When Mama tells me not to touch my mouth or eyes while I have a cold, I cut her off as she is about to tell me why. “Stop,” I say, holding up my hand, palm out, “just stop.” I don’t tell her to stop mothering me, I know she would say, “I am a mother, Gretchen, I can’t just stop.” And I know she believes the definition of mother is “Never, never stop instructing.” I don’t want to get into that conversation with her. She’s 98, she is not going to change. But I do need to protect myself.
I know there are those whose mothers are no longer with them who would give anything to be told to button their coat, and I get that. Perhaps I will eat my words when that day comes. But while there are many things I will miss about my mother when she is gone forever, I don’t think constant instruction will be one of them, even in a symbolic way.
Instruction has always been the part of mothering she has felt most confident in. I think she hasn’t quite known how to interact with her competent daughters, and so she clings to what she knows. I don’t think she realizes when she does it to me, the effect is that I feel cut down. It didn’t bother me when I lived 2500 miles away and heard it over the phone line. I was living my own life, and doing it quite well. I could brush off her instructions on how I “should” be doing whatever. And, of course, she didn’t really know I was washing dishes without using a dishpan. And if I were Michelle Obama living with my mother in a big white house, doing my competent part to keep the most powerful country in the world running smoothly, and my mother told me to cover my arms or I might attract unwanted attention, I would probably be able to blow it off and remain firmly in control of my grown up status.
But living in her house, doing pretty much everything wrong; and not being a wage earner in a job where I feel like I am in control and appreciated, it’s hard not to feel twelve. So when she tells me to pull the chairs out from the dining room table when I’m vacuuming, I tell her that I know how to vacuum. And when she suggests my coat is not warm enough, that I will catch cold, I tell her that colds are caused by cold germs, not cold weather (or wet hair). I also tell her I know that every mother from the 1950s believed that, she was not alone. (Also, it is sixty degrees, or I would have had a different coat on.)
Rebecca had dinner with her the other night and the conversation turned to the fact that Mama used to take the train to Seattle to go to the eye doctor, and she had to take a cab or the bus from King Street station to the clinic. Rebecca asked her if it ever amazed her that she did all of that by herself, if she was proud of herself. “Well,” she said, “I’ve always taken care of myself.”
“So,” Rebecca said, “you were independent and capable of taking care of things. Why don’t you believe that your daughters are capable in the same way? We do come from you, you know!” She said one never lets go of being a mother, and you had to be a mother to understand. (Rebecca is not a mother, so ouch to that.)
Rebecca knew it was pointless to suggest a mother could also be proud of what her children have done and become, and be proud of instilling in them a sense of confidence and ability. Mama doesn’t know how to be proud of herself, and that makes it hard to take any credit for her daughters’ accomplishments.
I used to feel like a grown up, but these days I think I won’t again until I am the oldest generation in the family. By then, perhaps, my own children will be ready to be the oldest generation. And will tell me what to do and how to do it.