I search her face across the table for its usual reassuring perfections, but the comforting illusion of Claire the Exquisite eludes me today. She’s talking warily—but at least she’s talking, that’s good. So often we don’t talk at all. Such a tiff in the car on the way over here, about nothing. And then we both laughed at that sign announcing “Reliable Junk”—our own shared private brand of hilarity. We laugh at all the same things. Why waste even a minute picking at each other?
She wants to be good company today for our annual mom-daughter Christmas-shopping trip. I love taking her to lunch during the holidays, love encouraging her to select her own gifts.
She’s leaning forward now, for once chatty, confident, confidential, an evanescent afterimage of the sweet vulnerable darling who once trusted me with her whole world. But it doesn’t happen often anymore, not since our infamous adolescence wars.
Now she’s off on one of her quick voluble trips through slanguage, emotions, contemporary cultural allusions, my reader, film devotee, my fathomless millennium-daughter. She waves her slim arms, flutters her long manicured fingers.
Her earnest elaborations of distressing personal revelations are making me nervous. She’ll be anxious for my good opinion later, I know it. She’ll wish she’d been more reserved. I resist inserting acerbic remarks that would stop all her words along with my terrors about her welfare. She won’t hear them anyway, I won’t say them, they’ve always been ignored before. She just shuts down anyway.
“Well, very interesting,” I offer lamely. I know Claire scrutinized every word of Sex in the City for moral guidance, an unpleasant-enough reality without her filling in terrifying personal details. Raising a baby alone was hard on my body, my finances, and my sleep—but parenting an adult is so much harder on the heart. Our skirmishes back then were bloodless little all-defenses-down lullabies compared with the ever-threatening storm clouds cracking over our present well-mined war zone.
But. I’ve vowed that no subjects will be off-limits today. I will offer only matter-of-fact responses to any requests for information, any hints of her willingness to share. I will come from a peaceful, higher perspective where we can be honest and respectful and loving. A good mother should offer a retreat, a place where her young empress can try on outlandish new selves, rehearse her first drafts, teeter on her brink and fling herself haphazardly out into brand-new universes—all from her mom’s safe jumping-off pinnacle.
I so much want to be the non-judgmental friend I looked for in vain in my own mother when I was twenty-two.
“Hey Mom, I talked with Zilsa last night.” Our younger daughter, a freshman across the continent at USC.
“I’m so glad you two are close. How is Zilsa?”
“OK. Except she’s completely berserk. She’s contemplating leaving California to come home, have babies and a beautiful wedding or something. What a dork.” Zilsa passionately loves her hometown boyfriend Stephen, but also has very high career aspirations. We’ve resisted pushing her one way or the other, although we’ve stated our preferences. We like Stephen, but Zilsa’s welfare comes first.
Claire confides, “Zilsa says Stephen is practically suicidal without her.”
“Better him than her. He can move in with her, work in California. He’s not going to school here anyway.”
Claire agrees indignantly, and her voice rises as she itemizes Zilsa’s errancies.
Claire, no, please. We count on you to be Zilsa’s very necessary, listening, accepting big sister and friend. Don’t sound so like me, so critical-parent, my little mirror. Claire always fought against my bossy, pushy, know-it-all side. She said she’d rather die than turn out reproachful and demanding like me. Don’t you dare pick up those crummy traits from me, Claire. I tried them already. They don’t work.
I’ve been better at handling Zilsa’s adolescence than Claire’s. All my fears still clamor, but I’ve learned to turn down their volume, to hold tightly to my vision of my children’s goodness, their luminous futures. Claire sure shoved my spluttering face down deep enough into that fount of knowledge. I can never change fast enough, though. I’ve finally got it down to an iterative but reasonable-length fit of weeping and rending and gnashing of teeth.
Claire doubly challenges me these days, since she’s become my double in anxiety and reactiveness. For it seems that, before I turned her loose on the world, I carefully passed on to her all my fears, and now she’s as defensive and alarmist with me as I was with her.
Claire and I do still occasionally manage some forward motion in our relationship, but it’s like doing the hokey-pokey.
“I wonder if you can help Zilsa?”
“I can’t. There’s no way.” Claire polarizes when she’s uncomfortable. She seems most assured and self-confident whenever she’s most uncomfortable—as if confidence in some opposite delusion will keep her safe. “She has to make her own decisions. All I can do is tell her what I think. And I think she’s a dork.”
Such wild polar swings—ah, my own old familiar path. Blunt. Black or white, yes or no, all or nothing. Everything with Claire nowadays is good or bad, now or never, approach or escape, wonderful or unbearable, dead stop or full speed ahead. It’s not enough for Claire to be a fallible human being, to stumble along through life along with the rest of us mortals. No, for Claire to feel minimally worthwhile, or even just a little lovable, she must be perfect. Because whenever Claire makes a mistake, when she fails or is wrong, she sees herself as the dregs of society, of no use to anyone at all. My little gift to her.
When my own fearful mental conversations come up these days, I can recognize and acknowledge them more quickly and send them packing. I don’t swing quite so far so fast anymore. But my poor little rosy apple didn’t have much of a chance to fall far from her quaking mother-tree.
Like mother, like daughter. Shit.
I was scared back then. And awful to Claire. I was so terrified of that damnable public high school/ media/ youth culture. And haunted by my own missed opportunities. I wanted to keep her safe, keep her options open. I wanted Claire to make her own original mistakes, ones I hadn’t made first, couldn’t foresee, couldn’t throw my body in front of.
And I was quite successful—at circumventing every potentially character-building lesson that might have timidly ventured across Claire's path. And at impressing upon her every apprehension and dread in my vast repertoire. Yes, I honed every one of my trepidations onto my sweet little mime, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t repeat my own particular errors. Just exactly as my mother insured that I would repeat all of hers.
“Claire, can’t you think of any way to talk to Zilsa?”
“Let’s just drop it Mom. It depresses me to think about it.” Claire gives me her hard, unblinking look, and I do drop it. Abrupt, direct. Despite our substantial differences in interests, experiences, and talents, Claire is totally my emotional and behavioral duplicate. If ever I had wanted to share my joys with this, my cherished daughter, why did I choose instead to act out every one of my fears?
I search for a less controversial subject. “What do you think of the war? Isn’t it unbelievable?”
“Mom! Don’t you ever have anything nice to say about your own country?” My previously well-indoctrinated left-leaning Claire is these days influenced by her buttoned-down law-school boyfriend. “Do you always have to see the worst?” She glares at me and then remembers herself. “Oh never mind.” Impatient. Dismissive. “You have a right to your opinion.” She looks away forlornly.
Claire hates to talk politics with me. She feels overpowered, squelched by my lifelong interest in politics. She’s young and forming her own ideas. Besides, she thinks it rude the way I turn polite social contexts into intellectual forums. I love serious exchanges, but she thinks I also talk too much and too loud, and listen too little. She’s right, of course. Claire likes to keep things light and fun. Her forte is sprightly intelligent witty small talk. Neither one of us has any clue at all about listening.
But no small talk will be forthcoming today it seems, for she has already backed away again, already forgetten how easily she can lighten me up, change any subject, make me laugh, effervesce among novelties so fast I can’t keep up with her.
I search for an undevisive, luncheony topic, but she’s cautious now, recalling how I lurk in the corners of conversations, hoarding stuff in the dark, waiting for opportunities to leap out and poison her tentative little essays with all my lectures.
God. Stop. Sometimes I even drive me crazy.
I know we both look forward to our annual mother-daughter lunch at Nordstrom’s. We always order different things and split them, because we know we’ll end up coveting what’s on each other’s plates anyway. Claire and I lust after the same fresh fruits and veggies, salads, sandwiches, ethnic experiments. Husbands never share this commonality, certainly not Ben. It’s a nice mother-daughter thing.
Now Claire has taken a deep breath, and has turned back to me, once again beaming little rays of sunshine. “You order that pear and gorgonzola salad every year. Ah, food sharing. Our special tradition.” She’s so mercurial—all light and affection once again, so much her truest nature.
Although it’s secreted well these days beneath that spiny skin she grew during our late culture wars.
“You are so nice, my sweet Mom, to take me out to eat and shop. I love eating out with you. It’s so hard for me to get out anymore. I’m always short on money. Seems like I just pay my bills and then starve for the rest of the month. I sure need a raise. I’m living on chicken-cup-a-soups these days. No, really. That’s all. That’s it.”
How long before her gums start bleeding and her teeth fall out? She’s exaggerating of course. Her boyfriend pays for a lot of meals out, and I know she lunches out with colleagues, even occasionally cooks. Is she trying to tell me she needs money, but can’t come out and say so?
It’s evident that I’m going to be a challenge today, for myself and for her, that’s for certain. But she’s graciously rising to it, determined to stay calm with me, to exude cheer, to be my loving, appreciative daughter. She has a short memory for grudges, she hates to stay mad. She was always a sunny little thing, with only occasional flashes of heat lightning.
“So, Claire, how’re things at work?”
“They’re OK. Mom, please, I don’t want to talk about work right now.”
Well. So much for that subject. I thought her job was going so well. They’re so lucky to have her, such a hard worker, a genius in my humble opinion, so much potential, such a darling personality…. Maybe relations with China are affecting sales? She’s usually so enthusiastic about her work. I do hope nothing’s wrong. I want information, reassurance.
“Well, I hope everything’s all right….”
She glares at me.
OK, so push me out of two-thirds of your life, push me out of how you spend your days and half your nights and weekends. So we can’t talk about Zilsa. Or work. What else is there?
We eat, quiet, distrustful. Our new sad little norm.
I wish she’d ask me about what I’ve been doing, about my painting, my gardening. I probably don’t give her a chance to. I know she loves me, I know she finds me interesting and even admirable—sometimes she blurts it out spontaneously, confides it warmly. I feel it. I’m her irreplaceable Mom of childhood, her favorite ally in a dark alley. She knows she has me, forever.
Once I told her “I hate you.” She was a senior in high school, and truly awful to me, though charming to everyone else. It was the most frustrating moment of our whole lives together so far, and I screamed at her what I’d never dreamed I’d ever say.
She stopped whatever she was doing or saying…I forget what now…shocked. She stared solemnly at me for a long moment. And then she actually burst out laughing. And hugged me, uproarious at her slapstick comedienne mother who had just dropped a fish down her underpants. Like I’d just said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
Smothering snorts but still stern and instructive, Claire scolded, “No, Mom. You don’t hate me.” Like it was necessary to remind her mildly retarded mom of the unshakeable reality that really, she loved her daughter boundlessly, unconditionally. I realized then that Claire hadn’t even been angry with me at all—she’d merely been toying with me, torturing me, testing her limits, watching me squirm.
Like quicksilver, she was doubled over before me, winding her long arms around her waist and wiping away tears of merriment.
But I just couldn’t let it drop, then, not yet. “I did mean it, Claire, at least I meant it when I said it. I don’t lie to you.” I’m feeling guilty, retreating a little, but I still want clarity on my hard-won point before I drop it forever, she’d been too mean. “Claire, for that one moment, I meant it.”
“No. You didn’t, Mom.” She smiles, wider, ever more amused, even delighted, her beautiful blue eyes innocent, confiding, tender. “I know you didn’t.”
Bratty little know-it-all. Contradicting me right to my face. And she’s still teasing me too. My hackles are still all fuzzed up, though. And besides, she’s raised questions of my integrity and self-awareness. “No Claire. I meant it. At least I meant it when I said it.” And I add, “And I’m still mad at you.” But I can’t find my anger anymore, it’s melting, melting. The wicked witch of the west is melting, and this makes me madder still. But melting.
“No, you didn’t, Mom,” Claire repeats calmly, confrontively, so sure of herself and her place in my heart–in fact, rather charmed by the notion that her steadfastly loving, if slightly unbalanced, Mom could manage anything but adoration for her beloved firstborn. Silly old Mom.
I’m rendered clawless and helpless and helpful once again, as always. I am, in fact, comforted, in a backhanded sort of way, at having done such a good job convincing Claire that she is loved. For a long while there, I was the only one she had. When you’re someone’s everything, you don’t drop the ball. I guess that’s something I can feel smug about, Claire. You’re secure in my love, you little twerp.
But she never asks me how I am, what I’ve been doing.
Deep down, Claire operates in our relationship just exactly as I’ve taught her to operate, taught her with infinite patience and attention to the minutest detail: she is the important one in our relationship, the one who counts, whose requirements need and deserve serving. And I’m the one who’s always OK, temporarily dismissable, capable, self-reliant, resilient.
I doubt she even yet sees me as having any reality at all outside my relationship with her. My lifelong urgent focus upon her moment-to-moment needs has negated any present possibility of her dredging up any real interest in my trivial day-to-day pursuits. I’ll bet Claire envisions me a robot, standing frozen and Schwarzeneggerishly erect on standby, waiting beside the phone night and day, all bodily systems shut down, ready to light up and leap into action whenever she calls me with some menial favor to ask, some minor request to keep me busy and keep my mind off my troubles. I’m like a toy doll to her, coming to life only in her presence, flopping back to the floor when she leaves, perking up again when she calls me back into being.
I close most of our phone conversations with, “Are you OK, Claire? Is there anything we can do for you?”—hoping to help, but also hoping to model for her a caring relationship. Too bad, though. Claire seems to think that my effusive-doormat approach is just the way all parents are supposed to treat their kids.
My own mother vacillated between nervous nurturing and critical sniping, doting and doubting, and of course I raised Claire the same way, unaware until long after my own little reproduction was well-stamped with the same overbearing pattern. I loved my parents, but didn’t treat them as well as I now wish I had, looking back. I grew up alternately insisting on and resisting their attentions, completely unobservant of their own, many, very human requirements.
I learned from their example that there are two very different kinds of love: one, openhanded, openhearted, and anxious, the kind of love one extends to one’s offspring. And another, more self-centered, self-protective, defensive, and begrudging—the kind reserved for one’s lovable but pushy parents.
To Claire’s great credit, she cooperates with most of the familyish things we ask of her, coming home often and keeping us generally informed of her whereabouts in a sort of a “See? I’m not dead!” sort of way. I think she’d be there for us if we needed her.
She sure doesn’t come around looking for trouble though. Doesn’t peer around suspiciously as I do when I visit her place, projecting potential dangers requiring maternal input. Probably Ben’s and my little needs and dreams don’t even show up on her monitor at all. Probably she doesn’t see any connection between them and her day-to-day life. In fact, I’m sure she dreads the day serious needs will come up. As we do. And we’re quick to insist if she does ask: oh no, no, nothing, there’s nothing you can do for us.
But she usually doesn’t ask. And of course we don’t particularly want her youthful energies diverted to our support. She has enough to do to establish a career, friends, a family, a future—we’ve already done all that.
I do wish she’d be more solicitous though.
Poor Claire, what a mixed message.
If we need her, she’ll be there for us.
But for now, she’s accustomed to our lopsided arrangement.
But then, after all, what is unequal about Claire’s willingness to bloom in our too-well-cultivated field of expectations, under the storm of our fears and hopes and ambitions?
Unarguably, Claire is drawn to this odd person, her mother. She’s expressed a guarded fascination with me, the sort that evolutionary biologists reserve for platypi and peacocks. She’s genuinely intrigued by my unconventional talents and experiences. Of couse, she’s not one to go around saying oh you’re so wonderful, and she knows to use extreme caution before showing any interest in anything that smacks of one of her mom’s “things.” Because I overreact and overwhelm her if she even inquires about what I do with my days. Outre among her friends, warm to strangers, Claire holds in all her emotions with me, except of course when we’re both drunk. We both get affectionately goofy and maudlin over a bottle of wine. How awful.
And she’s certainly inherited my own awkwardness with deep feelings, my own over-sensitivity when anyone gets too personal. Claire scrupulously avoids being nosy; she doesn’t want to be…what…like me, who these days is bashfully but persistently nosy, ever since Claire’s adolescent withdrawal.
Claire never asks me questions. She certainly doesn’t want to invite any of the potentially uncomfortable, or alarming, or boring answers she might get. I might let down my gray hair, share some intimate detail of my personal life, my sex life even, yuck, gross. Claire has nothing against Ben, he’s a wonderful stepdad, but really. Ugh. As far as Claire’s concerned, anyone over thirty should have the good sense to go out and shoot themselves. To be sure, she’s generously made an exception for us because we’re her parents and we need to…exist…somehow, somewhere, still available to her. But preferably in a distant parallel universe.
What Claire doesn’t want to know, what she’s definitely not interested in hearing from me, are exactly those details of my daily life that I’d welcome hearing about hers—details that, in fact, I’m jealous that she shares so freely with her boyfriend, her roommates, her sister. Claire’s current philosophy with her mother is: don’t ask don’t tell.
Probably because when she does ask me something, I’m thrilled. I light up like R2D2, snort deeply and paw the ground as if preparing to fight the Trojan War or recite the Iliad, I’m so fearful that I’ll run out of air before she breaks in or breaks away, before I have time to reach the ever-receding horizon of my pent-up verbal barrage of repressed input.
I’m not shallow, and Claire respects my ideas, even some of my conclusions. But occasionally my thought processes tend toward the circuitous and muddied, weaving right past her, while I endlessly stalk my point, pounce on it, worry it, loop back and beat it to death…. As you see….
“So how’s Ben?”
“Ben’s good. Ben’s always good. His deck-building project is going well.”
“Oh good. He always enjoys his building projects—his 'therapy.'”
“Yes, his therapy.” For being married to me—Ben’s joke.
I want to tell Claire how sweet Ben was last night, how strong his arms were, how he makes me feel like a girl again, in bed with her best friend. I wish I could share my worries that’s he’s taxing his health working too many long hours, my resentment at having to ration my requirements on his time. But I don’t want to worry her.
On the other hand, Claire is a grown-up. So why not model the honesty, openness and vulnerability I want from her? After all, she did ask….
“To tell the truth, Claire, I kind of miss Ben lately. He’s been so busy, we don’t talk as much as we used to. It kind of worries me. I don’t want us to drift apart.”
Claire looks up startled, eyes wide and alert. “What do you mean!” she accuses me, countering my perceived frontal assault with one of her own. Her eyes glint ominously. How dare her parents’ relationship not be perfect? They’re fiftyish for godsake, crazy about each other. She glowers at me in apprehensive silence, her blond eyebrows rising to their haughtiest peak, her mouth fixing itself in an elaborate twist to conceal her concern.
I hasten to reassure her: “There’s nothing for you to worry about Claire. Just normal husband-and-wife stuff. Even good relationships have issues.”
Claire’s brow wrinkles wrathfully. How dare I unnecessarily alarm her? And she’s fighting another internal battle as well, torn between defending me and, well, fixing me. She likes things between her parents to be unworrisome, tidy. Should she be doing something about all this? Be indignant with Ben? Or sterner with me for spending too much time in the garden or curled up with a book? Should she take a stand, a side? Offer some help somehow to someone?
She shakes her head as if to clear out cobwebs, straightens her shoulders and spine, recomposes her face and body into its usual elegant lines. It’s all too confusing, too much for her. There’s nothing she can do about it. Let it go.
I shake out my own cobwebs, a little stunned by Claire’s peremptory dismissal of my smallest attempt to open up my inner life to her. Talk about an out-of-hand rejection. I’m suddenly feeling old, tired, and bereft. She’s young, and I’m dying, tomorrow, or in fifty years, whatever, whenever. The days suddenly feel so short, and my time with her so precious.
This whole conversation is so typically Claire-and-Grace, at least these days. No safe subjects. Everything loaded, risky, emotionally charged. I’m allowed to discuss only boring subjects. The weather…and…good grief, I can’t even think of a safe second subject. Or I can stick to her areas of interest and expertise—current eye shadow shades, accessorizing choices of bypassers, shoe styles, for godsake. Any subject of consequence spins us screaming back into the void, thrown into our lizard brains.
This is such hard work. So sad. Claire is awesome, too awesome for anyone to fight with. Translucent skin, shining hair curling in ringlets down her neck, electric currents shooting through her, so bright and charged up, so excited by all that’s happening in her job, her relationships, her culture, her city, her world.
But so private and self-protective. And so determined that I should not have a single chance to drape my soggy disapproving blanket over a single one of her passions. Her mind these days is an exclusive by-invitation-only place, a seething vibrant place I visit only in my dreams.
But I’m so determined that we will have time, to swing open all the rusty doors we once slammed shut. We will have time to scale the fortifications we hastily erected in the fright and flight of her adolescence.
Too bad. I still catch myself shading honesty with her, still withhold openness. Sometimes I still shelter her, buffer her, parse my sharings, as—regrettably—I did so often when she was a child. Yet now it’s not just to protect her, but to protect myself as well, from her disapproval and legitimate judgment.
We trudge despondently down our long, convoluted path, so far from that open-faced child who ran so ecstatically to her open-armed mother.
We know each other now too well these days. And too little. Her eyes searchlight around, elaborately casual, looking toward no one and nothing.
A long silence.
“Have you been writing much?” And instantly, I bite my tongue, absolutely certain that my carefully preconsidered, very thoughtfully analyzed, precisely-worded inquiry will not be received as intended—as the most general and open-ended and impersonal of questions.
And indeed: “I don’t want to talk about my writing, Mom. Why are you always pushing me to write? Maybe I’m writing and you don’t even know about it! And there might be a reason for that. Did you ever think about that possibility?” Accusingly glaring at me, backed up, hurt again.
What hath I wrought? Whenever did I mold such a prickly, ill-mannered girl-child, whenever did I earn such ill-concealed resentment, such instantly hostile assumptions about my presumed opinions about whether or not she’s writing, or how often, or what?
But then, it’s karma. I’m being repaid, inexorably, for all those high school years when I leaned on her, interfered with her, pushed, prodded, and directed. Bent her tenderly-budding still-supple twig none too gently this way and that.
But I’m not doing that anymore, Claire. I’ve learned. This is me, Claire, this is now, we’re sitting here in a restaurant at a mall, it’s Christmastime, years and years have passed. Can’t we just stay in the present?
But no. She would take even this as angry criticism. Which I suppose it is.
I know, finally, that I’m on this earth only to love her, not to change her. So why didn’t I know that earlier? Why have I finally learned it only when it’s too late to get anything right?
And why do I keep forgetting it?
“I’m sorry, Claire. Of course you don’t have to talk about your writing. I’m happy just … that you're writing…or…er, well, I mean, if you aren’t, that’s OK too.” Lame. “And no, you don’t have to tell me about any of it. I just thought…” picking around among my words “…that it might be fun…you know, to talk about…to hear you bounce your ideas off me, whatever you’re thinking about.”
“Can’t you just trust me, Mom?”
Trust you? What are you talking about? What does trust have to do with anything? What do you mean, do I trust you? To do what? To want good things for your life? Well, then, OK, do you know, Claire, that wanting things isn’t enough? That writing takes practice, work, perseverance? I found my artwork so late. Do you know that wanting something doesn’t matter, Claire? That only taking action does? No, I don’t trust you. to know that. I do wish I could tell you all the things I didn’t tell you before, because I didn’t know them yet.
But, no. Not today. Telling her anything won’t be on her agenda today, and what I want most of all after all is just to share a happy day with Claire. Not to ferret around in her mind, not to sharpen up her decisions, question her premises, show up her inconsistencies. Yes, yes, I used to do all that. Yes. All right. I did a lot of that.
OK, all the time.
But not any more. Not now.
Damn it, I hate myself.
Claire is looking at me tenderly, inquiringly. And I probably do look sad. Fended-off. Flustered. Resigned. Depressed. Discouraged. Defeated…. Alliterative.
“I’m so sorry Mom. I never mean to hurt you. I just can’t write, that way, you know, sharing it with you….” She’s looking closely at me, concern and kindness brimming in her eyes. “I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings, Mom. I never intend to.” Now she’s reaching over, touching my cheek. “It’s just that I work better alone. You know, you know I love your support and encouragement. It’s just that…all that career stuff…. It’s something I have to do on my own. Whenever you help me, it makes me feel like you don’t think I can do it on my own.”
“Well of course I think you can do anything on your own, Claire. I’ve told you a gadzillion times I think you’re brilliant. You hate the very word ‘potential.’ Of course you don’t need help. It’s just that…well, everyone makes better decisions…accomplishes more…when they have friends to help them. There’s no reason for you to go through your life alone.”
Claire sighs, shrugs. And it’s true, I’m hopeless. Open your eyes, Mom, are you blind? Claire is young and beautiful and bright and sweet and funny, and not, as you might have noticed, alone. In fact, she’s hounded by friends and colleagues and suitors thrilled with any opportunity to lend her an ear, a hand, whatever she’ll take. She needs acceptance from her Mom, not the same brand-new old brilliant revelations and insights. She needs my love and acceptance, as-is. How can I keep forgetting? My little Claire has the whole universe on her side. I’ve had all my chances, twenty-one years of chances, to dictate her progress. Now it’s time to let her go, to turn her over to a new world of eager new benefactors…and opportunists…and con men…..
Now even I’ve had just about all of myself I can stand.
I’m not hurt anymore, just lingeringly in love with my sweet Claire, sadly letting go of the old us, weaning myself away from her. I never could stay mad at her for long, she could win me over in an instant with the smallest loving touch or temperate word. I know I'll always forgive her anything, as long as she’ll let me be her mom, as long as she’ll be my daughter. Whatever that means. To be a daughter, a mother.
Whatever we decide on, whatever we come up with, moment-to-moment, I guess. Whatever it is that we make together, whatever we choose to create.
I guess that’s a lot.
And now she’s meek and mild Claire, once again.
“I know you care about me, Mom. I know you’re just trying to help. Really, I know it. Sometimes it just kind of makes me mad. I sort of forget everything I’ve ever known, kind of momentarily lose it? You know? Like you used to? So please, forgive me? Believe in me?”
“But I still want to know you, to share your life, Claire. How can I help still being interested in you, after caring for you all those years? Sometimes I just can’t help myself, can’t stop myself, can’t keep from helping you. I’m trying. It’s just hard.” A humble petition for understanding and patience.
But she’s already bored with her apparently failed attempt at openness. She’s tried to explain, she’s given me her all, she’s been open, vulnerable, but I wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t hear, it didn’t work, she’s given up. She folds her arms, looks away, alone and frustrated again.
We sit tired, groping for another topic.
“I finished a painting yesterday.”
“About the war. Just some visual concepts about empire building, aggression, you know.”
“Mom! I thought you decided you weren’t going to put out all that radical stuff. I thought you were worried about how your weird ideas might affect Ben’s job.” Icy pale-blue eyes narrowing.
“Well, I decided it was more important to express myself than to repress my voice, worrying about his job. If this war goes on, maybe no one will have a job, or a pension, or a home, or maybe even a country when it’s all over.
“Mmmmph.” Turning her head away.
Well, thanks again for nothing, Claire. Thanks for your sensitive encouragement of my first fumbling attempts to be creative and useful to the world since devoting my life to raising you.
I know I’m exaggerating wildly, but still, I cross my arms too, look irritable. I do try to stop myself.
Here we go again.
“Nothing against your painting, Mom. I’m just worried about Ben. Not everyone feels about politics the way you do.”
Well. End of that topic.
Claire’s lovelife is usually a safe place to go for a nice talk. She usually blathers quite happily about her current flame. “How’s Wayne?”
“Fine.” But after a quick warning look at me, Claire’s face rearranges itself to studied coolness. Uh-oh.
Now she’s looking down, fidgeting, glancing around nonchalantly, casting a suspicious glance my way. A sigh.
So cagey. Who can know anything? And how did I find myself so lost in this unapproachable emotional-earthquakeville? Even the most polite, most considered conversation with Claire today seems an impossibility. Any interest at all in her life, in anything that matters to her, any small hope for a response, good bad indifferent boring interesting relevant, or not, who cares, meaningful or trifling….
I’d welcome the words to her favorite song, a retelling of any book she’s reading….
Her hard face says, Mom, please, butt out of my relationship with Wayne.
Claire wants me to think she handles everything with ease—all her relationships, her career, her money—but what person can do that, young or old?
I did push her to be perfect, I admit it, just as my mother pushed me, only hoping to keep me safe. I wanted only to protect Claire, protect her options, keep her from hurting. Now she thinks anything less than an announcement of ease and automatic achievement in every area will leave me distressed and overwrought. And continuingly critical. And she’s right.
She certainly doesn’t want my advice either. She thinks she’s heard it all already, she’s sure of it, all the same old things she was forced to listen to when she was in high school.
But we’ve both grown up. We've changed so much since then. I’ve learned some new things, some new stuff I want to share.
But she doesn’t want to share any of it, not with me, certainly not all the gory details of her life, certainly not the unpleasant ones…and god, certainly not the good ones, not with her mom.
We face off across our usual thousand-foot-deep-high-wide chasm.
“I guess Wayne’s busy with work these days?”
“Anything fun lately?” Fun would seem a safe-enough subject. Claire takes pride in my vicarious delight in her pleasures, and she and Wayne are fun people, always running around, always into all the latest things.
She shrugs in disgust at her presently unfulfilled life. “No. Nothing. We’re always both out of money and comatose from work and studying and from marathon training. We just sit around a lot, sit around and eat.” She glowers, defensive now about this distasteful revelation, wanting to fly instead to Wayne’s defense, prepared to fend off my forthcoming judgment.
And then her face lights up. “Guess what? Wayne bought us tickets to Ireland!”
“How sweet of him.” Icily.
Such spendthrifts they are, such obsessive-compulsive consumers. And she’ll have to pay her own way in Ireland, I’m sure of it. No wonder she never has any money for new tires or dentist appointments. And I guess that blows any possibility that she’ll be with us in San Diego on her birthday.
“I guess you’ll have fun showing him around all your favorite spots?”
“Yes! We’re planning so many neat things! We’re staying one night each in seven different places, and I’m going to take him to all my favorite pubs and restaurants, and to the cliffs too.”
“Wow. Sounds great!”
Hmmmph. Sounds expensive.
Shut up. Let her live her own life.
“I know you loved Ireland! What a romantic place. Let me see, weren’t you with Sam, the last time you were there?”
Now how did that pop out of my mouth?
“Yeah.” Pensively. “And I hope Wayne won’t be as much of a pain in the ass as Sam was. I remember we fought the whole way across Europe. God I hope Wayne and I can stand each other for a whole week. We get on each other’s nerves. You know, Sam drove me crazy all the way across Ireland.”
Yes, I do know. I know Claire’s love relationships, which tend, like mine did at her age, toward extremes of passionate abandon or dark doubts.
“When I was your age, Claire” (am I the one now really saying this?) “I wanted so much for everything, my whole life, to be decided right now. I was dying to know who I was going to marry, what my career would be, what I’d name my kids, where I would settle down….”
“Yeah, Mom. Thanks, but I don’t feel that way.”
“You don’t?” Now that’s interesting. A dismissal? A sign of growth? I’m intrigued. “Claire…?”
But the waiter appears, refills our water glasses, takes our plates and our orders for coffee and dessert. And the moment passes.
Claire remembers something she’d wanted to share. “Did I tell you what I’m getting Wayne for Christmas? And what he’s getting me? I bought him this fantastic leather jacket he tried on the other day. Incredible. I just had to get it, he looked so hot in it. And he’s made us Christmas Eve reservations at the Inn at Little Washington. Have you heard of it?”
Just that it’s expensive…. Shut up.
“Wonderful!” I say enthusiastically.
So we won’t see you on Christmas either, Claire?
Stop, Grace. Don’t go a step further.
I do anyway.
“I hope you’ve managed to set aside a little money for Ben and Zilsa’s Christmas gifts this year.” (And mine. Don’t forget about me! Again.)
Claire scowls darkly at me. “I’m not going to forget your present, Mom, if that’s what you’re worrying about. That was in college. I’m a big girl now.” But still, she looks a little lost and sad. “I hope it’s OK if I don’t spend too much on you guys this year. With the Ireland trip coming up. And all my bills. But I should get a raise soon.” She brightens up at that thought.
“Hey, Mom, I made my Christmas list, like you asked me to. Wanna see it?”
I love Christmas shopping with Claire, love the self-indulgence of going in and out of every store looking for exactly what we want. I love watching her try things on, love to watch her prance around in new finery. I love giving Claire pretty things, dressing her up, helping her. It’s fun to buy things for one so pretty and young—I wish I could have bought things when I was young and gorgeous, or whatever. Claire looks so good in everything. And she does appreciate what we give her. And she knows we don’t want her to feel obligated, just want to share our small disposable income with her.
It must be hard for her to take our money, though, our gifts, even though we don’t attach strings.
On the other hand, this generation is so materialistic.
Stop, Grace. Stop being a fuddy-duddy. It’s a new century. She likes having things. And just what alternatives did I hope would attract Claire at this stage? Perhaps she should live in a dump in rags with no material desires at all? Like I did?
I am so hard on her. Whatever she chooses, she can’t win. I always question it, ponder all the alternative choices she’s missing out on.
But at least she’s having fun now, anyway. “That was a great lunch Mom! Thank you so much. I love our Christmas shopping trip, don’t you?” She strides ahead, a tawny feline, oblivious of all the turning heads. Ah, I remember those days. Vaguely.
Claire’s incorrigible when she gets going on something, so animated, funny, and now she’s going on about Wayne, all the funny things he said, what the guy across from her cube said on email, what she’ll wear to the Christmas party, all those prom dresses we bought her in high school, how she never appreciated them but really does now. Poor Claire, so young and beautiful and poor and tempted by everything. But we’re proud of her, the way she’s taken on the tough job of taking care of herself, standing on her own two big feet, making her way.
Suddenly she’s frowning, confronting the total stress of having nothing to wear to the office party, thinking about all her tough day-to-day economic choices, her dire state of poverty, Ireland, Wayne's new jacket, the long career climb ahead, paying for graduate school too, all before she can begin to go where she wants to go.
Subtly but surely, her long lithe body seems to bend slightly, collapsing inward. She seems suddenly smaller. She’s been working too hard, not getting enough sleep, no exercise. She’s not eating right.
“Do you want to rethink your Christmas list, Claire, with a party dress in mind?”
Her brow furrows into a deep frown. “No. I need those work clothes.” Then she slips her long arm companionably through mind, leans into me, smiles apologetically for being so short with me, and we swing along looking into store windows.
Well. This is fun. Though I’m still feeling a bit tender, a little wistful, knowing, regretting, that I can’t, and in fact never could, control Claire’s tomorrows.
A hard lesson. But one I’ve learned. For sure. For ever.
I look down at her Christmas list.
“Why on earth would you want a black purse, Claire? I thought you were going to go with browns and neutrals, not blacks and whites. It’s like silver or gold, you have to choose, at your stage in life, in your financial situation….”
“Mom! Let me make my own fashion decisions, OK?!”
She’s given up on me now, can’t even look at me, afraid I’ll see her totally—berserk—deranged—furious. She feels completely put upon, overwhelmed. I’m impossible. It never ends, does it? It will always be the same old stuff. Her mom will never give up, I'll always baby her. It will always be like this. Good god, telling her what clothes to buy, giving her advice on style, her, the only one in the whole hippie family who ever even cared about what she looked like….
Claire’s face is furious.
And I’m recomposing my own face now, too, feeling so old, so cold, so completely frustrated. And struggling to hide it.
I want to shriek, give me a break!
Is there any subject you’re not touchy about? If there is one, tell me, tell me now! I need to know what it is! However may I earn your royal highness’ approval? How ascend Rapunzel’s lofty, impregnable wall? Tell me, what is it that you want me to say?
Or shall I just retreat forever into silence??
Not to mention: Pardon me for living!
I just want to go home, want to get a nice backrub from my warm, accepting husband, drink the glass of merlot he’ll hand me with a sympathetic grin. He knows our relationship, he hears me whine about it until late into the night curled up close, murmuring, she’ll be fine, she’s wonderful, keep trying, everything will come out all right….
Claire and I are two copycat mannequins, one feeling so very old and one so young. We stumble along side-by-side, grimacing, vacant, extending ourselves numbly and pointlessly away from each other, outward toward nothing, our hearts hardening.
Claire sees the veiled twist of my mouth that trembles infuriatingly when I’m most hurt, when I’m trying, god forbid, not to cry.
“Uh-oh,” she says. “Mom’s mad.”
Damn straight. And thanks, Claire, that helps a lot.
My long hard look at her means, just drop it. You don’t even want to know what I’m thinking.
And sure enough, that look is devastating, and it’s had its withering effect. Claire now looks quickly away too, her own mouth twisting.
We're affronted little hurt-twins, distraught duplicates, huffing along in unison, our eyes rolling in torment, our livers picked endlessly by crows. We sigh. We shrug. We sigh heavily again.
“I can’t seem to find any safe subjects, Claire. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
“Not really.” Grimly. “Let’s shop.”
Let’s get this over with, she means. I just hate this. We both hate this. It’s impossible. She hates taking my money, hates acting happy and grateful, hates being here with me, hates being the dutiful appreciative trapped recipient of my importunate largesse. She doesn’t want any of this, wants to run away, wants to go home to her friends, at least they like her, Wayne likes her….
We stomp along efficiently, towards nowhere in particular.
All right. We’ll shop.
I press my lips together. No words will pass them that’s for sure. No words to be misunderstood and misinterpreted and judged unworthy. Far be it from me. I’m finally and forever hunkered down. All right. This is what she wants. All right. So we’ll both just get old and gray just like this, driving each other crazy. All right. Isn’t this fun? OK. We’ll shop in silence. Fine.
“Do you want to go in here?” she asks. Indifferent.
“Whatever you like, Claire.”
I spy a beautiful lagoon-blue jacket, the precise color that sets off her eyes, her skin, her hair, the Banana Republic style she gushes over. I hold it up and signal across the room, “Hey—like this?”
Of course she doesn’t. She drags herself up from her own deep scrutiny of something important, distantly polite. Coldly examines my limp offering. “No. Thank you.”
I put the sweater back. Of course.
“How ‘bout this one?” and even as I hold it up, I instantly regret having done so, instantly dread her condescension, her pained response to the very suggestion that I might select something appropriate for her. I actually have to strain to momentarily hold the sweater up for her bored inspection, almost duck behind it, longing to bury my indiscretion back under the clothes on the rack.
Claire dutifully glances in my direction accommodating my improbable, outrageous request once more for her attention, endures the wasted length of time necessary to coolly dismiss whatever implausible remnant I might hold in my hand.
Her eyes dilate.
She peers closely, sucks in her breath, whistles out through pursed lips.
“Yes. That is nice,” she exults, walking over, whisking the sweater away, hugging it, doing a little whirlwind dance in a circle around me. “It's perfect, Mom! Thank you!”
It’s so sad. It's so maddening. It’s such work, loving your mom, loving your daughter. It’s so hard.
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