For the past six years, I have spent more time with my mother than in all of my adulthood. I lived in New York City for fourteen years, and sure, there were visits back and forth, but I was busy chasing my dreams, my mother was busy being a wife, and she’s got four other children, and grandchildren, so one-on-one time with her has always been rare. When my father died five years ago, each one of us kids has been trying to make up for lost “mom time” in our own way.
Many of our solid mother-daughter moments have happened in Sointula, on Malcolm Island, B.C., where my parents bought waterfront property over fifteen years ago.
Here, troubles melt like lemon drops. My mother and I have not always had the easiest relationship, but when it’s just the two of us, and we’re there in Sointula by the sea, we’re good.
Sointula is where we have sat on her balcony and gazed at the horizon until our sorrows were pulled from us and diffused across the ocean;
it’s where we’ve cruised down logging roads, singing along to Neil Diamond songs;
it’s where I’ve had years of quality time with her that nobody can ever take away from me – and I will always treasure it.
I recently lamented that I’ve never seen a photo of myself as a baby being held by my mother. She’s assured me that one exists somewhere, but it feels strange not to have one in my possession. I told her that I feel like the famous experiment with the laboratory monkeys, in which one was hugged and held, but the one that wasn’t went crazy. I see myself in photos as an adult desperately trying to get that mother love in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
When I’m feeling sorry for myself like this, I think back on those times when she was there for me, even when I didn’t want her to be. Like the time I was at a high school party, drunk and making out with a guy, and out of nowhere, my mother magically appeared like a disapproving super hero, yanked me by my arm and told me to get into the car.
Or the year when she drove me to acting classes at a professional studio in Sacramento because she could see that it was my passion.
Or, after years of fighting with her about my punk rock outfits and bad attitude, the moment she dropped me off at my dormitory room at San Francisco State University, I instantly missed her.
I remember holding the paisley tam and the baby gorilla stuffie that she had gifted me, and sobbing for my mummy. I racked up a considerable phone bill during my freshman year of college making “mom/shrink calls” whenever I needed her advice, which was often.
She eventually pulled me out of S.F. State while I was acting in “The Place Where the Mammals Die”. I was very ill with mono, but I was playing a homeless person named Rusty, so this lent my character considerable authenticity. After each scene, I’d walk offstage in blackout and throw up in a garbage bin. My mother literally had to drag me to her car while I whimpered, “The show must go on! The show must go on!” On the drive home to Sacramento, she shut me up with, “Bullshit! Your director can play your part!” She nursed me for that entire summer, when bedridden for three months, all I could move was my pinky.
Like most mothers, my mom is sacrificial. I remember a breakfast for dinner when there weren’t enough pancakes to go around, so my mother gave up her one goddamn pancake. During tough times, I saw my mother go hungry more than once.
My mom’s been a mom without her mom around for nearly thirty years. She’s been a mom without her dad around for double that time. He was killed building the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Bridge when she was only sixteen.
And she lost her older sister, my Aunt Ellen, to ovarian cancer when Ellen was a young mother of two little boys.
My mother is a survivor.
I do this thing where I like to time travel and climb inside my mother’s skin back in the 1970s. By some great miracle, we were clothed, we were fed, and even when it wasn’t the best choice, we were reunited with our father after they had separated (more than once). I look at old photos of that young mother, and I have such compassion for her. And a very deep admiration. How dare I demand perfection from that young woman, who, like all of us, was beautifully, imperfectly human.
For all those times when I’ve felt emotionally abandoned by her, I picture her trying to be strong and mother five children during a time when feminism was just puncturing the ceiling, and wives were still expected to be subservient to their husbands. I imagine her looking down the rabbit hole of her limited options, and how the demands of being a wife fractured her mothering energy into endless prisms, pulling her every which way.
She’s not going to want me to say this, but she put up with some shit, and a lot of it, from my father. We all did. There was love there, yes, but watching him take her for granted so many times from the vantage point of the second oldest child wasn’t easy.
My mother is a survivor.
On this Mother’s Day, I am nostalgic for those years that have escaped us, and fallen through life’s sieve like tiny rice granules, scattered and irretrievable. But I am also incredibly grateful that we have been blessed with more time, and I think that we’ve squeezed in a lot of memories that we can take with us in the years ahead.
I love my mother more than anyone. We’ve critically wounded each other during some awful battles, but our love for each other has crawled from the wreckage time and again. It has endured.
By now, I know well that the axis on which my mother and I spin and butt heads because of our differences is precisely the same point where we are so very much alike.