On Mothering My Mother

All I wanted was the freedom to not have to think about who held the role of mother between us—but it was clear, it was always me.

“I only have a few minutes,” my mother said in her usual rush the moment I answered the phone. “But this is important. Can I come by?” An hour later, she swung through my apartment door in a fog of perfume, her baby-fine hair feathered out in a wind-blown set of wings.

Behind her head, my husband raised his eyebrows at me with a look that said, “Now what?”

I wondered if perhaps she’d arrived with bad news about her husband, a workaholic with a tendency to get injured or ill on a grand scale—tearing both his Achilles, jackhammering through his hand, and contracting a virus so virulent doctors had to pump antibiotics into his heart. Instead, still out of breath from her hurry, she sighed, slipped down on one knee, pulled out a jewelry sized ring box from her purse, and slid a blue topaz ring surrounded by diamonds onto my finger while I blinked in confusion. “Will you be my mother forever?” she asked.

She meant to say “Will you be my daughter?” or “I will be your mother,” but somewhere between brain and tongue the truth slipped out.

Mothering her was nothing new. I had never called it that; in classic Adult Child of an Alcoholic terms, I’d learned to “manage” her, starting every morning at her house after dressing and feeding myself in a rush of constant prodding—“Mom, here’s your clothes. Mom, where’s my lunch. Mom, please get out of bed!”; pulling on her blouse while her phone calls ran late; and squirrelling away errant dollars and change from her purse to buy myself hostess cupcakes and Doritos when the white pills she chased with vodka made her eyes roll back into her head.

Though my mom had made a typical amends to me in the first six months of her sobriety 11 years before, small disappointments since then had mounted—her inviting my husband and me to dinner but having no food, suggesting an outing and bailing at the last minute, or showing up wildly late—shades of similar dropped promises I’d faced all of my life. Through talks with my husband I understood: I didn’t have to put up with it anymore.

To my mother’s credit, she suggested joining me in therapy. She listened to me talk about how stark and scary my first 10 years were. “When I went back and forth between Dad’s house and your attic apartment, do you know that I was always afraid one of you would be gone?”

My mother dipped her chin and nodded, tears leaking down her face.

Our therapist, Catherine, whose way of making eye contact and nodding as I spoke created a nest of safety, kept her face impassive as I talked. I spoke about the permanent knot of tension that gripped me in childhood, the certainty that something terrible was about to happen to either of my parents. Dad would be taken away by the police for his illegal sale of marijuana—and years later I’d learn he came very, very close. Or I’d discover Mom slumped dead beside a puddle of drool on our deck stairs.

In therapy, she revealed the realistic nature of this fear, too, that she suffered suicidal depression in my early years, and came dangerously close a couple of times.

“One time, I’d taken too many opiates and my fingertips were turning blue,” my mom said, her voice as slow and calm as an NPR commentator.

“Oh my god, what did you do!” Catherine broke from her usually cool demeanor.

“Jord was at her dad’s, but I acted like she was coming home soon and forced myself up and outside. I walked in circles.”

She walked until the world focused like a zoom lens and her fingers pinked up again.

Not shocked, I instead felt a warm seep of validation that my anxieties had not been false.

In therapy I explained to my mother the toll of gathering up my clothes and books in the only solid and certain possession I owned: a big suitcase, elephant gray, so big I had to put my whole body into the effort of heaving it, sweating into their cars. How the day I finally planted that suitcase in my college dorm, relief so powerful flooded me it was almost narcotic.

I admitted that safety lived in the routines of my father’s house: Dinner at 6pm. An early bedtime, and a packed lunch of tastelessly healthy foods no one would trade for. But this was tinged by the men in black jackets exchanging money for drugs while I read behind my locked bedroom door.

Mom’s was a whirlwind. I often tagged along to motels at night that smelled aggressively of bleach and cigarettes to meet whispering strangers who passed things to her from palm to palm. When energized, she whisked me out shopping, chatting up strangers and clerks alike with a hummingbird intensity. In between these highs and lows I often put myself to bed and scrounged for my own meals.

Returned to the moment, the soft lights in my living room reflected the icy blue of the ring on my finger. One part of me felt the lift of elation—what a beautiful gift! And yet, the way she knelt with widened eyes, the hurried way she made her proposal, were all suggestive signs that I should go along with this whole thing without giving it another thought.

A part of me wanted to throw myself into her arms and cry “Yes, of course!” like a child receiving a pony. But this was the second time in my life that someone had put a ring on my finger I wasn’t sure I wanted there. The first time I was 20 years old, on a Venetian gondola with my boyfriend who had planned everything “just so”—according to a plan that would make him happy. Just as I knew then that an engagement wouldn’t fix the fact that I was no longer in love with him, I knew one act of gift-giving—even as elaborate as this ring—couldn’t change a dynamic with my mother 31 years in the making.

While it was clear my mother had made a slip of the tongue in asking me to be her mother forever, the ring did in fact, symbolize to me committing to mothering my mother forever; I wanted instead to have absolute faith in her ability to hold herself up as an adult in the world, and not just for me, but to awaken potentials in herself that addiction and grief had long suppressed.

I did appreciate the gesture but it smacked of the times she raced McDonalds to me at school when she’d forgotten my lunches: like compensation.

I didn’t want any object, promise, or proclamation. I wanted the freedom to not have to think about who held the role of mother between us because it would be so sure, so certain, a fact of life. And so, I did not say, “I do,” but rather hugged my mother tight and said, “We need to talk about this in therapy next week.”

Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the writing guides Make a Scene, Write Free,  and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Modern Loss, The Rumpus, the ST. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle and more. www.jordanrosenfeld.net.

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