These years here with my mother have not brought the connection I dreamed of when I moved across the country. But today, as the sky lightens, I lie in bed realizing that my love for nature, and even for adventure, is born of my mother. The recognition is a beginning, and time is not up.
I rise and move to the chair in the corner of the living room. My coffee mug on the table beside me, I pick up my journal to write from a prompt to start the day. As it usually does when I follow the pen, the words come around to Mama and wondering why, for so long, we didn’t see each other. The pen travels back in time with a force that transcends conscious thought.
For decades, in cross-country phone calls, Mama greeted me with, “Is that my smiling daughter?” I don’t know why it began to irritate me several years ago, but it did.
I have heard the story of my babyhood many times over the years.
Your crib was in our bedroom. When you woke up—early—you stood motionless in the crib until one of us moved a muscle. Then you jumped up and down, rattling the crib, laughing. She decided my identity back then and she was sticking to it. I didn’t have permission to be in a funk, so I chose not to include her in my life when I didn’t tell her over the phone I was ready to strangle one or the other of my children, that their father was out of town again and I was tired of doing it all, that I was lonely, that my period had started and I felt like shit. I wanted empathy, I wanted compassion. But had I told her how I really felt in that moment, she would have been worried about me, given me unwanted advice, and sent me magazine articles, dragging my bad mood farther into the future than its natural life dictated as she tried to fix it.
One day, a few years ago, I had had enough. I couldn’t live up to her expectations and I angrily asked her to stop calling me her smiling daughter. And she did.
As I write this, I realize with a start that when I walk into her room at the assisted living facility now, and she asks who’s there, she doesn’t know what I look like. Me, her smiling daughter! Her eyes see light and dark against the opposite background, and that’s all. I’ve heard her say countless times to visitors: “I can see your shape, but not your face,” but it hadn’t crossed my mind that she can’t see my face. She doesn’t see that my face is aging, that I’m looking more like her every day. Whatever static picture of me she has in her head is all she has. I don’t know what that picture is. Am I smiling?
She did see you, my pen writes. Of course she knew I had bad days back then; but I am generally a happy person, an optimistic person. That is my identity. She has known you from the womb, watched your ebb and flow, and seen you return to your Self again and again. “Is that my smiling daughter?” was her way of reminding me of who I am. It was her way of telling me she had faith that no matter what was going on in my life that I probably wasn’t telling her, I would reach into my core and find my strength. Just as she does. It was her way of being my cheerleader, the mother I wanted.
“Is that Gretchen?” she says, unsure of her accuracy in distinguishing my voice when I enter her room and greet her. I wish she would ask if it’s her smiling daughter.