I Get It Now, Mom

Mom died six years ago today, three days after her ninetieth birthday. Our relationship was often tense; I thought she was hypercritical, she thought I was, well, not everything she wanted in a daughter. Particularly regarding my hair, and my husband.

Every once in a while, though, Mom would surprise the hell out of me. One spring afternoon when I was 16, after weeks of nit-picky arguments about what I chose to wear, how much time I spent reading instead of going outside, and innumerable other stupid things mothers and daughters fight about, she told me to come outside with her.

She marched right up to our little Datsun station wagon, parked in its slot in the driveway, handed me the keys, and told me to get in. She walked around to the other side and got into the passenger seat.

The Datsun had manual transmission. I didn’t know how to drive a stick. My jaw dropped and I was rendered speechless (highly unusual) when I realized Mom was going to teach me how to drive a stick.

When I graduated high school, Dad gave me that car. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me drive it off to college in southern California (a mere 2000 miles away, only a four day drive, I’ll stop at night, I’m eighteen, what was the problem?) but after my merciless whining, begging, pleading and explaining that life in California was impossible without a car,  they let my eldest brother, who had moved out to California to pursue his career in music, drive it out there for me. And at the end of my freshman year, I drove it home to Chicago, alone. And back, and home, and back, and home until I graduated college (except for that semester abroad.)

I gained a lot of experience and confidence by learning how to drive that car.

Thanks, Mom.

Mom had a weird way of descending stairs; she’d stick one foot out, look down, and hesitate before she actually took the step. Uncharitably, since I was (and am) overweight, I thought it was just because going downstairs was physically difficult for her after three kids and some extra pounds.

I wear progressive lenses now, with a “distant,” “computer,” and “reading” zone.

Ahhh, now I get it, Mom. You wore bifocals, and you were trying to get the right view of the next step to gauge its depth and distance. I find myself doing the same thing now.

Sorry, Mom.

In my twenties, after a weekend visit home from law school, when Mom had a negative thing to say about absolutely everything, we were cleaning up in the kitchen after dinner and I asked her, “can you think of a single moment in your life when you were truly, completely happy?”

She paused, and said, “Yes. It was a winter night in Boston and I had just come off my shift. It was a clear night. I looked up at the stars. I felt absolutely happy.”

My first reaction was hurt, that her moment of perfect happiness occurred when she was alone, and had nothing at all to do with her children. As Moms do, she read my mind, and said, “sorry” with a smile and a shrug.

But I get it now, Mom. You were really proud of becoming a registered nurse. You earned a scholarship.  Your parents didn’t want you to leave home. But you did, and you launched your professional life solely through your own hard work.  You loved being a nurse.

That night, you had something that was entirely your own. I’m envious that you pursued your vocation when you were relatively young. I muddled through job after stressful, unfulfilling job, always feeling out of place. It’s an enormous blessing at this stage of life for me to have found a job smack in the middle of my “flow” zone – where I experience a sense that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing – writing.

About 4 months before your 90th birthday, you got your hair cut, really short. Your magnificent head of white hair, that had revived itself after years of thinning, styled pretty much as it was in your nurse graduation portrait, above, was gone.

“Like Judi Dench,” you said. You loved it.

I was appalled, but I kept it to myself,

But Saturday, I got the most radical haircut of my life. Short, naturally curly pixie. And I absolutely love it – low maintenance, wash and wear, and it makes me feel renewed.

I hope I live long enough and still have my marbles when I get a radical haircut a few months before my ninetieth birthday.

That portrait of you? It’s on my writing desk.

Because I get it, now.

Remembering Mom with love and gratitude, I remain, your newly pixie-cut, happily writing,

Ridiculouswoman

“Oversensitive” Is A Compliment, Mom

Never underestimate what an autistic person understands, or especially, remembers.

It is bound to be a helluva lot more than you think.

Even with an autistic person who is verbal, communication can be oblique, indirect, hinted. Somehow, the direct route got derailed in the brain, or entangled in what science has found are far more neural connections than “neurotypical” people have. There’s a LOT more going on in the brain of an autistic person than in a “typical” brain.

As our daughter matures, I am reminded of this daily, and often, I’m amazed.

How did she….? Where did that idea come from? I didn’t know she even know that word!

When I was writing the other day about missing Mike’s centering influence in our lives, I mentioned how he loved to discover new music, and how he and our daughter would learn a lot of great songs by artists I had never heard of before.

One of those was a Canadian singer-songwriter named Jann Arden. They started listening to her when our daughter was a toddler.

Thursday, I noticed she was listening to Jann Arden on her phone.

We hadn’t played Jann Arden in this house for more than ten years.

Suddenly, as I am writing about Mike finding new music, she starts listening to Jann Arden again?

The truth is, Jann Arden’s music was the soundtrack to the most painful period of our marriage, a time that had ongoing traumatic effects for the rest of our lives together.  But Mike had gotten our daughter so hooked on that music during that fraught time that I actually took it away, with the promise of return if she mastered an essential skill.

Denying an autistic child something they are attached to is agony.

But it worked.

It was also the beginning of the end of our listening to Arden’s music.

Until Thursday.

I’ve been writing about how we’ve been going through another wave of grief, unexpectedly, and how I tell her to hang on to the happy memories.

Was playing Jann Arden, within earshot, her way of telling me the sad memories are there, too? She remembers listening to Jann Arden with him, and she remembers me taking the music away and giving it back again after a week of painful deprivation.

She also remembers the wrenching, raging discord too often present in our marriage.

My Mother used to accuse me of being “oversensitive” when things other kids did or said upset me, or when I objected to her nit-picking about my hair, my clothes, my reading habit (“go outside!” – I realized she nagged me about this because she wanted to go outside) or my choice of activities, jobs or diets. When I explained I felt attacked, she called me “paranoid.”

Mom often started her criticism with, “what will people think of your Mother if you (wear that hairstyle, leave that job, eat that food…?)”

Not what would they think of her daughter, but what would they think of her.

It infuriated Mom when I called her on this – that her complaints and criticisms had more to do with her than me.

The idea that I might have some insight into the motivation behind her criticism offended her.

The idea of insight itself exasperated her, I think. Who needs insight when something needs doing. So stow your precious little feelings and don’t forget to unload the dishwasher. We’ll talk about your feelings later. As in never.

Mom saw sensitivity as a threat. Acknowledging undercurrents means uncovering pain. Lost father, lost brother, kid-thwarted career, lost mother. Regret.

She did not want to open that box.

Whatever she had packed away so tightly burst out of her occasionally, as tears or anger. But she wouldn’t say why.

Other than I had forgotten to unload the dishwasher, again.

Or that she felt unappreciated.

I wish my “oversensitivity” had been comforting to her, not annoying. Not a threat.

Sensitivity is receptivity to expressed emotion in people, or observable beauty in nature, music, dance, literature or art.

“Oversensitivity” is the ability to discern things unexpressed, unspoken, unseen, but present, meaningful, and worthy of discussion, or at least acknowledgement.

That’s a gift, Mom, not a problem.

A gift your granddaughter displays in the unique, sometimes heartbreaking ways she communicates what she has discerned, through whatever alchemy of receptivity her overconnected brain employs (sensing tiny blips of my neuroelectricity? or a disturbance in the local magnetic field? glancing over my shoulder?) as I sit here, writing about Mike and music and our lives together.

So thanks for the compliment, Mom, but it is your granddaughter who really deserves it.

Listening again, after a very long hiatus, to Jann Arden, and allowing myself to remember the pain that is the flipside of love, I remain,

Your “oversensitive”

Ridiculouswoman