Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Picturing Mom

Black and white photograph, baby and mother, highway overlook, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, circa 1977. Both are looking straight into the camera, mom with a proud, protective smile, baby with a curious half-smile and one arm clinging possessively to mom's shoulder.

Color photograph, baby and mother, mountain pass with snow, Col du Bonhomme, France, February 2008. Mom's smile is wide and proud as baby looks at her sidelong, skeptical. It is the first time he has seen snow, and from his vantage point in her arms and bundled up in his snowsuit, he isn't sure what to make of it.

Two pictures, thirty years apart, and I am the union that connects them. I'm the baby in one, the mom in the other, and I took a giant leap in between. The gulf once seemed so impassable that now the obvious similarity of the two images hits me like an electric shock.

Many have told me that when you become a parent, you finally learn to appreciate your own parents. White nights, messy mealtimes, crazy infant antics that are rumored to have once been your own, all that brings understanding and gratitude. Right? Well, just as le Petit's birth didn't turn me into a full-fledged, in-my-heart-of-hearts-I-know-I-can-do-it Mom overnight (did I just say that out loud?), seeing my own mom differently since le Petit came along has taken me time.

And the thirty-one years gone by has given my mom plenty of time to fit herself with rose-colored glasses. As she recalls, I never slept as badly as le Petit did at the beginning, and I wasn't nearly as headstrong as he can be, either. I had neither his vocal cords nor his determination to make his opinion heard. So I assumed at the beginning that she had had things comparatively easy, at least up until my teenage rebellion (and if you ask me, even that was mild).

Yet when I compare the photos and I see our two smiles which hold the same love, I cannot deny that our journey is in the most important ways the same. Episodes from my childhood make sense as they never did before.

In another snapshot, my mom is crouched at kid-level just beyond the front door of our house, a basket in her hand. It is May Day, and I have been crying because my six-year-old self does not understand why, after delivering hand-picked flowers to the entire neighborhood, no one has brought me any. So my mother has gathered a bouquet of the best flowers in the garden to console me. She tries to hide unsuccessfully after ringing the doorbell, and my crying redoubles as I discover that the flowers are just from Mom.

I see now that that is so much of being a mom, trying so hard to make your children's life right and to soften the transition into the hard, real world. Le Petit is small enough now that I can make most things right with a cuddle, but that will not last. Soon the best I will be able to offer him will be a consolation prize.

What I see now that I couldn't see then is that that consolation prize is in fact the richest gift. It is the knowledge that Mom was there for me, whatever else the world threw at me. I could count on her, so I could take her for granted. Now I know how she must have felt when I skinned my first knee as a toddler or came home with my first heartbreak in junior high, when nothing she said or did seemed to make anything better.

I also know that that helplessness comes from a joy so intense that it sometimes spills over into sadness. I feel it now when I nurse le Petit back to sleep in the middle of the night when he wakes up from a nightmare. She must feel it now when we say goodbye at the curbside of an airport on the other side of an ocean. It is the price of the faith we muster to send our children out into the world.

So for Mothers Day this year, rather than flowers or a card, I humbly offer my mom a "Yes, I finally understand."

1 comment:

squidburg said...

That was beautiful.