Relationships

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom — Wherever You Are

My ability to see my mother as a separate being arrived like a gift just as I was losing her

Goodnight, Irene

I’m pleased to report that my once-difficult relationship with my mother continues to improve. So much so that I no longer harbor disappointment, rage or sorrow over our frayed and fragile mother-daughter bond. Until recently, I never believed this day would come. Best of all, our bond grows stronger and deeper all the time.

And, really, the fact that Irene died four years ago is pretty much beside the point. We’re more in touch than ever — well, that is to say I’m more in touch with her. More open to her now than I was for most of my life.

This comes as a complete surprise. Not so much that I would continue to process our relationship after her death — I got a taste of that after my father died — but that I would come to know Irene more intimately, understand her better, feel increasingly compassionate toward her.

And, gulp, sometimes even, I feel as if I’m turning into her.

I see traces of her when I look in the mirror. I hear her in my voice when I answer the phone. I sense that even though I spent so many years trying to separate myself from her, living an unconventional life that from the outside looked like the opposite of hers — in other words, doing everything imaginable to define myself as the anti-Irene — we are much more alike than I would have ever dared to admit.

Ironic, too. I used to berate my mother for her vanity. I swore I would never dye my hair, get regular blow-dries, manicures, pedicures, not to mention waxing unsightly facial hair. And what about Irene’s obsession with designer clothes and nice jewelry? A pretty house? Pas moi! I was a soulful, spirited artiste in ripped jeans and peasant garb. My engagement with the material plane would look nothing like my mother’s.

Until, suddenly, it started to. Of course aging has had something to do with my conversion. When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, I looked good enough without fussing, so that my au naturel style neatly matched my philosophy.

But the similarities between my mother and myself run far deeper than clothes and makeup. It wasn’t until Irene was dying at age 95 in 2010 that I began to really see her as a separate person — not just in relation to me. I suppose that viewing one’s parents through a narcissistic lens is pretty standard. Still, my ability to see her as a separate being arrived like a gift just as I was losing her. She was a woman with secrets, unfulfilled yearnings, her own story — much of which had nothing to do with me.

Like all of us, she was shaped by the times in which she lived. Irene was born in 1915 and came of age during the Depression. She never went to college but dreamed of pursuing an acting career — which her father forbade. Marriage and motherhood — along with maintaining her good looks and becoming a world-class hostess — seemed to be her only options. And though later in life she became an accomplished sculptor, that remained an avocation.

It’s no wonder we clashed. I was born in 1947 and was an uber-child of the 1960s who believed in breaking all the rules. After traveling the world in a VW bus and living in hippie enclaves from coast to coast, I did become an actress, as well as a playwright and a journalist. Marriage and motherhood have been important to me too, but not as my sole vocation. Looking back, I think that somewhere along the way, my mother became jealous of me, of the freedom I had to express myself and find my own way in the world.

It wasn’t until Irene lay dying that I realized this — that she, too, had judged herself in relation to me. She, too, had been incapable of seeing me as a separate person. This came as a revelation; I’d always believed the comparisons went in one direction only. Yet, as the roles of mother and daughter began to fall away, I believe we truly saw each other for the first time — without our own reflections and projections getting in the way. At last, we were able to open our hearts to one another without holding anything back.

And though I can’t say where Irene is this Mother’s Day, I appreciate her more than ever.

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