My mom and me have always had a good relationship. The way we fight and annoy one another, outsiders might think that was a crazy statement to make, but it’s true. Mom was born in 1930 and grew up poor. Her father, who she adored, died when she was twelve. Her mother was a Pennsylvania Dutch farm girl who was a feisty broad who had her own hardships with which she was forced to deal. Mom grew up with a love of books and storytelling (I still have her dog eared and well worn copy of Jane Eyre) and wanted to joins the WACS and live the single life. But in the late 1940s women got married, had babies, and lived their lives for others, so that is what she did. She had my brother and sister, worked both inside and outside the home, and tried to give her kids the things she didn’t have.
When I came along ten years after my sister, mom was 29 and in a different frame of mind. She raised me with a completely different set of tapes than my sister. She always encouraged me to have a career, go to school, and be independent. “Don’t get married. Be independent.” She wasn’t sure how to do any of that stuff and it mostly expressed itself with her desire that I work in an office as a secretary in the city. To a woman who grew up poor, left school early, and only worked in factories, that was a dream life: to wear nice clothes, be counted among those with white collars, have regular day hours, and have an education was a big deal. Mom says she never read The Feminine Mystique, but she certainly picked up on the zeitgeist of the day–grabbing birth control pills within seconds after I was born and taking control over her life to the extent that she could.
Mom’s always been there for me for support, to drive me crazy, and implant thoughts into my brain that only moms can do. Indeed, when I was hit by a car as I crossed the street some thirty years ago, I woke from what I thought was an awfully odd dream with a kind first responder telling me I was okay. And my first thought–MY VERY FIRST THOUGHT–was a conscious confirmation that, yes, I was wearing clean underwear. Mom’s daily declaration “there is a place for everything and everything in its place” probably led to my becoming an archivist. She has the most organized clothes closet of anyone I know. She’s funny, even when she doesn’t want to be, and can be the most fatalistic person on the planet. I tease her relentlessly about it as there have been times when I’ve said, “I’ll see you tomorrow mom” and she’d answer, without even thinking, “I hope so.” Some people have characterized her as being “cold,” but she’s not. She’s just someone who doesn’t like to dwell in the past and likes to move on.
She likes when I visit, of course, because I make her laugh. I make fun of all the relatives, impersonate the neighbors, and always have some wisecrack about her religious viewing of Judge Judy. One night I sat on the remote–I refused to give up Chris Matthews for Judge Judy. After the hour was up–my political craving sated–I handed her the remote. She didn’t talk to me for an hour. When I told her that I had breast cancer she cried and cried. After all, she’s a mom; she doesn’t want to see her daughter with the Big C. I waited about a month before I told her that I was Stage IV–I had to get as much information as possible so I could answer her questions. Mom was strong about it. “Fucking cancer,” she said.
She told me that she doesn’t want me to hold anything from her and to be honest, so I have been. Yesterday she asked me if I had looked into “making arrangements.” I knew what that meant: funeral planning. She’s a big proponent of that, having done that herself. So we talked about it around the edges. Yes, I have thought about it, but I need to meet with someone to get details. Cremation? Yes. What to do with the ashes? They would be taken to Egypt and tossed in the Nile. “Good,” she said. “I’ll bet in a past life we were Queens in Egypt–and we were skinny.” Mom noted how morose this all sounded and then she cried, “Crissakes, you’re my baby and we’re having this conversation?” Yeah, but what can you do?
We both pulled it together and I said something predictably funny that snapped us out of the moment. I think back to all of the times I shared my dreams with my mom over the years. When I was walking around with my Barbie and Francie case playing “business woman,” I announced that someday I was going to live in the city and be rich (okay, I got to the city). Or the time I called mom and informed her that I would be traveling to Egypt. Alone. For a month. She took that one like a trooper, told me not to talk to strangers, and then laughed at the total absurdity of that statement. When she visited for my graduations, holidays, birthdays she’d work furiously on her afghans until, buried in them, I had to put a moratorium on blankets. Or the countless times I would have her and my brother in stitches because I’d be making fun of the three-headed relatives or her southern neighbors. And shopping! We could shop anywhere–especially the countless shopping trips for handmade crafts in the South. One of my earliest memories is sitting in the stroller as mom walked along the streets shopping in Philadelphia. “You were born shopping,” she said. And starch–mom taught me to starch a doily so stiff it could you could slice bread with the sucker. And now, even at age 52, I always jump on her freshly made bed to give her something to yell about when I visit.
Mom has never read the Stoics, but I know she’d like my man Marcus if she took the time to read him. Mom pulls off the band aids, looks life straight in the eye, and fights until she wins. And I like that I can talk openly about this whole period of my life with her. I measure what I can share from moment to moment, but in the end I usually reveal everything. She’s a lot softer at age 82, but Mom is still a source of strength for me as I go through this mess. I am very fortunate to have her and that I can be so open about what is happening. Like mom says, “I wont be happy, but I won’t break. Just tell me already.”
Neither of us is perfect and we’ve had to establish boundaries so that our brusk natures don’t collide and leave one or the other with hurt feelings. We don’t agree on everything, but we can usually have an open debate on the topic du jour. I just wish she didn’t have to shoulder yet one more of life’s curve balls and have it involve her kid. But we’ll get through it, we always do.
And we’ll do it together.