time keeps on…

Mix Tape

Cue the Steve Miller Band on a mix tape, followed by Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, and I am 17 again, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in my white 1980 VW Rabbit with the baby blue vinyl seats, windows down and arm out to catch the wind.

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Sometimes I feel like I have to be a little crazy to be parenting a toddler at my age. I’m too old for this crosses my mind daily. Too old for tantrums in the grocery store. And yet… I have a different perspective about it all this time around. I can usually remain calmer through the tantrums. I know now that 99.9% of the time there is no need to fix them. My son keeps me young, even if at 43 I am not so young.

It all makes me hyper aware of age, of aging. I’m not always sure what to make of time, the strange way it moves. How it all seems to exist all at once, in a way. I am 43 and I have an 11 year old daughter and I can also remember vividly being 11. That was the year that nasty bully made up that name he insisted on calling me well into late high school. It was also the year I met my best friend. And it was the year I had my favorite teacher, the one who taught me that, If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I am 43 and my 71 year old father has Parkinson’s disease, and I can remember when he was 43 and the disease had just barely started to show up in his body but I still didn’t know. I am 43 and after dinner, when the kids are in bed, my husband and I talk about how we are saving for our retirement, what we want for our own future care. When I am my father’s age my daughter will be 39 and my son will be 30.

One night during my daughter’s first year of life, as I nursed her in the dark in the rocking chair, she placed her tiny hand on my arm and fell back asleep. As I looked down on her hand and my arm, a flash of future memory traveled through me like a wave. It was a split second vision but so vivid and true. In it, I was in a bed in a peaceful room and I was very old, in my nineties. She sat next to me, in a chair by the bed, and she, too, was older, in her sixties. Her hand was bigger, older, the skin around her veins thinner and more translucent, the veins themselves more pronounced, but it rested still on my arm. My daughter. At the foot of the bed there was another chair and in it sat a man. I could not see faces, but I knew these were my children.

I hope beyond hope that I make it to that moment. It has brought me comfort at times, knowing that I will live into my nineties accompanied by those I love.

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I used to think of myself as an extremely nostalgic person. A song or a smell would set me off and I would find myself years in my past as if no time had gone by, deeply moved by the same emotions. I still time travel a lot but without longing for a moment or experience I can never get back. Any song by Journey and I am in middle school again instantly. I heard an NPR piece once about why this happens with the music from that time in our lives – that we are at our most cognitively impressionable during our adolescent years and so those end up being the songs we remain most connected to (and which can make us most nostalgic) as we age. I am 43 years old and happily married to the love of my life and Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is can still bring up a twinge of pubescent longing.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I understand nostalgia differently. I think more than anything, I have always been especially aware of the movement of time; even as a child I had a sense of myself moving forward in time into my future, an understanding that the current moment was fleeting. I paid attention to my parents – to their dynamic with each other, to their moods, to their needs. I still remember the last time I noticed my parents kissing, several years before their divorce. Maybe all 11 year olds are this aware? So much imprinting into my soul during those years. Stories forming.

I was one of those kids who really liked hanging out with grownups. I found them interesting, compelling. I loved going to movies with my mother – she introduced me to James Dean, took me to R-rated films I barely understood: Fanny and Alexander, Chariots of Fire, The Hotel New Hampshire, Hair. I remember Natassja Kinski dressed in a bear costume, some man savagely doing something to his wife from behind, Treat Williams opening his mouth for a sugar cube… I was a popular kid among the parent set, precocious, intelligent, a sponge for connection. When I got bored playing with a friend at her house, I would go into the kitchen and talk to her mother. Babysitting during middle school, I would put the kids to bed and do the dishes (yes, I did the dishes), serve myself some ice cream, and then walk around the house and observe how other families lived. I’d look at the wedding photos in their frames and imagine my own marriage, my own future family. I’d look in the medicine cabinet at pill boxes and condom boxes and diaphragm boxes. Once I stumbled onto a turquoise glass bong, though I didn’t quite understand what it was. It was pretty and it smelled musty.

It moves, time. I think in a way the nostalgia transforms to a longing to have some of that time back. How did I get to 43? What happened in the last 40 years since I started retaining my memories? Or at least, what do I have to show for myself from the past, say, 20 years? What would I do differently if I could go back in time and change some things, make different choices? I was speaking with a nurse friend who is in her fifties, telling her that if I were 20 years younger I would go to nursing school. Or social work school. Or even medical school. I would take all those science classes I avoided that I am now so curious about. My friend replied, You can still do it, you know.

My daughter asked me recently, What’s the one big thing you want to do in your life? Besides motherhood? Write a book. I want to write a book.

I feel the fire under my belly now. The deep need and desire to leave my imprint; a meaningful, lasting, loving mark on the world. Time is moving faster now that I am on this side of 40, now that I am in midlife. There is so much I want to do. Confidence and a belief in myself that I have finally deeply connected to after all this time. Trust in my 43 years of life experience and the wisdom I have to share, which comes from all I have lived, from the challenges and overcomings and life lessons and adventure.

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In Montessori classrooms, children learn in groups of three grades at a time. The classroom more closely mirrors the real world, and older children help guide the younger children while learning how to mentor and lead. I don’t think we are meant to connect only with people in our age group. I love my friends who are older than me, who are examples of how I want to move forward in my own life. I love my friends who are younger, for they teach me too. So do my children.

I hope I can teach my children well. Teach them to age gracefully, to grow confidently into themselves, to not fear or dread the passage of time. I hope they will believe me when I tell them that the wisdom that comes with time is worth every wrinkle and stretch mark and crack in their souls. I know from my own elders that out of this wisdom can come ease and grace.

I’ve been writing my book in my soul for a long time. Gathering the pieces of life that have started to form a mosaic. As my best friend since fifth grade once said, Living my life for the story it will tell. For me, at 43, nostalgia has turned into something beautiful: a desire to tell my stories aloud, to write them down into something significant. Sharing stories gives my life meaning. That is the imprint I want to leave behind.

my mother, my self

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“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”    ~Anne Lamott

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my mom took me out to lunch, just the two of us, at a crunchy food court place downtown. We went often; I got beef teriyaki with green onions over rice and she got vegetable tempura or something with tofu from the Japanese place. Then we’d find a table and eat our meal.

That day, as we waited for our food, I saw another mother out with her grown son. He was probably about 20 and he had no hair. His eyes looked sad, maybe tired, and they stared off into the middle distance. I didn’t know why he had no hair, or why his mom, who was smaller than him, held his arm and helped him walk. But I wanted to know, I sensed that there was a story there and so I watched them as they ate their lunch near us. I didn’t say anything to my own mother about it until we had left the building and were waiting to cross the street. I remember exactly where we were when I did – in front of the Woolworth’s that for a while became a Long’s and which is now long gone.

“Did you see that man with no hair who was eating with his mom? Something about him felt so sad. What do you think was wrong with him? Do you think he was sick?”

My mom became noticeably tense from my words. Her face got very serious and she grasped my hand tightly. Then she looked at me and said, “Be careful. You need to keep your energy separate from others’. Don’t take in their pain, their feelings. That energy can hurt you.” There was a very real fear in her words and in the way she spoke them. I don’t remember responding.

This is one of those moments from my childhood that I remember with such clarity that it could have been just last week that I was the age my own daughter is now. I don’t remember having a longer conversation with my mom about this, but I do remember thinking deeply about what she’d said, not just that day but for years to come. As her own story as a mother unfolded, her words began to make sense in a way I hadn’t truly understood them before.

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I’ve often thought that the story of my mother’s departure from our family just a few years later would make a great work of true-to-life fiction, but I have hesitated to write it. I remember a conversation with my husband when he was just beginning his studies to become a rabbi. We talked about how the Torah doesn’t command us to love our parents, but it does instruct us to honor and respect them. Even in the years when contact with my mother was elusive, I always had a desire to respect her need for privacy, to respect the parts of her story that were solely her own to tell (or not to tell). I still do.

But her story is also my own story. Her choices, her actions, her needs and her mistakes – they have formed me. In ways I’m not sure she really knows, my mother has shaped me – during her years of presence and her years of absence. While I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her who became such a central part of my identity during my teens and twenties – the years when I was either burying my anger and sorrow in Ben & Jerry’s or working through them in therapy – I am still and forever my mother’s daughter. So, in the words of Anne Lamott, perhaps if my mother had wanted me to write warmly about her (or not write about her at all), she should have behaved better (and not encouraged my writing since I was a child). This is probably a good time in my life to look at that story because all these years later my anger has mostly dissolved. I don’t know if warmly is the word I would use, but there is love there. Forgiveness even. A loosening of the entanglement that binds me to my mother.

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I understand now that the words my mother spoke to me that day in front of Woolworth’s were a reflection of her own fears. Even then, several years before her need for independence pulled her from our lives, I think she may have been consciously separating herself from the heaviness she felt in the world around her. The thing is, I didn’t understand then how what she was telling me to do was even possible. Not feel the sadness around me? Not feel compassion for those in pain? Not feel incredible joy when those around me felt joy? How do you do that – not feel empathy – and why would I want to?

My mother, I also understand now, is a lot like me – highly sensitive to everything around her. But we are different, too: What I feel, what I take in because I am sensitive, doesn’t scare me. I feel like it is why I am here in this life this time around. If I’m not here to connect deeply to those around me, to everything around me, then what’s the point? Is there anything more important than connection? Is there anything more juicy, more fun, more thrilling, more real?

We are permeable, emotional and connected beings, even the most reclusive, the most aloof, the most removed among us. We can’t help it and sometimes we fight like hell against it because it can be scary to connect, terrifying to truly feel each other. We might hurt each other and we might be hurt. We might also be cracked open in the most magnificent ways.

During the years just before my mother left when I was 15, she was already beginning to withdraw, to hide out. After she left, there were many years when I allowed myself to disappear into the loss of her. Who was I without her guidance, without this woman who had so often been my best friend? Was I still her daughter? Was she still my mother? Food quickly became a comfort and I ate a lot after she left; and while I got bigger as a result, in many ways I felt smaller, more invisible inside my new larger skin. (That’s another post, though, about the ways in which we see each other differently – or don’t notice each other at all – because of size, color, age.) I hid in that new body for several years, hid from the loss of my mother, from the pain she had unleashed in me, from my anger towards her. I was absent without her presence, and so I became the daughter whose mother left her. This became my new identity.

I imagine that it wasn’t always easy for my mother to be a parent, even during the years when she was a really good mom. I know it couldn’t have been easy for her to leave, to dismantle her life and build a new one, to miss all those years in the lives of her children. But something made the separation necessary. I think she needed the space to figure out who she was. And while as a mother myself it’s hard to imagine how anyone could leave her children, because I am a mother there are days when I get it. Mothering is hard work and requires both the deepest connections and the clearest boundaries. I have yet to meet a mother who has mastered this. (If you are out there and have advice to share, please let the rest of us know.)

Maybe, though, it’s less about mastery than about compassion and gentleness – mostly towards ourselves as the nurturers, and also towards our children when our very last button – you know, the REALLY BIG RED one that reads, DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON OR ELSE! – is about to be pushed. We’re never going to be perfect, I’m not sure there is such a thing as the perfect mother.

I am deeply entangled with my children – in good ways, in ways that stretch me, in ways that trigger me (my daughter still has to get through middle school), in ways that create space for our relationship. There are days when it’s easy to feel like I am disappearing, as if without my children I’m not entirely sure who’s left. A few weeks ago at dinner, asserting my motherly right to sit at my usual place at the table next to my toddler son on a night when my daughter wanted to sit there instead, I heard myself saying, “I exist too! I have needs too!” My husband and children held the befuddled looks on their faces for about one tenth of a second before bursting into laughter, and about two tenths of a second later I joined them. I am at my best as a mother – as a human – when I can remember not to take myself too seriously.

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While it has loosened over the years, my mother and I are still deeply entangled. It’s been more than two decades that my voice has sounded like hers. My cheeks are hers, especially when I smile. I have her big eyes that smile along with my mouth. My hands look like her hands, especially as they age. We have had the same laugh for a very long time. I am a good mother like she was during those early years, and since some of the pain of her abandonment has dissolved, I can let myself connect with those times. I am sometimes prone to worrying like I remember her worrying, like I am sure she still does. But I am conscious that her fears are not my own, and I know how to assuage my own fears when they show up. I am no longer the daughter whose mother left her, but her leaving is forever a part of my story.

And what I became afterwards… well, that is the real story.