When I was in elementary and middle school, my mother would drop me off in the morning and pick me up at the end of the day, always waiting, right on time, in the front seat of her green minivan with the wood paneling on the side. I'd climb into the passenger side and ask her what was for supper.
Sometimes it'd be the cornmeal-crusted catfish I didn't love, or perhaps a whole chicken, and I'd groan with disappointment. On more exciting afternoons, she'd tell me she was roasting a pork tenderloin to serve with homemade apple sauce. In my luckiest moments, she spent the entire day preparing her famous homemade spaghetti and meatballs, a secret family recipe that my brother and I pined for all year round.
Growing up with a stay-at-home mom was something I took for granted as a kid and teenager. I couldn't care less that she was the last person I saw before school started and the first person I talked to when it was over. I barely noticed that she paid all the bills, took our dogs to the vet, ensured I made it to the dentist every six months and that I had all my school materials and summer camp supplies exactly when I needed them. Sometimes she'd buy us clothes during her daily errand circuit and we'd come home to new outfits sprawled across our beds.
To find fulfillment outside our family, she volunteered in the fundraising department at my brother's school, freelanced for a handful of magazines, guest-hosted a local talk radio show, even wrote a book. We weren't wealthy by any means, but we were comfortable enough that she could put all her energy into being the best mother she could be. Mom was a constant presence.
Then I left for college and everything changed. Four months into my freshman year, my parents split up. My mother moved into a small apartment a few miles away and got a job at the front desk of her favorite yoga studio. A few weeks into the gig, she became manager, and under her reign, the business blossomed into the premiere yoga business in Connecticut, its walls plastered with framed awards from the Hartford Advocate and testimonials from famous instructors.
When the studio downsized a handful of years later, my mother immediately hired a career counselor, canvassing online job boards with her resume and using her fundraising experience to land a development director position at a major youth advocacy nonprofit. By then, she had moved into a brownstone in downtown Hartford that would have turned residents of more cosmopolitan cities green with real estate envy.
She was a single career woman on the up and up. A generation separated us, but across the country in San Francisco, I was, too. We both rode our bikes along the waterfront on weekends. She walked the pug through Bushnell Park whenever the jazz quartet played and I soaked up free concerts in Golden Gate. I commiserated when she told me her feet hurt after that time she stayed out dancing until one a.m. We traded online dating horror stories and company management tips. Her life could have been mine, but it was all hers, just as much as when she spent a full afternoon stirring that perfect, velvety spaghetti sauce on the stove, tasting until it had the perfect tomato-to-spice ratio.
At first I felt a little unsettled -- it was weird having so much in common with my middle-aged mom. But gradually, as I continued to grow up myself, I began to see her as not only a mother, but as a woman. A woman finding her way through the world, exploring its uncertainties and making mistakes and learning lessons just like me.
She still had the best qualities of being my mother. On trips to the East Coast, she'd let me sleep in her bed and wake me up with vanilla tea each morning. She still knew how to get that wine splatter out of my shirt before it stained for good and told me exactly what pills to take and fluids to drink if I caught a cold. I hadn't lost my mother, but I'd gained a friend.
She was never truly happy in Connecticut; found the winters bitter cold and the culture provincial. Though she'd grown up in New Jersey, she had moved to San Francisco in her early twenties, met and married my dad out there. After I was born, they decided to return east, closer to their own parents. But she never let go of her love for the Bay Area.
California was always part of the conversation when I was a kid. I ate meals off a map-of-the-world placemat, and Mom taught me to identify San Francisco--the little pink peninsula that looked like a downturned thumb--before I learned where Hartford was. She told us stories of perfection in a single city, fantasized about retiring out west. My dad would play along, but his heart wasn't in the same place.
While my mother's status in the nonprofit world advanced, her desire to move back to her favorite place on earth grew more fierce. She applied relentlessly for jobs in the Bay, endured bicoastal Skype screenings, even traveled out for a couple interviews on a whim. Sometimes her cover letters disappeared into cyberspace, other times she made it down to the final two candidates. With each rejection, she vowed to make her next job application even stronger.
This past May, I relocated from San Francisco to New York for a job at HuffPost's flagship office. A few weeks later, Mom called. Her pursuit had finally paid off. She'd been offered a vice president position at a public health nonprofit in Oakland. A few weeks later, she packed up the pug and left Connecticut for good.
Our lives are more parallel than ever these days. We're both discovering our new homes, making friends, stumbling upon adventures. We're looking for a good yoga studio to join, reading the same books on public transit and chatting about the plots via text message. I emailed her photos from my trip to Burning Man and she replied with stories about her new coworkers who go every year. There's even time for the occasional dating disaster.
As I navigate the final years of my 20s, I've tried to understand and assign various meanings to the process of aging. But things always change, and they can change in an instant--my mother is proof. Perhaps, then, that's the one truth about getting older: The only thing that stays the same is an individual's own power to create change. Everything can change, and nothing will ever change about that.
Now when I'm out west, Mom meets me at the BART station with her tote bag. We stop by the Grand Lake farmers market, picking out the freshest seasonal ingredients, before hiking up the hill to her new apartment. One of these days, I'll actually cook her dinner.