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.
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.
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,