What a Mother

Within the pantheon of idyllic perfection looms a lofty figure, one who overshadows beloved English professors, high school football coaches and even Oprah: O Paragon of Grace and Beauty, thy name is Mother.

For those of us who have lost our mothers, Mother’s Day takes on a different meaning forever afterward. We learn to celebrate favorite aunts or grandmothers, female friends who have become mom-like, or perhaps we are the ones fêted by our children as we make our own families. Silently in the background, we pause to remember our own mothers, dreaming of what we might be doing with her if she were still alive.

This has been my experience for the last twenty-three years. On Monday, when everyone comes to work with stories of Mother’s Day, I’ll feel an echo of longing and a lack of tales to reciprocate. I will delight vicariously in my co-workers’ exchanges, predictably colored by festive brunches and family reunions, remembering what it felt like to bask in the love of my mother. Having a mom means that you’ve planted a flag in someone’s territory for life. It’s a hard habit to break.

Some will tell stories about tradition or small rituals they perform each year, like a family walk at Green Lake. I will envision them presenting bouquets of flowers and dining out at favorite restaurants, making memories over quiche. They will talk about visits to mom’s house in Leschi or Tacoma or Mount Vernon, or an afternoon at the assisted living facility because mom is unable to drive. Even in the latter cases, I will be happy-envious. In these stories, there is still a mother to be hugged and loved, even if her vitality is diminished.

When your mother dies at a young age, meaning that you are young as well, you naturally collect mother figures throughout your life, though the replacement roles are hazier. You don’t hold these women to the same standards, a phenomenon that goes both ways. While this means that you’ll never find someone who fills her shoes, it also means that you won’t judge them by the same rigorous standards and expectations that you held for your mother. No one can can replace the woman who raised you; in the same moment you complain about one thing, you’ll defend her because she is, after all, your mom. She wins at all contests, whether for the most loving or crazy or judgmental. Don’t try to convince someone that her mother isn’t 100% at the top of her game, no matter what it is.

If nothing else, we are creatures who learn from infancy a single version of how life and love should be; imprinting is inescapable. If our mothers made cinnamon toast on Sunday mornings, then we will find ourselves inexplicably comforted when our Airbnb hostess in Boston offers us cinnamon toast, even at age 40. Cinnamon toast means safety. Yet, while someone else’s cinnamon toast may be tasty, it’s not the same as we remember it. Our mother’s cinnamon toast was just a little better because she used real butter rather than the heart-healthy kind. The impostor-toast is not perfect.

In eastern traditions, this phenomenon is called samskara, a pre-conceived impression. We cling to certain ideas, forming memories that sink from the conscious into the unconscious, becoming embedded in our subliminal mind. These ideas pass from our active thoughts into a background data loop that informs our actions in the present without us realizing it. When we crave affection, we may hunger for a piece of cinnamon toast, then think of our mother, concluding that it would be nice if she were there. We taste the sweetness of the bread, conjure the sense of her love and appreciate from afar how kind she was to make us something to eat before she tended to her own hunger. We play this tape over and over again, never fully sated by someone else performing the same act. With every replay, mom’s cinnamon toast –and mom herself– becomes more of an impossible ideal.

Our lives are embedded with these samskaras; they are our conditioning. The more we repeat them, the deeper the grooves we carve. Every year that our mother is no longer there to make cinnamon toast, the more we crave it, the more delicious it becomes in our memory, the more we try to make the same toast ourselves — and ultimately fail because her toast was perfect, and now, quite impossible to duplicate. This is true of our first loves, our childhood best friends — the firsts of all things. How can what we receive from others ever be enough if it doesn’t match the impact of these samskara-setting experiences? Can we ever be loved, then, if we don’t allow anyone else to measure up — or change our definition of the ultimate ideal?

The key to samskaras is that it’s possible to break them, as well as make new ones. While on one level, samskaras represent order (itself, not a bad thing), the ability to regularly shift our patterns, expectations and habits into a state of constant self-renewal presents the possibility for a dynamic version of samskaras. Busting through our calcified beliefs takes intentional work, to be sure, but anyone who has heard her Gloria Gaynor anthem play after a bad break-up knows it’s possible. After dislodging the scar tissue of entrenched patterns, we feel exhilarated and fluid — anything is possible. Changing our physical and mental patterns is as scary as it is empowering (if I let go of what I believe, do I lose myself?); as creatures of habit, we don’t do it as often as we should.

Thus, the perfection principle conferred on all things Mother.

In my memory, my mom will forever be frozen in her mid-40s. As I near this age, I’ve come to suspect that she wasn’t so perfect –in fact, I’m realizing that she was terribly imperfect– a conclusion previously off-limits. The problem with people dying, especially when they die young, is that we martyr them. Multiply this a thousand times when it’s your mother, who started off as perfect to begin with. The notion that my mother wasn’t always logical in her decision-making, or that she lacked vigilance, was impossible for most of my life. A person doesn’t go there, especially not on Mother’s Day.

The ideal of my perfect mother is a samskara as deep as my entire being. Looking back over the past four years of essays, not only in this blog, but pieces that I’ve submitted for publication, I witness myself supporting this notion over and over again. The gaping groove of my devotion has become a bottomless crevasse, fueling my writing into increasingly more intense and personal chasms as I try to understand why such a perfect person would end up in less than perfect circumstances. No wonder these works haven’t been picked up (and thanks to my readers for bearing with me.)

Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” Just a year ago, I would have insisted the same of these essays about my mother — and I would have been wrong. I wasn’t writing to understand what I thought, or even to suss out my own life choices, but to prove a faulty hypothesis that my world view depended on. It turns out, my mother was not perfect. She was also not a victim of things that happened to her, like I wanted to believe, but decidedly imperfect in her choices that brought about those events. She was funny and kind and rebellious, yet she was also uninformed, fearful and inhibited. She didn’t always make the best choices despite her intelligence. In the end, she was as fallible in her life decisions as, say, me. Or any of us.

It was shocking to realize this and have the world not end. It was just as surprising –cleansing, even– to let myself feel frustrated with her shortcomings yet discover that I could still love her and hold her in esteem. Imagine: it’s possible to look up to a person –a mother, no less– who isn’t perfect.

When a parent dies in your youth, a common coping mechanism is to become a control freak. Your samskara reasons that, if you can play dungeon master in your own make-believe fiefdom, things will be okay. If you were already a high-strung type-A control freak –a samskara learned from your parents, say– you will take this trait to a new level if your mother dies. Your life goals become perfection (there’s that word again), order and control, so that you will not be surprised by unforeseen events again — or, if you are, you will have established and pre-positioned every needed resource at the ready.

The worst thing for people like us is to not be in control. We don’t wish to dominate for the sake of power, rather we don’t want to be let down [again.] The price of devastation is too high to entrust our hearts or livelihoods to anyone else. The only way to safeguard oneself is to be at the top of the tower, always. Other sentries will miss the tiny movements that our eagle eyes detect out there in the dark; our lazy-eyed compatriots will fall asleep and let the raiders invade the village. To survive, we must execute all tasks ourselves. We must be perfect. Above all, we cannot trust others. Trust leaves us open and vulnerable, and vulnerable means fallible, penetrable, weak. Vulnerable is the feeling of the earth liquifying beneath your feet before the landslide smothers you all the way down the hill.

This idea, too, is a samskara from childhood, only I didn’t inherit it, exactly; I set down the grooves myself. My mother was perfect, so I should be perfect, too. She died, so I should be even more perfect in her place. The problem is, as a writer, if I am to explain her decidedly imperfect life, I must either reveal her personal imperfections (impossible – she has none!) or make her more perfect so as to distance her from the events that befell her. Watch as my mother becomes inert and, frankly, not very interesting… and I, in my quest for perfection, become the same.

After reading through my essays about her, and the many rejection letters that accompany them, I now see a need to understand her as a whole person, if I am ever to write about her convincingly. Just as writers should never write to settle scores, we should quit trying to preserve memories of people as they never were.

Maybe Joan Didion would correct me here and say that all this writing about my so-called perfect mother has helped me figure out what I’m thinking, but I think it’s the opposite. Writing about her over and over has actually deepened the groove, allowed me to mine the depths of the samskara that insists that the only way I can love my mother is to insist upon her lily-white transcendence. This deep-set belief restricts me as an artist as much as a daughter.

No one is all good or all bad –at least, not people who make interesting characters– and she certainly has potential if I let the light of reality shine. With distance and age, perhaps I can allow her character enough space on the page to inhabit more of who she really was: a woman as emotionally complex as the rest of us, and for her complexity, that much more compelling.

This Mother’s Day, I will break the samskara in which I relegate my mother to the blameless, snow-white Virgin Queen, and instead forge a new habit: I will recall her many facets –caring, affectionate, silly, a good dancer– and above all, love her for everything she didn’t get right. In the name of coming clean, I might even confess a secret: in spite of her Italian heritage, she was an awful cook. Her salmon was as dry as the Sahara desert, her liver and onions as desiccated as salt-packed eel. I used to beg her for a plate of plain ground beef with salt and pepper just to avoid whatever new concoction she was trying.

Or, on second thought, maybe I’ll save this for the book.

mom grad

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