There are a lot of things people can say that roll right off my back. But there is one phrase that makes my needle scratch across the record: “You are just like your mother.” That one’s a real sphincter tightener for me. And when it comes out of my husband’s mouth, my fingers twitch and involuntarily curl into a fist. And for just an instant, I contemplate Lizzie Borden and channel Lorena Bobbitt.
I have spent a lifetime trying not to be my mother. Don’t get me wrong; I love her dearly. She has many amazing qualities as a person and a wife and nurturer. She did a great job raising three girls on a tight budget and with an often-traveling husband. She devoted her life to us. It’s just that there are things that I want to … branch out from … in order to be my own gal. Was that delicate enough?
And yet, I’ve noticed that in the end biology is destiny. As much as we try to run from genetics, as much space as we try to put in between ourselves and those things we rebelled against, some of that nature and nature begins to trickle back in. Regardless.
Let me just cover a few bases. My mom is old-fashioned. She bemoans modern literature and The New York Times. She loathes any movies made since “Lawrence of Arabia” and she abhors rock ‘n’ roll. She was raised on classical music, and I grew up with worldwide symphonies playing on NPR as she prepared our dinner. “That’s awful,” she’d exclaim as we blasted “Yes” or “Three Dog Night.” I grew up feeling very defensive about the music we loved, the clothes we bought: the naval-skimming hip huggers and bare-midriff tops. My mother didn’t approve of so much of our generation. She was stuck in the ’50s.
But as I watch myself, and as those who love me watch me back, lo and behold there are multiple signs that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“Change the station,” I implore my 17-year-old son as he blasts some mind-numbing rapid-fire rap song on the car radio detailing what some dude is gonna do to some gal.
“Granny!” he says, because he knows this will get me.
I listen closer, renewing my vows to keep an open mind.
Then, there are all those years I ignored my mother’s pleas to use sunscreen. She would tape articles to the fridge about the damages of UV rays long before it was in vogue. She’d tsk tsk and shake her head as I sat outside in my hot-pink bikini with a foil-covered “Frampton Comes Alive” album, slathered in baby oil.
Now? I’m the village idiot chasing my four kids with a bottle of 50+ sun protection, like some sort of crusader dispensing holy water in a leper colony. Of course, as my kids scatter or fight back, I freeze in midair. I have become my mother, preaching and proselytizing about the ravages of the sun. “You’ll be sorry someday … you’ll get skin cancer,” I say. And then the words reverberate in my head. I have heard them somewhere before.
My mother is a child of the Depression. Some would call her cheap. I’d like to think of her as more of a thrifty Scotswoman. She can’t stand to waste anything, which is not necessarily a bad trait. But it borders on excessive. She keeps soap remains, used note cards, old candles we gave her in second grade and ziplock bags so worn the zippers are broken. She constantly carries a supply of food with her, including old saltine packets she has lifted out of restaurants and grapes housed in the newspaper plastic sheaths to “wet her whistle.” It’s as if the apocalypse is near. She is perpetually prepared to meet her maker with some wrapped melba toasts and a few salted cashews for the journey.
But I’ve inherited the tendencies. Yes, I reduce, reuse and recycle — but there is sort of desperation to my variety. On a family trip to the Galapagos Islands, and I had brought fruit for the long flight. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to bring agricultural items into this special environmental zone. Sheepishly, I pulled the plums and oranges out of my bag and turned them over.
“You cannot take this into the islands,” the official said in stilted English.
“I know, that’s why I’m turning it over,” I said. “But you should eat these,” I implored him. “Don’t let these go to waste.”
“I can’t eat them, ma’am. This is a quarantine area.”
“Well,” I huffed, “I just don’t think you should let perfectly good food go to waste. You and your friends should take these out back on break.”
I could go on here. I could tell you about my penchant for making lists — only slightly less manic than the notes my mother sticks all over her house like “blow nose and use nasal spray.” Or “twin sheets” in the closet and “watch news” on top of the TV. I have become a slave of the Post-it note — so much so that once a roommate snuck the words “make a list” on the end of my list.
And then I see myself through my kids’ eyes. I may be slightly more hip than my own mother, since I blast Bruce Springsteen on the car radio and watch “The Office.” But I’m still far from cool. Perhaps no mom truly is.
As I visited my parents recently in their retirement home, I observed my mother, ever spry, ever interested. She was poised on the edge of her chair, offering me food, cooking lunch, cleaning it up and asking after her grandchildren, my husband, my work. My father, whose memory and cognition is fading, is her focus now, and she remains the consummate caregiver. I know that she is anxious, and I know that these weren’t the golden years she envisioned after a lifetime of laundry and chauffeuring and packing lunches.
But I realize as I kiss her good-bye that all of the things that I bristled against were window dressing. In the end, my mother had passed on the truly important things. She had taught me to love and to give of myself. She had pushed me to reach for my own dreams, to find my career and passions before I settled down and thought about a family. She had encouraged me to cherish my body and myself, until I met a man I was ready to share that with. She taught me patience and unconditional love. And I realize that in the end, she has given me her very best moves.
Lee Woodruff is the author of the memoir Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress and In An Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, co-authored with her husband, ABC reporter Bob Woodruff. Visit her at www.leewoodruff.com.