I’ve been “ working like a man” lately: clearing brush, pushing over dead fir trees, hauling topsoil and mulch, reclaiming gardens. My mother has said that about other women in the past—though not about me—considering it a compliment. Now she is even more unimpressed by anything I do, often I don’t even bother to tell her.
Caring for a large property is not something I ever wanted to do, but here I am. I keep hoping if I can get on top of what has been neglected for many years, someday maintenance will be easier. I think that about mother-love too. I’ve been a neglectful daughter, living on the other side of the country, talking to Mama only when she called me. Not asking about her life, not sharing my life, because, well, because.
When I decided to make this cross-country return to my homeland, I might have thought I could heal our relationship. I might have thought that would come about by making her proud of me—and that she would actually acknowledge it. And then we could stop being the parent and the child and be best friends. That was magical thinking.
Like the dead twigs and branches that will blow out of the fir trees during next winter’s storms regardless of how much clean-up I do now, like the creeping Jenny that will return to choke the garden no matter how much I pull out, my mother stubbornly remains the person she has always been. I am trying to be different than the person who returned to the womb nearly four years ago.
I’m becoming a master at not craving or expecting affirmation from her. (Really, it’s been a very long time since I cared—like since ninth grade when I realized I could never do anything well enough.) The longer I am here, the more I enter into a contract with myself to be my own best affirmer. Maybe that has been my quest all along. The true holy grail is about being good enough in my own eyes.
Being good enough in her own eyes has been a lifelong challenge for her too. My father—I realize now, in reading the letters he wrote her during the war—spent their 51 year marriage trying to affirm her; and she never internalized it. She is the poster child for the tenet that we have to give ourselves what we need, no one can do it for us.
The other day, out of the blue, Mama told me Dan the Handy Man said there was a tree limb hanging over the house that required immediately removal. She said I needed to call some tree guy she has used in the past. “He might be retired,” she said. I listened, then told her I liked the guys who took down the huge dying maple in the meadow a couple years ago, and that I was planning to call them to remove the two dozen small dead firs where I had been clearing blowdown. They could look at the branch too. She didn’t remember that tree, nor that I had looked through her file and received her input about who and who not to call for that job, that we had argued, that I had chosen someone I found.
We didn’t argue this time like we did then, a victory for me—a growth. I listened to her story, but I was firmly insistent that I would take care of it, and I thought I would call the guys on my own helper list. She agreed and asked three times over the weekend if I had called. “It’s the weekend,” I told her each time. Come Monday, she stopped asking.
I haven’t told her there is no branch hanging over the house, and Dan said he didn’t tell her there was. I finally worked out that she had a sudden memory of the pest control guy suggesting a year ago that the maple branch hanging over the deck be removed because non-existent roof rats could jump from it to the roof. She let it drift from her consciousness then, perhaps because the branch provides shade and familiarity and she doesn’t want to cut it. But suddenly here is the scrambled memory.
I won’t tell her unless she asks about it again, then will gently suggest she was perhaps thinking of the deck branch; without telling her she is wrong wrong wrong. She is working hard too, to remember what she doesn’t know she has forgotten.
I spent an amazing 24 hours this week at “writing camp,” one-on-one with Christina Baldwin on Whidbey Island. We talked about the opposing spirals that undoubtedly all parent/child teams experience: as my mother spirals downward into her failing mind and body and becomes more dependent—leaving herself—I spiral upward into strength and kindness and assumption of control—coming back to myself.
My daughter and daughter-in-love are pregnant with expectation of their second child, coming any day now. It will arrive as dependent as any human can be. Someday, in the far distant future, he or she and Elliot will assume the care role for their mothers as they spiral back to dependence.
Like the sunflower, with its 34 clockwise spirals and 55 counterclockwise ones, a beautiful organization of seeds into the most efficient growth pattern possible, the young and the not-as-young, the old and the not-as-old do the same dance. It is the way of the natural world.