A year is such a short time now. Within the last one, I became a mom and my mom lost her mom. It was almost as if four generations were one too much for us to bear. My grandmother passed the torch to my mother and three and a half months later my mother passed her own torch to me. Heavy kinds of stuff. But also the best and most natural kind.
People say you appreciate your parents more (or what they went through for you) a lot more when you have your own kids. People say a lot of things, kids or no kids. But for me, around the same time that my grandmother died, I started having a hard time looking my mother in the eye. It clicked. She’d carried me. The way that I was carrying my son Junot. She went through the same worries, fears and excitements that I was having. And the part that made it hard to look at her without crying was that she still was/is doing it thirty-five years later. Thirty-five years. Any time I need it.
I love being Mom. I love my baby. I love the way he brings the family closer. I love the big life change it brings. Life before baby felt a lot like a speeding train to me and now I’m on a dirt path, walking along with a chunky monkey attached to me. On the speeding train I’m prone to ruminating, on the dirt path memories and songs simply appear in my mind. Some are as silly as Hey Mr. Knickerbocker from the purple dinosaur days and others are less formed like the texture of my mom’s blue cable knit sweater when I was in elementary school. They are all things I haven’t considered in decades.
There’s the memories and then sometimes the concerted thoughts about who I want to be. I think a lot about how I want to relate to my kid and the felt sense I had about my own mom when I was young. I like thinking about her as an essence, as this formative entity that existed before I was old enough to argue about going to church with wet hair or wearing combat boots to the prom. I know my 4-month old son won’t remember who I am now but I know he’ll internalize the qualities he experiences when he’s with me. I want him to feel safe and loved. I want it to be simple.
When I think of the essence of my mother, I think of base in a game of tag. She was calm and grounded and when I needed to quit running to or from something, she was there. She didn’t chase me away or call me home. There was no fanfare, no chaos when I was little. I would hang out in my room, reading books and doing ‘experiments’ and when I wasn’t sure what was next, I’d wander down the hall to find her at the kitchen table, eating popcorn and reading the paper or sorting the mail. I’d follow her around a bit and when I got bored (she was doing laundry and other not as fun things) I’d simply return to my room or lay on the floor near her and tell her about the latest chase.
I was a sensitive and often sick kid (although I wasn’t always sensitive to others). Mom was a school psychologist and had the ability to office at many schools. For most of my pre-college education, she had an office at the school I attended. Sometimes I complained about this but truth is she didn’t harass me. She just did her job AND she was there if I needed a break from playground politics. I loved passing by to see her while on an authorized trip to the bathroom and I was always saddened if she’d gone and all I could see was her blue sweater on the chair.
In high school, I ditched many a pep rally to be in her office telling her about my day. She trusted me. Once she even found me sitting in a lawn chair in the hallway outside the principal’s office. I was a yearbook photographer so I didn’t have much to do during the actual class. I’d taken on an experiment to see if anyone would notice me sitting in a lawn chair in different places at school. I kept putting the chair closer and closer to administration until I was finally outside their door and across from my mom’s office. I explained. She nodded in understanding. Then when the bell rang we got in our separate cars and saw each other later at home.
As I got older, life got harder, more complicated. I hated writing papers and dealing with paperwork. I’d cry and throw myself on the ground. Every word was a pinprick I couldn’t bear. Mom entered the chaos to help me. She didn’t control. She’d patiently edit my work even as I screamed at her. College applications were worse. I was my own worst enemy, writing 5-star essays for friends while sabotaging my own. I vividly recall alternately dancing around my mom, braiding her hair and rolling around on the floor (yes, the floor’s a theme for another story) as she typed in the basic personal info on all ten of my applications. Yes, ten.
In my twenties, I saw her reluctance to lecture me after a misstep as being uncaring but now I see that she knew me. If she pushed, I pulled. She knew better than to push even if it was hard not to comment about me quitting school a second and third time or having too much to drink with friends. She was just there to catch and carry me. To the next orientation or away from the bar at 2 am (even as me and my sister’s friends chanted ‘Susie! Nitro!’ as she drove away.) I never appreciated her for these things then. I couldn’t understand the internal pressure of worry, love and parenting philosophy she was going through. She was the eye of my storm in those years. I’m certain I took a few years off of her calm center.
Then, there was analysis. Lots of therapists and thinkers in the family. We all relax too easily into the world of explaining how the what came to be when, thanks to whom. I’ve stuck my mom on the short end of that stick more times than I care to count. And yet, she hasn’t blamed me for even one night of lost sleep. There’s a volume of quiet care that my mom offers me without a word. I suspect she learned this from her own mother who could do the same. It’s simply all in the being there. Listening to me talk about the same problems (I’m sure she got bored!), scheduling me a much needed haircut without being asked, holding my hand without words as we snorkel on vacation because she knows I’m still scared of deep water. She’s quietly carried me in these small ways every day. Even in the times I had nothing loving to say.
And now, this year, with the changing of the mom-guard, we are broken open. My grandmother’s last action as a great, grand and parent was bringing us together to help her through the final years of her life’s transition and she healed many of the family’s fractures in the quiet meantime. We did not all always see the light of her torch while she was alive but cannot un-know the darkness that came when it went out. What I do know, is that it was hard for her to pass it on. Even though she was suffering, she wanted to carry us, all the more so as her days became numbered. People say that having a child is an exercise in letting go and letting them grow. In her death, my grandmother trusted that all five of her kids were ready to fly. Soar.
My son gummed an apple core yesterday and I cried and watched video of it a dozen times (even though I was there). He’s so independent! Right now, keeping the nest and eventually letting him leave feels like climbing Everest in heels without a rope. Impossible. It’s going to take a lot of little hand-held trips to the edge of the branches of the tree for me to be the base in Junot’s game of tag. And it’s going to be riddled with the heavy kind of stuff which is the same thing as the best, most natural kind.
Now I get why my labor was so hard for my mother to see. It was a storm she had to watch from a distance and I was there, in it, learning for the first time how to be the eye. She didn’t want to see me suffer because she’s my mom. But what she didn’t see was that while I was suffering on the outside, I was glowing on the inside, learning to carry the torch for my own son, to be the calm for his storm. Right after he was born and nursed for the first time, my mom appeared there at my side, petting my head, back in her role of support for me. Of course she loved the baby but the truth is she was there for me, to see I’d made it through and despite my desire to be headstrong and have it all go my way, I needed her there at that moment more than I could ever admit.
These days I shine the light for Junot and my mom still shines it for me. Without her own mother, she shines on while she and her siblings navigate this newness of the dark. It’s her own rebirth into a new phase of life that she has to step into without a guide. Even though we can’t see or hear her, I trust that my grandmother is somehow there for my mom. In her dreams. In my son. Perhaps in a much larger force that supports all who mother. Watching my mother's life unfold into me and then to Junot is a testament to her place in this circle of Moms. It’s quietly incredible. Saying it out loud helps me and, hopefully, her acknowledge this unsaid stuff. The best and heaviest kind.
Thank you for the light. I love you much mom.