Shortly after taking up writing in my late 40s, I finished a memoir piece that seemed an honest but sympathetic portrayal of my contentious family. A noted writer I’d had the nerve to show it to gave it his stamp of approval. So I took an even bigger chance and sent it to my mother, the queen of criticism and an object of fear to me, even then.
The essay recounted a journey with my husband, our two preteens, and my parents to the Monarch wintering-over site in Mexico, not far from my parents’ own wintering-over home near Guadalajara. The piece juxtaposed the butterflies’ arduous 2000-mile journey on their tiny wings with our brief car trip, during which we just managed not to come to blows. Many edits in, I found a way to depict our family’s pyrotechnics with enough humor to suggest our underlying, shared affection. Making the pilgrimage together became an expression of connection, like that of the butterflies’, to the generations before and after.
I thought my mother would appreciate my realization about the good feeling underlying the family blow-ups. I thought the essay might help the two of us to get in touch with the good feeling underlying our own mutual distrust and hurt, that she would be amused by the story and impressed with my writing.
An only child, I was raised by a beloved, live-in nanny, since my mother was not cut out for the job and, thankfully, had another one as a Macy’s executive. To her, a parent’s role—in the dark days before the advent of security and self-esteem building—was a matter of child improvement, of which there was no end. My father shared her view that praise led to a swelled head, but his eyes often said what he held back, and I adored him, whereas my anger at my mother smoldered.
Naturally: she had a laser eye for my every flaw. Everyone said we looked alike, which was not, from my mother’s point of view, a good thing. The last of four failed attempts to have a son, she had been repeatedly told she wasn’t pretty like her sisters, an indictment that was the shrapnel around which she built her preemptive strike personality. Was she, in fact, unattractive? Personally, I thought she was glamorous, but then I was as unable to see her objectively as she was me. And appearance was just the cover. I was her mini-me, the mirror in which she saw—or imagined she saw—what she most feared in herself.
To be fair, it was obvious my mother was driven by her own demons. In differentiating herself from her sisters with the aggressive, hard-driving style that led to her business success, she was only doing her best to oblige her parents’ wish for a son. To her, anything womanly was a sinkhole of perilous vulnerability, and constant correction may may have been her way of trying to toughen me up. But here she surely failed. By the time I had my own family, we’d reached a stand-off: she did her best to veil her criticisms, since anything more explicit brought out the porcupine in me.
What made me risk such a bold step in our ancient duet with the essay? The truth is: I could never give up wishing to please my mother, so it could only have been mad hope. Looking back, I think the noted writer’s encouragement must have left me slightly deranged.
I remember exactly where I was standing in the kitchen when I called my mother to ask if she’d received the story, two weeks having passed with no response since I’d mailed it. “Cute,” she sniffed and then enumerated the factual errors she thought she’d found. I stood there feeling flayed, aflame from head to toe, and focused on breathing. The conversation ended quickly, and I waited on the spot for a while, as the adrenalin dissipated, contemplating the gap between the response I’d anticipated and the actual one, which was, in fact, only what I should have expected.
And then it dawned on me: if the essay had won the approval I craved from my mother, it would have meant her approval could be won, that with the magic right words a little sooner, I’d have had the mother I’d always wanted. An absurd notion, clearly. The essay was a love letter to my mother; anyone could see that. Now, I knew that pleasing her had never been up to me. My mother’s response—driven by her own secret fears and despair—exonerated me, rewinding back to start.