"Look at you -- you're just like your mother."
Weren't those dreaded words at one point in my life? Didn't I work all these years to not be like her, to identify her faults and weaknesses and to do everything humanly possible to avoid them?
I read a comic strip once in which a woman was lamenting the fact that she'd turned into her mother. All the behaviors she hated, she'd adopted. And I heard once that if a man wants to know what his wife will be like in 30 years, he should look at her mother. It was meant to be mean.
Why now, then, am I desperately wishing for that one profound gift that eludes me -- to be like my mom? I think it's because I'm a mother now myself, and I'm beginning to wonder if I could ever hope to be the mother she has been to me.
My mom had six children; she had her first the year after she got married, at 19, and her last some 15 years later. Parenting was her full-time job throughout her 20s, 30s and 40s, partly out of choice, I think, but partly also out of necessity, as those were the days of one-car families. Whatever the reason, she took care of the kids and the husband and the money and everything else involved in keeping eight difficult people happy together in a house with one bathroom.
She stood by us all through the rebellion, the growing pains, the flight, the anger, the fear. She never wavered, and she never walked away.
She wanted nothing for me but the best, giving me everything I needed to succeed in life -- curiosity, adaptability, the need to achieve rather than just survive, intolerance for settling for less than I deserve -- seemingly effortlessly. She indulged my quirkiness even if she didn't understand it; she left me to my moods. She let me figure out the secrets of life when she knew them all along. She let me run away when I needed to flee and come home when I needed to rest. She held me when I lost and held me when I won.
My mom is patient and loving and trusting, even toward some who seemed undeserving, and as a result I thought her blind. She is devoted, even to a husband who had demons enough for both of them, and I thought her weak. She has an implicit faith and almost spiritual innocence usually reserved for children, even when faced with unimaginable loss, and I thought her naïve.
And she has a commitment to her family and her life that, unbelievably, I found limiting. She is secure and beautiful and strong, and I misread it all.
What I mistook for blindness was the most profound patience and ability to forgive that I have ever witnessed. I thanked her by doing every possible wrong thing, taking every possible wrong turn, learning every possible lesson the hard way -- academically, romantically, alcoholically -- almost daring her to turn away from me. She never did.
What I mistook for weakness was the kind of strength that can see a spouse through sobriety, that can go to work outside the home at 45 and retire from the school district 20 years later, that can ride a mountain bike around the village and lifeguard at 75 years old. She never ran from life's challenges, even when I thought maybe she should. She weathered each and every storm like the beacon she is, teaching me in the process the true meaning of commitment to what, and whom, you love. I thanked her by treating commitment as a disease.
What I mistook for naivete was, in fact, the kind of unquestioning faith in God, in herself and in others that I now envy. I thanked her by not believing in anything, not even myself.
I've done everything in my power to not become my mother, because I thought that was how it was supposed to be. I worked many different jobs before committing to my passion, writing. I dated many different men before deciding, at 35, that I could talk to this one over breakfast in 50 years. I had children later in life because, I thought, I would be a better mother with some life under my belt. But now, looking back -- and looking ahead -- I fear that I'll never develop the patience, the faith, the loyalty, the honesty and the strength that have become her trademarks. Everything I rebelled against is everything for which I now yearn.
This is an apology for every doubt, every silent criticism, every time I promised myself I wouldn't do that, think like that, believe that, be like that. I just didn't know then what I know now, and I just didn't understand. Now I understand, and I want nothing more than to do, think, believe and be like her.
I now look forward to the day when someone tells me I'm just like my mother. And I'm really hoping it will be her.