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Distance—a Mother and Child Reunion

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You hum along with Ray Charles, happy to be on the highway driving your good car. You are going home, the one place in the world where you can measure the true distance between the woman you are now and the child you used to be. The wider the gap, the better, you think, and grin at yourself in the rearview mirror.

The afternoon is cool and breezy, promising a chilly night. Perfect for sleeping beneath the red comforter in your old room with its view of the woods. Going home always requires an act of bravery on your part, so you have brought along your journal for reinforcement. It does not have a key like your first diary when you were six. You have graduated to leather binding and gilt-edged pages with narrow lines. You also have, you remind yourself, a home of your own many hours to the south. With a man who loves you.

Hour after hour you follow sheeplike in your lane. You smile, thinking of the time you shot the tin can off the log with your older brother’s muzzle-loading rifle, remembering his look of admiration and dismay. With one pull of the trigger, you changed from an inconsequential nobody into a person with possibilities. From that moment on, he circled you, cautious as a snake charmer.

Your mother will be waiting, wearing pantyhose and good, sensible shoes. She will have had her white hair washed and set earlier in the day and will smell of “Ma Griffe,” which your father brought back from safari in 1967. She has never liked the scent, but she will use it until it’s gone in memory of him, for at heart she’s a Scot who refrigerates bits of leftover meatloaf for the next day’s lunch.

The dog hears your car and greets you with an old hound’s wheeze.                         

“Here you are at last,” says your mother, reaching up to embrace you. Her brittle body trembles like that of a twisted, fragile bird. Dismayed, you wonder if this is how you will be in twenty-five years.

Fresh flowers grace the dining room table, set for two on starched, embroidered placemats. The casserole has been ready since five, and you are late as usual. Your mother’s mouth has resumed its familiar look of reproach, as if a drawstring has tightened around the edges.

“Do we have time for a drink?” you risk. “Can I make you one?”

“Just a small one, light on the gin,” your mother says. You sit beside her on the screened-in porch overlooking the stream below, the stretch of green meadow beyond, listening with one ear to the chittering of house finches at the feeder, to the whisper of wind in the old oaks and sycamores. With the other you hear of the death of your mother’s friend, the first violinist with the symphony; of the trespassers whom Sonny, the caretaker, recently chased from the woods; of the incompetent who brought both grand pianos into tune—but not with each other. You realize your elder brother was wrong about your metamorphosis. You and all that matters to you remain inconsequential to your mother, who makes no inquiries about your life.

The next day she plays “Meditation” by Fauré, a lovely, haunting theme that tugs at your heart.

“You could have been a fine pianist if you had stuck with it,” she says, sliding the top down over the keys. It’s as close to a compliment as you will ever receive in this house. The old rage rises within you, and you want to protest but I did become a fine professor of English after graduate school, which unlike your sons, I paid for myself. But you swallow your resentment. This is, after all, your mother, a widow with degenerating macula and a disintegrating spine. She can no longer drive, doesn’t know there are smudges on her crystal goblets, can’t see that the old dog has urine-stained the hooked rugs.

While she naps, you wander through the house, so familiar yet so alien. Here is your mother’s sitting room with a small fireplace, the room where your attorney father once explained to you that it is not in the nature of men to be monogamous.

Here’s the playroom, site of many a rowdy ping-pong tournament. “Must you always win?” your mother once chided. “Be a lady and let the boys win once in awhile.” To you who grew up with three brothers, the advice still makes no sense.

You go for a walk down the long drive, willing the hours to pass until you can call your husband. You need to hear your own voice in real-life context, eager for reassurance that the girl your mother perceives is not the woman who will return to him the day after tomorrow.

That night, as a cold front sweeps across Ohio, you shift restlessly in your narrow bed and search the shadows for the comfort of the familiar: the dresser in the corner where you once scented your bras and panties with perfumed inserts torn from Mademoiselle; the bookshelves on which could be found Caddie Woodlawn, The Secret Garden, and all the Nancy Drew mysteries.  Now the dresser drawers are filled with bank statements, canceled checks, and a collection of sympathy cards left over from your father’s death in 1986. The bookshelves hold stacks of old National Geographics and Better Homes & Gardens. Your schoolmaster’s desk is gone, and with it twelve love letters from Bobby Doran hidden in a secret compartment since your sixteenth summer. Not a single trace of you remains in this room that you occupied for eighteen years, including your teenage journals that you neglected to rescue before the purging began.

When the time for departure arrives, your goodbyes are, as always, awkward. “Call me when you get there,” your mother says, pulling your coat collar up around your neck. “So I don’t have to worry.” Unspoken but heard are the words, as usual.

You kiss her on the cheek and hug her carefully, wondering if the last two days have exhausted her as much as they have you. Wondering if this will be the last time you make this journey.

A sprinkling of snow has fallen during the night, and as you point your car toward Georgia, your head spins with winter images—of sledding down the “Old Road” at the back of your parents’ property, of family breakfasts at the picnic table down in the snow-filled woods, of Christmas carols with neighbors gathered around your mother’s piano. An opulent childhood impoverished for want of unconditional love.

Why? you ask yourself for the thousandth time, but you know why. Because the choices you have made are very different from her own. And to your mother, whose happy homemaker persona has served as both a mask and her life work, this feels like rejection of all that she has valued.

You are washed by sadness for her—but only at a remove. For that distance is your mother’s legacy. 

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  • karen elshout February 26, 2014 at 10:47 am

    Wow! this essay resonates for me. I, too, struggle with the relationship I have with my mother. You’d think at some point you could bridge the gap.
    The only solace, perhaps, is that it may be more universal than I think.

  • Toni Hill February 23, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    this story touches the heart of many of us who’s mother we love but will never truly be accepted for the accomplishments we have achieved in life.I guess the odd saying is true : you can pick your friends but you cant pick your family. So we just love them because without them we would not even be here.

  • B. Elliott February 23, 2014 at 8:45 am

    I have tears in my eyes. This is the most beautifully written essay I have read in a very long time.