…Every last one us is the son or daughter of a couple of them. So choose your perspective here. I can tell my story from the only perspective I have: the singular daughter of two very specific people; the mother of two very specific sons. But like all writing, the micro or anecdotal only has meaning if it sheds light on the universal.
When I was a very unbending, recalcitrant young woman – rather sure that I was smart and even more certain that my parents were stupid – my mother would calmly say to me: “Wait until you have children.” My mother was not wishing me a dose of that which I was dishing out; she was truly incapable of that. She was advising me that then I would understand.
In later years, when she would repeatedly refer to the degree to which I had caused her worry or trouble, I would genuinely draw a blank. I’d repeat over and again, “But I was such a good girl.” I would silently list the possible directions I did not take: drugs, promiscuity, unwanted pregnancy, poor grades.
Apparently, none of that was what my mother had in mind. Inevitably, I did have children, long-delayed by my parents’ expectations and standards. And frankly, I still didn’t understand.
I gave birth; I reared infants, then toddlers; I rode out thirteen years of single motherhood to soccer games and bar mitzvah – and still I didn’t understand. Still “trouble” did not compute.
But this week, my dark-eyed baby boy (the easy one in childhood) – somehow grown to twenty-eight, now lean and long – is offering me the dawning awareness of exactly what my mother had in mind. I am now on the ride of a lifetime – what my mother knew in her “stupidity.” It was then (and it is now) the child who clung hardest to his mother’s perfection – kicking, with everything he’s got, to build distance.
It is mean-spirited, rude, and heartless in ways than any witness would attest to on a stack of bibles. Yet he sees himself (as I most certainly did back then) as faultless. He has graduated college with glowing recommendations from adoring professors who praise his willingness to help without recompense, his unselfish humility, his creativity, ingenuity, sheer intelligence, and promise. He put himself through college working minimum wage jobs in New York City; he graduated magna cum laude.
But this week alone, my son in a wonderful and rare visit during which we shared long walks and deep conversation about literature, told me, “You don’t do anything,” and in the next breath, “Your psychology is meaningless.”
I suffered his refusal to share a thing with me one moment (icy silence and no eye contact) and to share his very heart in the next.
And after I’d made him a week’s worth of his favorite breakfasts and dinners: “You can get your own glass of water.” (He returned with only one for himself.)
I well recall a story that I’d heard many years ago about a tribal rite-of-passage somewhere in Africa. When the young boy was leaving the village with the men who would initiate him into manhood, there was a ritual. It went like this.
“Son,” the mother asked, standing in her doorway, “would you bring me a cup of water?” Her dutiful son went to the spring, scooped the cup of water, returned to the doorway of his home – and threw the cup of water in his mother's face.
This week, my easy son did what he had to do. I wonder whether it took him this long to stir in me that awful pain of reaction – or has it taken me this long to realize that my mother’s prognostication was on the money.
Mom, I finally understand.