I was several years into my 40s before I could forgive my mother for being herself.
Seeing her so vulnerable now, it feels terrible to admit that, but it’s true. For most of my life, I wanted a different kind of mother. A less embarrassing, more supportive, not-so-critical one. A mother more “evolved” than mine. One whose vocabulary included words like “I’m sorry.” I was sure if my mother loved me she would “deal with her issues” so her issues would stop hurting me.
“Oh, the arrogance of youth,” her mother would say.
Lately I hear my grandmother’s voice a lot. Mom talks about her too, often in ways that imply she’s been in the room and just stepped out. Maybe she has. I like to think she’s close by, helping her girl make this transition. That’s me seeing the world through my favourite rose-coloured glasses, probably. The angst Mom expresses about a potential imminent reunion makes it clear their relationship was as complicated as ours.
But no less loving.
The mother-daughter relationship is so complex, so fraught with identity struggles and expectations, met and unmet. Layers of hurt and disappointment, fears of not being enough, not being accepted and loved just as we are. On both sides: mother and daughter.
I’m grateful —that’s too small a word —that Mom and I came to peace with each other and our relationship before we landed in this bizarre terrain. She doesn’t remember I’m her daughter most of the time now, but she remembers we love and trust each other.
I was watching her sleep the other morning as I listened to Pádraig Ó Tuama read Marie Howe’s poem “My Mother’s Body” on Poetry Unbound, On Being’s new poetry podcast, which has arrived in my life at the perfect moment.
I love the way Ó Tuama talks about the poem. About “all the ways we carry people who have tried to love us, and maybe the person succeeded, or maybe they didn’t, but nonetheless, we carry their story into our own surviving.”
I like to think I know my mother’s story. Her mother’s, too. But I don’t. Not really. How could I?
Yet I hope to carry their stories into my own surviving.
My Mother’s Body
by Marie Howe
Bless my mother’s body, the first song of her beating
heart and her breathing, her voice, which I could dimly hear,
grew louder. From inside her body I heard
almost every word she said.
Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing
the pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings, rain, moonlight, snow fall, dogs…
Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone.
Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor,
and my body hurt her, I know that – 24 years old. I’m old enough
to be that girl’s mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant
frightened eyes, her bedsheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure.
It’s a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me
with her mouth, first grief, first air,
and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother
slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it
across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted.
Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers,
our voice in my throat speaking to you now.
It would be easy to focus on everything lost between Mom and me in the years when I couldn’t forgive her for being herself: her flawed, sweet, wounded, beautiful, loving self.
I’m just grateful she forgave me, long ago, for being myself.