone rather than column.
Not that she ever actually provided support for the independence that qualified my life. She forced me to return my first Stratocaster which I bought with my own babysitting money, insisting it was ‘for boys’. She boycotted all performances except orchestra and choir concerts, school plays… failed to read anything I wrote past my school papers… was not particularly comforting but screamed when I got a black eye at baseball practice, panicked at a split in my knee. I eventually realized this was a kind of contagion from my poor PTSD-afflicted World War II-hero Dad whose fragile equilibrium any mishap or drama could collapse.
Still, she did an amount of damage control. Truth is, I secretly cried for my Mom when I was sent off to camp at a young age; I was homesick the first days of a school term. When I was away I converted her into that image of Mother-angel—the silent suffering silhouette bent over a hot stove or clattering sink with a stray lock of hair falling over her face— only the faintest hint of the burden of household sainthood-- who would clean our wounds and dry our tears, whose mere touch restored our hearts.
Some people have that Mom; some of my friends even had that Mom… but I never found a home safety-net or even an audience. It was her way: withholding, to guide me into the right deep-grooved slot where there would be success and bragging rights, even though no one in my family had paved the way for anything like this.
As a mother myself, I tried to right these wrongs. I tried to listen… to allow my human offspring-weeds to grow whichever way they wanted—to cheer at games, marvel at projects, understand the mishaps and missteps. My son was tough; after the age of 12 he didn't give me a break. I do know the headmaster of his school once told me he usually teared up when they threatened to call me after an incident. It couldn't have been fear, so I knew he cared somewhere. I tried not to judge. I'd cowered at the wrath of my father… the idea of it. Still, at a certain point, a parent transitions from a version of lecture-master. In my childhood home, this phase had been a little terrifying and always punishing; but eventually things level and you become kind of an equal... something like a confidante or mentor. Between me and my Mom there were a few golden moments in my 30s and 40s when she occasionally stopped judging and we were briefly just two women. Then my Mom began her decline. At first she was a little giddy.. apologetic and silly. Eventually it became delusional and disturbing. But there was a little love… the love she couldn't express with all the conditions and expectations… she became a little immune to my Dad’s tantrums and prohibitions; she became a little pure of heart.
Being too frail to pass the torch to me… I took it on. I have for a few years been my son’s occasional mentor… his parental loving guide. And as my Mom passes into the final phases of this deterioration of ego, I will take on the role of aging parent. My son will be the man, the adult in his prime, and I can feel myself becoming that much more fragile.
So many of my women friends are seeing this now—the letting- go of their Moms, those of us lucky enough to still have them at this age. The most lucky among us are losing the friend and confidante, the person at the end of a phone to whom we confess, confide, weep. In my case it is more of a myth I am missing than a mother, but I still mourn the passage as a loss. And as with all passages, we must let the past go… we must watch our children toddle off to school, walk down the aisle with their new soul mates, move on to become heads of their own families, while our role is diminishing. We must embrace their freedom and our own, and step into the track that is maybe the last round of this life cycle, as we prepare for the final exit of our mothers.
I fondly remember those privileged moments when my Mom and I were able to enjoy our mutual company as women. In the foggy far-distance is my mortal dread of her sternness when I was a teenager and a schoolgirl. What I treasure as I say goodbye to her—myth or mother—are these few opportunities I’ve had in her current mental cloud to find the love... to see her eyes really light up as she seems to recognize me as her daughter—not the disappointing former ivy leaguer who ended up finding her stride at CBGBs-- on cramped bar stages of the urban underworld, who bared her punk-rock soul to men my mother cringed to meet—but someone she blood-loved. And these few instances have healed me, have reassured me that my tears of homesickness were somehow acknowledged, if not in realtime, in some kind of after-life.
The rock-and-roll lesson of this life is never easy. But in the end, it is the love you make that matters… whether or not it's received, understood, or accepted. And I can love my Mom now, as she is, with no expectation, no audience, no echo. We don't know what the future holds… no one of us, but we must be brave and move forward, as the primary matriarch of our lives now, with no predecessors but a sense of history and yes, we are going to be left behind, but the love will live beyond us in the future generations of our heart.