Mother Daughter Reflections in a Mirror
Be careful what you put near a mirror
I am not my Mother, am I?
Mother Daughter Reflections in a Mirror
When I was a little girl I idolized my mother. When I got older, I feared being like her. My newly wed, younger, half brother had called me about mom’s recent hospitalization for pancreatitis with possible gallstones. He told me my stepfather was not coping well; he had to work and could we pick dad up and take him to see mom. I thought about how in the past my mother promised me to come help me after each of my carpal tunnel surgeries, but failed to show up because quote, “I don’t do freeways”. Then guilt settled in and my husband of more than a decade, and my stepson of thirteen years and I piled into the Lincoln and headed to Orange County.
In route I was ruminating on my complicated past and present relationship with my mother. She had always had difficulty receiving acts of kindness from her own children. Her childhood and marital issues resulted in her being emotionally distant and bitter. My maternal grandmother was cold and did not do open displays of affection. My biological father had been diagnosed with Lupus and died young; the marriage had been arranged by my maternal grandfather. During the ten years my father was ill, he physically and emotionally abused mom, and my older brother, in front of us. One Easter in a 1950’s style, black-and-white family photo my mother has a black eye, dressed in her Jackie Kennedy, white hat and gloves smiling. So I suppose I had cut her some slack when it came to raising my older brother and me after dad passed. She rolled up her sleeves, became a nurse’s assistant and at eleven and twelve our childhoods were over.
Mother’s tone of voice could cut you like a steel knive, add her sharp words and you came away bleeding internally. In our four hour visit mom, metaphorically speaking, cut me three times. Of course, it happened when we were alone. In front of others she always acted the part of the loving mother. Unfortunately, I carried these traits and was advised often by my husband and son. After my visit with mother, I realized they were right and on the way home the tears would stream quietly down my cheeks for what I had subconsciously inflicted on my stepson.
I was helping mother take a shower while my stepfather, my husband and stepson strolled the hospital hallways. The first cut was the deepest. While trying to help mom take off her slippers, she chastisingly said, “I can do it myself.” Swallowing the lump of hurt in my throat, I carefully set her clean gown, panties, and institutionally stiff, white towel on the half shelf above the lidless toilet. I spied a plastic container shaped like half a hat with metric measurements. It rested empty on the shower floor. I doubted mom was complying with her nurse’s orders to measure her urine output. Later she defiantly told me she was not. Fiesty as ever, not letting her illness get her down, she bragged how these people called tenderness pain; she did not need any pain pills and when were they letting her out of here.
To aid my mother in the shower, the day-duty nurse politely disconnected her I.V. and shunted it off and gloved her hand. I noted my mother did not utter a simple “Thank You”. As she showered, the nurse changed her bedding. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and noticed the lines in my face were settled into the saddest frown. I remembered how kind mother had been to the neighborhood children; much kinder than she was to us. My stepson had recently accused me of the same thing. My older brother asked me at the last family gathering, when had I become so bitter. I shuddered with the epiphany; I had become my mother.
After her shower mom did ask for help tying the undignified, backless gown. Over that I placed her own colorful, chenile robe. Once again, I tried to help with her slippers, again, she chastised me, “I can do it better”. Cut number two, not so deep; I swallowed more hurt.
“Get me my brush,” she ordered. I obeyed. Mom brushed her thinning hair and preened in the mirror as I watched from behind, like I used to do as an innocent girl as she would apply her makeup with her fingertips in an queenly, upward, stroking manner. Everything had a certain order and symmetry.
Politely I asked, “Would you like some lotion for your face?”
And in the voice of the Queen Mother herself she replied, “Yes, that would be nice.” I began to squeeze the Keri lotion into the palm of her hand. Then, in a much shriller voice she exclaimed, “The tips, the tips, put it on my fingertips!” Cut number three; my childhood memory strings were pulled painfully tight. I winced inside remembering all the childhood pain she had inflicted on me.
I thought to myself, my mother has always been this way and even though I was 50 at time, I felt like I was five years old again. Mother could have put June Cleaver to shame; cooked and cleaned in a dress; dinner on the table at 5:00 p.m.; kids clean and smiling for dad when he got home from work. But just like a 50's television show; it was all an illusion; all a terrible act for the cameras. I realized in that moment; I was repeating her pattern. Later we said our perfunctory good-byes and headed home.
Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Anaheim Hills to Castaic is a seventy-five mile, eighty minute drive. I rode shotgun in silence as the radio blasted an Elliot Smith tune. My sixteen-year-old stepson, whistled along from the back seat. My husband, stared straight ahead intent on his driving. In my head I was a million miles away.
All my life I thought I had sucessfully stomped down the dirt in the graveyard of my childhood hurts, only to have a fistful of hurts pop back up and hand me a much needed life lesson today. I recalled the countless times I had chastised my stepson in that same tone of voice, making him feel less than the great child he is. He deserved so much more. My stepson endured twelve years of my emotional abuse. I needed to stop the cycle. I needed to stop the hurt.
That night, after I told my husband about my epiphany, I went to my stepson’s room, tapped on his door and asked if I could talk to him. I was greatful, he said, “Yes.” I explained my awakening to my bad behavior. I pleaded for his forgiveness. I told him he was the greatest kid on the planet and I was proud of him and loved him. We hugged; we cried. He opened up to me about his feelings like he had not in a long time. And, for once, I just listened with a Mother’s heart and not my judgmental head.