"Honey, we just can't afford it," came my mother's familiar refrain. I was 15 and standing in a small clothing store in town, begging for a pair of painter pants, which were all the rage in my high school.
"We can never afford anything," I shot at my mother with disdain.
She looked away without answering, and we made our way back out to the snowy street, and drove home in silence. As a teenager, I had such contempt for my mother. Everything she did was wrong. I hated her clothes. I hated that she didn't wear makeup. I hated that she was out working when I came home from school. Mostly, I hated hearing that we couldn't afford the things I wanted. I had an afterschool job from the time I was 11, which was my choice, but I still resented it.
We weren't poor by any standard of the times, but we were poorer than we had been before my parents divorced, and before my mother and new stepfather moved us from our large house with a pool in sunny Florida to a dark house on a steep hill in New Hampshire. In Florida, my mother wore dresses and hats; she had her hair frosted and her nails done. In New Hampshire, she seemed to turn into a hippy and walked around in corduroys and sweaters, her graying hair cut short and her nails unpolished.
I missed our old life. I also missed my grandmother. My mother's parents lived around the corner from us in Florida, and I adored them. Actually, "idolize" is a more appropriate word. They were both born into stark poverty, and had achieved the American dream. They lived in a grand home on the water and always had a new car in the driveway, thanks to the fact that my grandfather owned four Dodge dealerships.
To me, my grandmother Tata was perfect. She always dressed in sleek slacks and silk tops, and she wore Ferragamo shoes. I loved spending time with Tata. We'd bake and discuss books or she'd take me to the science museum, which she founded. She was strict, but loving, and life at her house was calm and secure.
When I spent the night I always slept in my mother's old room, which had hand-painted silk wallpaper that my grandparents brought back from Japan. Thinking about my mother growing up in that room, I imagined that her childhood was idyllic, and that having Tata as a mother must have been a dream.
But when I'd say this to my mother, she always replied, "I think Tata is a better grandmother than she was mother," which made me resent my mother even more. How could she not adore the woman whose love and umbrella of security made me feel so warm, safe and cared for?
We fought throughout my teenage years, and I always blamed her for money being a persistent issue. If only my mother had made better choices, if only she hadn't moved us from Florida, if only, if only.
I was 39 when my mother died. She had been sick for years, and I spent every other weekend with her at the hospital. I'd sit next to the bed and we'd talk about cooking, politics, the latest Coach bag, and old grievances, while my young daughter crawled on her and gave her gentle kisses.
A few weeks before she died we were talking about Tata and my mother said, "I think you were right, Tata was a really good mother."
She said this quietly, looking off into the distance.
A couple of years ago, I was standing in my kitchen, after my husband left me for another woman. My two children and I had recently moved from a large luxurious house to a small split-level, and I was cleaning, grinding my teeth thinking about the fight my teenage daughter and I had had that morning over having to cut back on her horseback riding lessons. We had been fighting a lot recently; about her wanting me to get a "real job" instead of being a writer, about how stressed I was over money and about how I disappointed her in every way.
Tears ran down my face as my knees gave out, and I slid to the floor, clutching the yellow sponge in my hand, when it hit me. I finally understood what my mother had gone through, how difficult and painful it must have been for her to tell me she couldn't afford to buy me what I wanted. I was filled with shame and empathy; empathy I denied my mother when she needed it most, and shame for not having had the selflessness to understand her struggle.
Teenagers are not known for their understanding or empathy. I never considered what my mother was going through. When she and my father divorced, she had four children under the age of 6. She went from being an affluent wife and member of the Junior League to a single mother in 1968, a time when women could not get a credit card in their own name.
She moved us to New Hampshire to escape the escalating crime of West Palm Beach and to give us a better life. When she was in her forties, my mother got her master's degree and entered the workforce for the first time since she was a newlywed. She put a roof over our heads and cooked us dinner every night. She played the piano while we sang, and she meticulously edited every paper I ever wrote. She never complained and she never bought herself anything. She poured everything she had into my sisters and me.
I wonder why it took so long for my mother to appreciate her own mother, and why it took the end of my marriage for me to fully appreciate her. I hope my daughter never gets divorced. I hope she never has hard times. But if she does, I hope she'll look back on her youth and know that her mother did the best she could, and that we can share our love and common experience in a way that I never did with my mother, or her with hers.