You study the photograph and find yourself surprised that this is your mother’s midriff, that these are her coppery legs. Somehow that bombshell seamlessly transformed into the sensible Mom who went to work at 3 a.m. without complaint if the hospital called her in, and who always returned smelling of antiseptic soap. How did the one become the other? you wonder, studying her image, not realizing, at first, that her story is your story, and that your story is the story of the two of you.
You always wanted to choose her earrings for her in the early years, selecting the long dangly ones with faux bling, which she usually declined. But she did let you accompany her into the curtained booth when she voted Clinton for president. She was the type who maneuvered her boat-sized Volvo to the side of the road and kept it there, wordless, till you fastened your seatbelt, and who offhandedly admitted, before you’d cracked double digits, that she had done coke (“It was the sixties... and seventies”). And when bedtime came, as she tucked you under the floral polyester duvet while a moon shard hung outside the window, she used to sing, off-key but just right, so that you felt gravity inside your tiny chest wall, All I ask of you / is forever to remember me / as loving you.
Just a few years later, though, everything she did seemed to vex you. Especially that time in a shop dressing room when she cheerfully inquired, “Have you noticed that you’re starting to develop breasts?” Which plunged you into the kind of pink-cheeked pubescent embarrassment that some people characterize as “I literally died,” though you know what they mean. This phase goes on for a while. In your estimation Mom is about as pleasant as the sometimes itchiness in your vagina (which Mom herself helps you out with, supplying some sort of cream).
Then there is a nearly imperceptible shift, like a swirl of not-hot air on a late-August evening, and Mom is no longer a figure of contempt. She’s just a figure. Kind of irrelevant. We’ll call this phase “high school.”
Somewhere down the line, life drops a bomb. In this case it’s after you’ve attempted college and then said screw college and instead you’re carrying a backpack around a foreign country: your Dad dies suddenly of a heart attack. Mom: a widow. You rush home.
“I can’t believe it,” she says, over and over, her slight frame hunched at the bathroom counter where she had been trying to floss her teeth. Short clumps of greying hair cling to her damp forehead, for she had clipped off her long tresses some time ago.
You feel that nothing will ever be OK again. You weep with your cheek pressed into the musty carpet of your childhood room. You vomit your fear: that Mom will be eaten by lonesomeness.
You’re wrong, though. You couldn’t have known it then, with lint stuck to your face, as she cried in the bathroom with a string of floss in her hand, but that’s not how the story goes.
You make another stab at college, and while you’re still testing the hollow echo of your new bedroom, looking appraisingly at the bare walls, Mom, clad in secondhand pants, is busy tucking a mattress pad over the corners of your pill-blue industrial mattress, she holds a sheet at its corners and snaps her wrists to shake out the folds. You stand and watch, and feel a nameless tug. When it’s time for her to go and leave you here, you face one another — and you notice that she’s healthy again. She’d gotten badly thin after Dad died, but now she goes to a weight-lifting class at the Y. Get it, Mom.
A few years later you hate her. She has decided to sell the house. It doesn’t occur to you to trust her next move the way she trusts yours. Though maybe this is just the ordinary imbalance of the mother/daughter bond: she poured herself into you, and you were sparing in what you gave back.
One day you find that you’re an adult. No horns or fanfare, it just happens. Sometimes you’re the first one to your job, unlocking the deadbolt in the damp fog of 8:30. You’ve settled not far from Mom, who lives in a ranch where she gardens and has lots of time on her hands. She’s always trying to make plans with you. “I can come to you,” she says. “Lunch? Or dinner? Will you go with me to the bulb show?”
“Let me get back to you,” you say, irked, because you’re trying to have your life, here.
One afternoon you walk into her kitchen — you’ve agreed to come see her garden — and you’re caught off guard: she’s old. Now entirely grey, she’s wearing a pair of unisex glasses. She looks strangely like your uncle. Stranger still, she doesn’t mind. She seems to like it. She wears boxy jeans and a T-shirt that says, “ASK ME ABOUT THE Y.” You yourself are wearing tight denim shorts that show off your copper legs. (Though this year you found your first grey hair. You thought to yourself, This isn’t supposed to happen. Then you pooped, and went to bed.)
Mom has recently taken up pot smoking. One evening, not long ago, she phoned you, high as the top shelf, and told you that she’d discovered which was the most habit-forming drug of all. It wasn’t reefer, though.
“The desire to feel like a special person,” she said, “has always been my drug of choice.” Which first confused and then surprised and then enlightened you. Then you booked this date to come see her.
She leads you out to the garden. She seems to have a dozen bird feeders out here and there are nuthatches and goldfinches flitting around. She shows you a slice of velvety moss as if she’s a child who’s discovered the common dandelion. Then you stand together in silence, and you get that feeling.
This time, the feeling will send you looking for that old photo. When you find it you will study the image, surprised that this is your mother, that she has become someone else, and that you have become — her.