“This aging thing is getting out of hand.”
My mom, who will soon reach a victorious milestone birthday, uttered that comment during a recent phone chat. We both snickered. That’s our pattern; we sigh and chuckle about the way existential angst seeps into the laundry load of daily life.
I imagine when you reach an age when you can claim three children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild (so far), you have probably seen it all. The time and place of my mother’s birth alone seems like a set-up for a compelling movie, or a chapter out of Angela’s Ashes. She was born during the thick of the Great Depression, in a Brooklyn apartment overlooking the “el train.” She landed as the youngest of six and has mentioned to me several times, “I never had my own bed.”
This year, I searched her birth address on Google Street View. The elevated tracks are still there and still throwing shade on the plain brick facade. However, in the shot the building’s front door is blocked by a banged-up delivery truck. The picture was snapped and uploaded at an unfortunate moment.
Just as we can’t control the timing of so many things, we can’t tinker much with how we’re pre-wired. My mom grew up to be a gentle, somewhat shy soul, and I believe her sensitivities enhance her dearness. No rumbling Brooklyn el train could ever drown out her superpower — the love she has for her offspring. It is mighty and fierce, a constant flame glowing behind her cape of tenderness. I once let her know, on a birthday card, that because of her, there has never been a day in my life I didn’t feel loved. This is how you nail parenthood. Plain and simple.
People today get all yell-y about what it means to be a mom; how to do it right. We’re all looking over our shoulders, bouncing frantically between feeling almost OK and anxious. We second-guess our career/no career/winging it choices. I don’t think there’s one correct answer, but I do know what my mother taught me by example: You show up. You show up by listening. By tip-toe. By telephone. By mail. By Skype. By Amtrak. You find your own way to let your children know that with every breath you’re rooting for them, worrying about them, hoping and dreaming and praying for them.
In my mom’s case, not one small or large struggle, not one celebration of others is ever forgotten. Extended family members are included in her heart. She’s the human Facebook reminder of our clan. “Oh, today is Rebecca’s/Michelle’s/Nancy’s birthday!”
But my mom’s focus goes way beyond her steel trap mental calendar. Now that her children and grandchildren are adults scattered across time zones, she quietly tracks all of us. She has an internal Doppler radar set to monitor our well-being. Is she over the fever? Did he get that internship? Was your flight smooth? (My brother and cousin climbed Mount Kilimanjaro a few years ago; we decided to inform her after the fact. “Why haven’t they emailed this week?” “Mom, maybe they’re on a safari. Bad wifi, I guess.”)
When my mother is not sending her dearies notes and packages, or keeping a sharp eye on this nutty world with equal parts curiosity and worry, she defaults to everyday sweetness. Lately, she fusses over her fourth child, a Norfolk pine. She bought it at a grocery store maybe seven years ago. It was a little thing that fit in the shopping cart toddler seat. Now the “houseplant” scratches the ceiling. It dominates her living room, except in the summer. With help, she hauls it to the front porch. “It likes the warm outdoors.” No wonder both my brothers grew to be 6-foot-6.
Just a few weeks ago, probably after reading about Queen Elizabeth’s descendants, my mom said out of the blue, “Imagine being born into a royal family?” I don’t have to. I believe there’s a street in Brooklyn, one with a rattling el train, that’s the birthplace of a gentle American queen.
Denise Snodell writes alternate weeks. Reach her at email@example.com. On Twitter: @DeniseSnodell