It doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago (It was) that I sat across the counter from my mother, her elbows propped up on the blue Formica of her kitchen while I laid bare the troubles and worries of my pubescent heart. I can’t remember any one specific conversation, (I’m sure they were all riveting and incredibly important) but I do remember that she was there whenever I needed someone to listen, willing to give me her eyes and her focus and most of all, her time.
I never thought about what that time meant to her. I didn’t think about what she might be sacrificing, what dreams or pursuits she might not be pursuing. I didn’t think about the sleep she wasn’t getting or the books she wasn’t reading or the conversations she wasn’t having.
Of course I didn’t think of those things. My head was too full of teenage boyfriends and friendships and swim meets and SAT scores and all the general injustices that accompany adolescence. My head was too full of my own future to spare anyone else a thought.
But now my future has landed me here. In my own mother’s shoes with a house full of children, the oldest starting high school in just a few months, the next two on the brink of those critical teenage years. Suddenly, I am on the other side of the counter at 11:47 PM when my eyes are screaming for sleep and my husband is drifting off and I haven’t had a conversation with him since 1963 and if I could just say hello . . . But there are still bills to pay and emails to answer and laundry to fold and there’s my daughter on the stairs, still awake because she just needs to talk. (SHE. JUST. NEEDS. TO. TALK. At Midnight. When everyone else is sleeping. And there is an early appointment that means everyone even the three year old needs to be out of bed in six hours. Wearing something besides pajamas.)
So we talk. For however long it takes (FOREVER) and with whatever words are necessary. (Have you tried…? Have you thought about…? Those feelings are real… I understand… I hear you… I hear you… I hear you…)
I channel my mother in those moments. My mother, and God, because heaven knows I don’t have enough patience to handle them on my own. The brutal honest truth is that sometimes I have dig deep – DEEEEEEP – inside myself to find those “Let’s talk about it” words. Because I don’t want to talk about anything. Really I just want to take a shower by myself without anybody knocking on the door and telling me they need their blue jeans dry before the morning and also did I write them that check they asked for because the field trip is tomorrow and they will not be allowed on the bus if they don’t have the check IN THEIR HAND and can I just bring the checkbook to you right now and you can write it for me real quick? Here’s a pen. And a towel so you can dry your hand.
How didn’t I see? How didn’t I realize how tired my mother was?
I didn’t sit down to write a tribute to my mother, though she most certainly deserves one. I didn’t even really sit down to complain, though I’ve managed to do a fair bit of that. I suppose I’m just reflecting on the funny way life brings us full circle, turning us around so we see things from one side, and then the other.
Because, now I see both sides. I know how much my mother’s listening meant to me because I lived it. And I’ve got that knowledge to go on when it absolutely isn’t humanly possible for me to listen/help/comfort one more time. Maybe ever again if I don’t just get some sleep. When I am JUST DONE, I recognize that surely my mother had those moments too. And she survived.
There’s a phrase my mother used to say that never held a shred of meaning for me in the moment.
“If there’s a war in the middle east,” she would say, “you children would find a way to make it my fault.” When that sentiment is echoing around in my brain, (because yes, Mom, my kids do the same thing to me) I wish I could pull my children clean through to my side, fast forward them into adulthood so they could SEE the injustice of being blamed for so many things. (My shoe is lost. My homework is ruined. I don’t like this dinner. My uniform is dirty.) Somehow though, I don’t think the lesson would be quite the same if the learning happened that way– All look, and no live. I don’t really think it would stick.
Instead, we’re left to push through our own experiences, collecting wisdom like tiny grains of sand, hoping one day they might add up to something big enough to hold in our hands. I realize now I shouldn’t be all that surprised if, in a few more years, I recognize that whatever wisdom I’m holding in my hands looks an awful lot like what my mother is holding in hers.