Friday, October 29, 2010

My Mother, My Hair, And I

I was sitting next to my 92-year-old mother while she ate lunch in the dining room of her assisted living facility.  She sat in her wheelchair smiling, pleased that I was there, while I made conversation with the three other ladies at the table.

Since her recent health troubles, my mother's English has all but deserted her, but that doesn't keep her from addressing those around her in a hybrid of English, Spanish and Catalan.  The ladies at her lunch table find her mysterious, to say the least, so they were taking advantage of my presence to get some context that would help them make sense of my mother.

I was doing my best, enunciating in case they were hard of hearing, making eye contact with each lady in turn, explaining how things were, when my mother put her hand to my hair and brushed it away from my face.

I pushed her hand away.

My mother has been pushing my hair off my face for as long as I can remember.  She has pushed the hair off her grandchildren's face.  And, if she had access to them, she would do the same to her great-grandchildren.

For this, she offers vaguely phrenological explanations about the significance of a "wide forehead," which supposedly bespeaks intelligence, nobility of character, and beauty as Aristotle conceived it.  She never did accept my protestations that intelligence and nobility of character aren't necessarily cute or sexy.  She remained adamant on the virtues of the "frente despejada," the unencumbered brow.

The only explanation I can find for this is that the movie stars of her adolescence, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner, boldly bared their desert-like expanses of forehead to the world.  But I belong to the school of Colette, who said that a face, like a fruit, needs foliage around it to set it off to advantage.

But still.  Here was my mother, 92.  Here was I, not all that much younger.  Furthermore, I was on an errand of kindness and mercy, determined to be utterly sweet and compliant and non-confrontational for the 48-hours I would spend in her presence.  And the minute her hand touched my hair--well, I didn't exactly swat it away, but the swatting feeling was there.

Why didn't I let her brush back my hair?  Why didn't I let her dazzle her tablemates with the sight of my broad and noble forehead?  Why did I deny her that microgram of happiness?

I learned in Catholic school that a sin requires an act of the will.  So I can hardly call that quasi-swat a sin--it was more a spinal reflex.  But it was a reflex born of a lifetime of daughterly opposition, rebellion, resentment.
I don't even blame myself for those, really, for without them I would never have become a person.  
But I am disappointed that, despite the years and experience that I drag behind me like those carry-on bags on wheels, I saw my mother's liver-spotted, knobby, blue-veined hand reach towards my hair, and I pushed it away.

14 comments :

  1. Eulalia, What a moving piece of writing. This is my little sin...when I visit my mother at her nursing home..she has dementia and doesn't really know who we are..conversation is almost nonexistant..I find my self checking my watch. After I leave I berate myself for being so selfish. I think it is painful to visit her and my selfish self wants to escape. We are all fighting our "baggage".Don't feel like you are the only person that has these feelings.

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  2. I found the relationship with my parents a perspective on the bellcurve. Just as our young lives expanded when they were in charge, theirs at the end goes back to the no control of an infant. But we still remember them as the strong parent and they us as the child. You were honoring her so that her new friends had some perspective on her elegance, intelligence and rich history: she was honoring you by doing the mothering response --showing that what you were saying was true: look at her first born :-) You both were loving each other as only mothers and daughters can. Her first 16 years as a Mom were full of amazing challenges and you are her proof.

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  3. Nedine, sometimes all we can do is show up....

    mrb, "the mothering response"--goodness knows we all have it, don't we?

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  4. I like MRB's comment, very well thought out. I also think that just because our parents age and weaken doesn't mean that they can't still bug the sh-t out of us. The things that they did that drove us up the wall just don't go away. Sometimes a parent's good intentions makes us feel diminished. My mother, when I was young, would poke me in the back and say "Stand Up Straight".

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  5. I read somewhere that one of the measures of true maturity is whether one has stopped wishing that one's parents would change. If that's true, I'm not there yet!

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  6. Every time I sweep the front porch, I think of my Mother ALWAYS telling me to sweep my grandmother's big porch. I think her mother always told her to do the same. I wonder how many generations have been telling the female child to sweep ;-)

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  7. I hope some male children are being told to sweep too, these days.

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  8. Lali, I just wanted to say I thought this was a beautiful story. Because as frail as your mother was, she still sees you as her child (not A child) and brushes back your hair, and you still see her as your mother, and it still irritates you, even as you want it not to affect you. I suspect your mother had a little smile at it - you're still and will always be her little girl.

    Anyway, I wanted you to know I found your story rather beautiful.

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  9. Thanks, Mali. You're right, some patterns never change.

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  10. This really hits home, Lali. There is so much I wish I had done differently with my dad -- the last interaction I had with him outside the hospital or nursing home was one filled with anger on my part and confusion on his. I will live with that memory forever.

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  11. Oh, Dona, but you were there. You were there.

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  12. because our feelings for our mother are deeply ingrained. i would have done the same thing.

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