I couldn’t appreciate it until now
Our mother’s words are on repeat in our heads
At least they are if we were lucky enough to have mothers, or mother figures, who nurtured and nagged and niggled at us through our formative years. Mom’s admonitions pop up at the drop of an unconscious trigger: while getting dressed, for instance, and discovering a hole in your underwear.
“What if you get in a car crash?” says Mom, who may be thousands of miles away or have moved on to another plane of existence entirely. Your adult self thinks it’s silly, but Mom’s words have deeply embedded the possible shame of having your tattered unmentionables discovered by emergency room personnel. You discard the ragged undies in favor of a more presentable pair.
Or, you’re with your own offspring or perhaps grandchild, who is at the moment slack-jawed in front of a video game. “Close your mouth,” you say, “Or the flies will get in.” The kid darts you a quizzical look, as though someone else has just spoken from your mouth.
The kid is correct. The voice may be yours, but the words are your mother’s.
Mom’s immortal epithets tend to make us roll our eyes. That’s why there are T-shirts emblazoned with quips like, “Sometimes I open my mouth and my mother comes out.”
Still, some Mom pronouncements were pearls
It’s taken me years — decades — to sift the gems from the dross among my mothers’ repeated aphorisms. Some of those were verbal steering mechanisms, just meant to get the family show on the road (Do you have your sweater? You’ll want it later). Some were weary responses to our unrelenting demands (You can’t starve to death before dinner). Others, harder to parse but familiar as aural wallpaper, were undoubtedly passed down from Grandma (Fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places). And some, once recognized, needed to be discarded (It hurts to be beautiful).
Now, as my own children drift closer to middle age and I negotiate the tricky journey of aging in a youth-obsessed culture, I find one of my mother’s mottos coming back to me, gleaming through the detritus of the past like a gold nugget among creekbed pebbles.
I heard her say it often, more so than my sisters, I’m sure. That’s because I was a surprise baby, born twelve years after my oldest sister, seven years after my middle sister, and three months before my mother’s fortieth birthday.
For my mother, shepherding the third kid through infancy, toddlerhood, and grade school — passages she’d already been through twice with my sisters and certainly thought she was done with — sharpened the contrast between her and the other moms at the bus stop or the PTA meetings. That might explain why she rarely attended; she told me she “wasn’t much of a joiner.”
Back in the Baby Boom days, going postpartum past your mid-thirties wasn’t as common as it is now. I did sometimes wonder, vaguely, why my friends’ moms seemed to have more energy for things like running Girl Scout troops or having further babies, but being a kid, I didn’t think much of it.
Besides, being the baby of the family came with nice perks: a patient, veteran mother, and two sisters who were (mostly) happy to step in and coddle or entertain me when Mom was too busy or exhausted. Looking back, however, and regarding my gentle, shy, sensitive mother from an adult perspective, I can see that my arrival wasn’t exactly easy on her.
For a woman who yearned more than anything to simply blend in, having a body that literally stuck out for months and then being the oldest mom in the maternity ward, the doctor’s office, and at parent conferences must have been a challenge.
As I grew up, something in my mother shifted
It may have had a lot to do with my finally being old enough to have conversations with her that went beyond the mostly transactional exchanges that a kid has with their mom. It certainly had to do with my mother finally finding an interesting job where she was highly valued. It helped that she began to do things regardless, and sometimes in defiance of, my father’s opinion: buy herself a car, take her three girls on an airplane trip to Disneyland.
Mom was coming into her own. Her new independence was not lost on me, and I sometimes asked her if there were things she wanted to do that she hadn’t been able to do when she was younger. At those moments, she would give me a wise smile and repeat a line from the show Funny Girl:
I don’t want to be young again. I did that already.
Hearing that at fifteen or eighteen or twenty-five, I’d shrug internally and recognize the subject was closed. At those points in my life, I couldn’t appreciate the distinction between resignation and acceptance.
But I sure do now. What my mother understood, and that has taken me until now to figure out, is that one of the most difficult yet valuable lessons of aging is learning what to claim for yourself and what to let go of. It’s a continual process, something like a snake repeatedly wriggling out of the constriction of a skin that no longer fits.
Growing older means releasing former versions of yourself, over and over. We don’t get to choose whether or not to change with the years, but we can choose whether to meet the process with resistance, resentment, and regret — or with grace. As my mother understood, aging gracefully means living your life fully within your current skin while accepting that the shapes your life once took no longer fit you. They are to be resigned to where they belong, in the past.
And part of this means acknowledging when you’ve had your turn. You were young, once. You had all the gifts and illusions of a young person. You may relish or recoil at the memories of yourself at previous points in your life, but that’s not who you are now. You did that already.
I spent the weekend at a women’s retreat
With the exception of one woman’s adult daughter who had accompanied her, all of us who attended were of an age. Some had physical limitations. Some were dealing with deep losses or life-altering challenges. All of us knew what it’s like when life holds your feet to the fire.
They did yoga, they danced, they laughed, they made art, they wore clothing and jewelry that made them feel adorned and celebrated while also feeling comfortable and good. Their knees might have creaked but they moved with an assurance that only comes with having lived in the same, continually changing body for enough decades.
None of them were clinging to past versions of themselves. They did that already. After two years of Covid depriving us of such gatherings, it was good to be among such a sage, joyful, and sometimes downright raucous group.
I’d love to thank my mother for leaving me her motto
It’s many years too late to do so in person. Mom died in 2009, six days shy of her 96th birthday, but I’m grateful to her beyond words — for many, many things, but specifically for this: for knowing when enough’s enough, when it’s time to discard one phase in favor of welcoming the next one.
I hope these are the words I remember on my deathbed. When the time comes, I hope I can offer up unconditional gratitude for every single day and experience of my little, unremarkable, unrepeatable, and undeniably precious life. And then, let it go.
I did that already.