Monday, February 15, 2010

Late Valentine

I call my mother every few days. It is unusual for me to feel angry when we speak these days. We laugh quite a lot; I ask her questions about her past and she tells me what I want to know. We are able to avoid, or at least gracefully skirt (okay, I am the graceful one, not wanting to make this waltz we are doing into a mosh pit; but still, I find it interesting that I am even concerned with being graceful in our conversations now) around, issues that often brought us, literally, to blows. I wonder if this unspoken truce is a function of age, or tolerance. Or it is love.

For as long as I can remember, girls and women have talked about their mothers to one another.

I grew up in Queens, NY amid tall brick buildings six stories each. It was the kind of urban development that seems like a small town to New York kids. Everyone in the “buildings” knew everyone else’s business, just like a small town. That wasn’t really hard to do, as most of the citizens of Windsor Park, which was the actual name for “the buildings”, seemed to live much of their lives in the open. Like one kid’s father who, having reached a point of frustration in an argument with his wife, cranked open the casement window as far as it would go, stuck his neck through it and screamed from the fourth floor to the watching world below, “I’m a schmuuck….I’m a shmuuuck!”

While these nearly daily events were amusing, they made me realize, as did the yentas on the benches who murmured to each other as anyone walked by, that we were all being watched. As the token shiksa, my family and I seemed to get more than the average attention, aside from the occasional yelling out the windows, from them. So when the girls in the neighborhood bragged about their mother’s beauty, cooking/baking talent, or general good motherliness, I held my tongue.

I held my feelings as well. My mother never seemed comfortable being a mother. Living in the fishbowl of Windsor Park didn’t help. But there was something deeper that I couldn’t fathom, but sensed, that made my mother different. I knew, without any evidence other than my gut feeling that this made me different as well.

My mother wore tight slacks with arty looking turtle necked sweaters made with loopy, multi-colored yarn. She wore white Keds with no socks and her hair hung long and loose past her shoulders.

The other mothers wore dresses (and girdles, my mother didn’t even own a bra) had shellacked hair that stood in place until it was re-arranged once a week at the beauty parlor, and pumps on their feet. They never wore sneakers. It was hard to be a young girl with a beautiful, bohemian looking mother.

Our mothers, ourselves, it was a constant theme; as I grew older women were trying to understand their female identity by looking at their mothers and their mother’s lives. Look in the mirror and find your mother yet see yourself and see how the world sees you. Those conversations in consciousness-raising about our mothers were like looking in a fun-house mirror, or rushing along a roller coaster ride, with all the attendant distortion, oscillation of emotions, and sometimes nausea, of the experience.

For all the talking I did, still do about my mother, I don’t know if I have gotten so much closer to understanding my own sense of self, of female, by examining her life. These days I look in the mirror and I am always surprised to see my mother’s face. I never expected to feel kindly toward this woman in the mirror. My mother, myself.