While 30- and 40-something moms were having it out with their daughters over makeup and risque dresses, my mom was going through menopause.
When I was 10 years old, my mother aged an entire decade in one night. It remains one of the single most shocking episodes of my childhood—which was really very tame, I admit—and yet, my mother does not remember this at all.
“Mom,” I say, “how can you not remember that you lied to me about your age from the time I was born until your 50th birthday? We had that big party at our house. I thought you were turning 40 and then Holly blew the deal. She said, ‘Happy 50th!’ and Aunty Ruby and all the other grownups shushed her and she said, ‘Oops, I forgot Nanea didn’t know.’ And then you had to take me into the bedroom and I asked you if it was true that you were 50, and you cried. We both cried.”
My mother won’t meet my eyes. She’s staring at something I can’t see. She’s curled over her breakfast like a fern frond as she takes the morning pills I’ve set out. Her silvered hair is tidily set, and she’s wearing a cardigan because 68 degrees in the house is chilly for her. She frowns slightly, like I do when I’m trying to figure out the tip at a restaurant. “I don’t remember any of that,” she says.
The disappointment clogs my throat, and I swallow past unsaid words. I believe her. She’s 83 now. She doesn’t lie about her age. She doesn’t dye her hair jet black like she did until well after she retired. Finally, 10 years ago, she let her hair go white because it was just easier. It must have been easier to forget that awkward, achy conversation, the two of us sitting on my pink-checkered bedspread in my bedroom that still had Winnie The Pooh decorations on the wall, side by side but not looking at each other. We didn’t talk long. I kept asking why, and she kept saying sorry. After a while, we blotted our eyes, she fixed her makeup and we went back out to the party and pretended like nothing happened.
From that night on, I lived in secret fear that my sister and I would be orphaned. Instead of 40 and 44, my parents were 50 and 54. That was old. It suddenly made sense, the way my friends sometimes mistook her for my grandmother. I’d roll my eyes, laughing. How silly they were, I thought. When I told my parents, my dad chuckled, but my mom pursed her lips and frowned. I thought she considered my friends rude; I didn’t know she was worried that they’d outed her.
Between the ages of 10 and 13, anxiety drove many of my behaviors: I stashed food in my room in case we needed to run away. (I should mention that I grew up in Hawaii and that stashing food in your bedroom when you live on a tropical island with flying cockroaches is a terrible idea.) I’m not sure why I was convinced that my sister and I would have to run away. Not just orphans, but little hobos. I hid money in the ear of my stuffed koala bear. I kept a bamboo fishing rod in a corner of my room, just in case. If anything happened and we had to book, I could take it with me as a weapon.
I collected my mother’s hair. I saved it in a flat cardboard box with a shiny green foil cover that had once held a dime store necklace. Sometimes, I would take the strands out and count them. Then I would meticulously twist them up into a coil and slip the box back in its hiding place beneath my bed. My mother didn’t dye her hair then. It was still a naturally inky onyx that other ladies envied. When we were little, if my sister or I found a white hair, she told us to pull it out. We got 10 cents for every one we found. It was like a treasure hunt. After I learned her real age, I continued to pluck my mom’s white hairs, but it wasn’t to earn money; those were keepsakes. When my sister and I became orphan hobos, I would take that box of hair with us.
I was intensely Catholic in those days—very judgmental and riddled with guilt. I made a lot of deals with God in order to keep my parents alive. I would stop swearing. I would give up chocolate. I would say 15 Acts of Contrition before I even went to confession. I would stop making up sins in confession in order to sound more interesting to the priest. I would go to chapel and do the stations of the cross during long recess instead of playing dodgeball, which I hated anyway. I would make a special Novena. Living in a family culture of sacrifice and tacit understandings, it was easy for me to do this without anyone noticing. I was like the rooster who is convinced his crowing raises the sun. I believed all my furtive planning and agony kept our family intact.
Then I went to high school and encountered bigger problems, like pimples and a flat chest. I didn’t stop worrying about my elderly parents who were only getting more elderly by the minute, but I was aware now of the difference between my folks and my friends’ parents. I marveled at the way some kids had screaming fights with their parents or got locked out of the house for violating curfew. I bragged at my church youth group that I never fought with my parents. We just talked until we worked it out, and that was that.
Other kids said I was lucky my parents never yelled. I knew it was because they were old and tired. While 30- and 40-something moms were having it out with their daughters over makeup and risque dresses, my mom was going through menopause. It took all her energy to deal with the hot flashes and us. To this day, I can’t look at a silk folding fan without thinking of my teenage years, because my mother carried one everywhere in case the hormones struck.
Gradually, I grew out of my morbid fears. I went to college. I got married. I had children of my own and the worries that accompany adulthood. I went years without thinking of that strange night when my world turned upside down. It became something I brought up with girlfriends when we were talking about our weird childhoods. We laughed about it.
The only reason I’m talking about it tonight, trying to get my mother to acknowledge that it happened, is that we’re talking about how I have a hard time being honest with her. She doesn’t like straightforward talk. She’s sitting at the table, waiting for the meal I’m preparing—fruit and meat and vegetables all cut into manageable bite-sized pieces.
I’m pretty much the mother now—she lives with us, and I am her caretaker, but I can’t, I won’t assume the role of the mother who lies to spare her daughter an uncomfortable truth. Although my Catholicism has lapsed, I’m still heavily into confession, it seems. I hate deceptions, even polite ones. I need the words we say to match the reality that is happening. I don’t want my mother to say that she likes this food when I can see in her pinched expression that she’s piously enduring it—a noble sacrifice. Confession, I like. Sacrifice, not so much.
“You know what would make it so much easier for me to take care of you?” I say now. “The truth. Just tell me what you want or what you need. If you don’t want the stew, just tell me. I get exhausted trying to figure out what you really mean all the time. I don’t do that anymore—try to get inside people’s heads. I went to therapy for five years to get well from doing that. I just say what I mean now and I need you to do that, too, or we’re both going to go crazy.”
My mother insists she is telling the truth.
“You’re doing it right now!” I say. “I know you are not OK but you keep saying you are! You have always lied like this. It’s a thing you do. I’m not mad about it. But it’s the truth. Remember when you lied to me about your age?”
I go through the whole thing—the party, the guests, the slip-up by her friend’s daughter, the way we cried in the bedroom. How she told me she lied because she just didn’t want me to worry. “I said that?” she asks. She shakes her head. “I just…I don’t think that happened. I don’t remember it.” “Do you think I’m lying?” I challenge her. It’s futile, but I can’t stop myself. She doesn’t remember. The most she will concede is that I believe it happened, and even that is hard. It has to be enough.
I’m no longer frantic with worry about her death, although the possibility is much greater, given her age. I care more about whether or not our interactions are genuine. We don’t have time for well-intentioned deception. I realize now that I never did. The moments I’ll save like those carefully coiled white hairs in the fancy foiled box are the ones when we said what we meant. When we let ourselves be seen and we trusted each other with our weird secrets and imperfect truths.
I keep looking for them.
Nanea Hoffman is the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Sweatpants & Coffee, an online magazine focused on comfort, inspiration, creativity, and fun. She writes, she makes things, and she drinks an inordinate amount of coffee.