Family Secrets

The Mystery of My Mother

I didn't want to be like her, but when my parents finally divorced, I hoped maybe she could be like me

"You're just like your mother," my grandmother—her mother—used to say to me throughout high school.

It drove me nuts.

I was a happy teen, loving high school—it was better than my house, anyway, where my parents were having their own silent Cold War—and the last thing I wanted to hear was that I was just like my mom. I know I looked like her, but I didn't want to be like her, too.

Not that there was anything wrong with her: She was pretty, smart and talented; a painter whose luscious oil portraits were hung all over my grandparents' apartment. But my mom gave it all up when she married my dad, trading her easel for a nursing degree, her artistic ambitions relegated to etchings of sad eyes sketched mindlessly on backs of envelopes while she was on the phone in the kitchen.

If I was just like her, that meant she had been just like me as a teenager, and I would end up like she did—in the wrong marriage and wrong career.

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Not I. I was going to change the world. Even though my mom wanted me to be a scientist (I had no idea why), I planned to be a lawyer, fighting injustice. I wasn't too sure about marriage and kids, but I knew I wouldn't be doing it early, if ever.

I didn't want to be like her but, when my parents finally divorced, I hoped maybe she could be like me.

After they dissolved their 29-year union, I was happy for them. They could each find a better life for themselves, pursue their own dreams, maybe find new love. And my mom could finally return to her former, flourishing self.

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So why wasn't she as ecstatic as I was?

"It's not that simple," my mother morosely said to me as I tried to rally her with the possibilities of her new life. I was young, 23, on the brink of starting my own independent life (I would become a crusading journalist instead of a lawyer), and life appeared to me a stark black and white: Happy or Unhappy. Bitter or Sweet. I did not yet understand nuance, how they could be both. How she could be scared of being a divorcee in her fifties, even if she was glad to be done with my dad.

And yet it seemed the latter outweighed the former, her fears heavier than any anticipation.

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Would she never recapture her youthful self, the one that was most like me?

One day, at lunch with my favorite aunt, my mother's younger sister who, happily married with kids and a thriving career, was like a role model to me, said, "You're nothing like your mother."

"What are you talking about?" I nearly choked on my lunch. "That's what your mother always said, that my mom was just like me—the belle of the ball, the life of the party."

"What are you talking about?" my aunt said, explaining how my mom was an introvert in high school who didn't really date too much, my father one of her first suitors. "She was nothing like you are now, or ever have been."

"So then why would Ma say that?" I asked, using our grandmother's moniker.

"That's the way Ma saw your mother, I guess," my aunt said. "The way she wanted her to be ... "

I put down my fork. If my mother had always been a loner, a glum type who preferred painting to painting the town red, that meant that my father hadn't ruined her life in quite the way my grandmother had implied. He hadn't changed who she was, fundamentally. It meant she couldn't go back to being vivacious and sparkly, because she never had been.

She never had been like me. So I was in no danger of morphing into her.

Ma was older by then, in poor health, and I couldn't really call her on her perception—but I don't think it would have mattered: My grandmother was the type of person who would deny the Earth was round if it suited her purposes.

What mattered was that I was free, freed by a secret of sorts, a clash of perceptions that had unwittingly weighed me down my whole life.

And now I understood: I didn't need to be like anyone else but me.

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