Friday, April 30, 2010

A Mother's Day tribute: Is there a Hallmark card for a mom who WASN'T my best friend?

For years, the rituals surrounding Mother's Day have driven me to the edge of madness. I was OK with the whole take-her-out-to-brunch thing, though I always prefer to cook at home, but what was I supposed to get as a Mom's Day gift for a woman who is a compulsive hoarder? Maybe a bulldozer? And the expensive floral arrangements just got lost in the other junk. Yet, if I DIDN'T get those things for my mom, I felt guilty. This is What a Loving Daughter Should Do, right?

Don't even get me started about the cards. It's been my annual custom in early May to spend 3 hours in the Hallmark store, looking through every Mother's Day card on the rack, and then looking again, sweating blood because I couldn't find a card that didn't make my internal bull-bleep siren start wailing. "Mom, I'm so glad we're best friends..."  "I've always been able to come to you for advice..."  "You were a great example to me and you still are..."  "You're my hero!"  What in the great big blue sky happened to cards that simply say, "I love you" or "Have a wonderful Mother's Day" or even "You deserve the best on Mother's Day"? In the World According to Hallmark, apparently my mother and I were supposed to be carefree, giggling gal-pals who shopped for prom dresses together and told deep, dark secrets to each other during sleepover nights.

Well, we weren't, and we didn't. It's hard to say this, but my mother wasn't my hero, or my best friend; she wasn't always there for me, and there were many years during which I felt that if she hadn't been my mother, I wouldn't have had anything to do with her. Bless her heart, it wasn't her fault - she had a horrible childhood, a rocky marriage with my father, an early and reclusive widowhood, and just about nobody to model fully functional relationships for her at any time during her life. Despite her god-awful upbringing, she was pretty nurturing when I was little. She was never abusive and I never felt unwanted by her. Maybe just unseen; she was often preoccupied with her own pain. But even after I realized all these things and (mostly) forgave my mother her human failings, I couldn't find it in my soul to pretend, on Mother's Day or any day, that we shared some kind of ideal mom-daughter bond. That might be the feel-good marketing pitch, but it just wasn't true in my case, no matter how much I longed for the myth to be reality. Every year I bought the most noncommittal Mother's Day card I could find, and I soldiered on through the Eggs Benedict and her unwrapping a gift that would never be used, until the day was over and my daughterly duties were discharged. It never felt good and I never knew what to do about it.

Then, in late 2008, my mom had a fast, steep cognitive slide and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. My brother lives clear across the country and I moved Mom here from California in 2001 to be geographically near me, so guess what? - TAG, I was It for caregiving. My life changed almost as much as hers did. I went from avoiding visiting or calling her for two weeks at a time (she lives 11 miles from me) to seeing her every couple of days, making sure her needs are being met and taking care of virtually every aspect of her day-to-day living: paying her bills, shopping for her, taking her to medical appointments and hair appointments, doing her nails. Though she's amazingly stable now and her decline is slow, AND she gets competent daily help at her retirement community, she still needs a lot of my time and energy.

So here's the weird thing: even though I don't like giving up so much of my life to see to Mom's care; even though I wish I had uninterrupted time to write, and cook, and garden, and figure out what I want to be when I grow up, this forced shift in my relationship with my mother has been a liberation from all the daughterly angst of the past. What she did or didn't do as a mother, and the kind of mother I wish she had been able to be, is laughably irrelevant. This woman whom I rebelled against, and was embarrassed by, and did not want to be anything like, is like my child now. She depends on me, follows my guidance, looks to me to calm her anxieties, laughs at my jokes, constantly thanks me (she rarely did that before) and tells me she doesn't know what she would do without me. I feel fiercely protective of her even as I roll my eyes about having to go over to her place to feed "her" hummingbirds again, so she won't worry about them. I'm committed to doing everything within my power to ensure that my mother is comfortable and well cared-for until the end. She's STILL not my best friend. But she is important in my life, and I am important in hers.

I guess it's time to get to the point: This post is meant as a tribute to and a virtual hug for children (esp. daughters, because, well, you know how it goes with mothers and daughters, and you know if I'm talking to YOU) whose mothers were/are something like mine: difficult, and not the best role models in the world; needy, and often oblivious to what we needed from them. If your mom's still around, life may change her, but YOU can't. What you can do is figure out what she IS giving you (whether she knows it or not), and what you are able to give her. Don't waste time feeling guilty; that only SEEMS as if you're doing something (you're not). Let the relationship be what it will, learn from it what you can, and don't ever buy into the Mother's Day myth that it has to be ideal. Your mom doesn't have to be your best friend - that's what your best friend is for.

If your mother is not still with us, then let her go gently into that good night. You can be sure you don't know her whole story, just as no one will ever know the whole story of you - we would all be more compassionate with one another if we could know, but it's not possible.

Oh - and if you ARE one of those children whose mom was/is your best friend and your hero, I'm so very happy for you (really). I hope you're on your knees every day in gratitude. Buy those Hallmark cards that I pass up, and give them to your mother.

As for me: though I've never been a biological mother, and I'm old enough for grandmotherhood now, in the past two years my mother has taught me how to care with a mother's relentless love, even when it's hard. Oddly, I'm thankful. Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Potatoes and Life 101

I planted potatoes - oh, must have been 5 or 6 weeks ago. Got good seed potatoes; planted them according to instructions, in the best soil in the garden; watered lightly (the usual Portland late-winter deluge had abated for a few days); kept the bed weeded. Then I waited. And waited. Examined the soil surface almost daily. Nothing showed up. So I waited some more - a lot more - doubt and near despair creeping into all the formerly optimistic corners of my gardener's heart. Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. Looked at the calendar. After six weeks it seemed time to surrender to the inevitable: no potatoes this spring.

Went out in the yard two days ago for some non-potato-related reason. Two teeny-tiny potato plants had broken through. Yesterday, one more. I know they're laughing at me. In their potato language (gardeners learn this language by osmosis, through the dirt under their fingernails), they're saying, "You dear foolish thing, sometimes all you can do is WAIT. So go do something else for a while and let us take care of the business of growing."

Sigh. They're right. I'm a product of my good old, all-American, let's-fix-whatever's-wrong culture - such a strength and such a weakness. When things don't follow my timetable, I want to dig around and find the problem and apply some magical elixir that will GET THE PROCESS GOING. But if I'd rooted around in my potato bed, disturbing the little quartered spuds to see why they weren't hurrying to burst through to the light, nothing would ever have come up except muddy potato quarters. 

In the climactic scene of the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," lovers Joel and Clementine, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet - who have broken up messily, each of whom has attempted to have the other erased from his/her memory, and who have wildly chased each other down through multiple time- and mind-streams after they find they really kinda sorta DO maybe love each other - are on the verge of a final, sad breakup. Clementine walks out of Joel's apartment and down the hall, ready to disappear from Joel's life forever. He steps out the door and shouts, "WAIT!" "What?" she says. Joel, anguished, cries, "Wait...just wait a while."

Clementine and Joel DO wait. They commit to starting again, fears, warts and all. We don't get to see the end of the story - whether the relationship lasts, whether it's good or not, whether these two people are "meant" to be together or whether that even matters. All we know is that they've simply decided things aren't so bad that they can't afford to wait a while to see what might put down roots. They give themselves the time to rediscover what brought them together in the first place.

Hence the Life 101 lesson, in a classroom full of potatoes. Sometimes all you can do is wait, knowing you have done your part: Prepare the soil well, get good seed or strong starts, plant properly, water when necessary but not too much, cultivate to keep weeds from taking over. Your job is to learn the language of what you love, and let the seeds you have planted do what they do best.