Fifty years ago I was confident of my uniqueness. I had a successful career, a recently acquired graduate degree and a new and exciting man in my life. This morning in the Shop Rite parking lot as I bent over to pick up a penny, I thought, “There I go again. Just like Mom.”
As my 50th birthday stretches behind me like a late afternoon shadow, I am somewhat reluctantly acknowledging that the person I see in the mirror is turning into my distaff parent.
My mother, Mary Catherine Ryan McDowell, was from central Illinois, “downstate” if you are a Chicagoan. Lincoln was her home, a rural county seat with a central square and domed courthouse whose namesake visited repeatedly as a circuit-riding attorney. Her Irish father delivered laundry and later drove the milk truck for his brother-in-laws’ dairy. Her German mother baked the best cakes in town, and sometimes sold her angel food cakes to help satisfy some of the extra wants of her son and four daughters. My mother was the firstborn. And while I was the youngest in my family, raised in Northern New Jersey rather than the Land O’ Lincoln, it is my mother into whom I am morphing.
When she was a girl, Mom had three wishes: to become a teacher, to travel, and to own a fur coat. While she taught children in a one-room schoolhouse; I have always taught adults, but we were both teachers. She and my father met in San Francisco, and they always loved to go places; I readily yield to wanderlust. And while her coat was mink-dyed muskrat and mine is thrift-store mink, I do have something furry hanging in my closet.
My love of thrift shops is genetic, though I think that my mother’s ultimate thriftiness must have skipped a generation or at least skipped me. She may have invented the “Reduce-Recycle-Reuse” mantra, or if not, she was an expert practitioner. My friends still don’t believe that every year we carefully plucked the strands of tinsel off the Christmas tree and laid them flat in magazines to be reused the next December. And yet when I find myself fishing out my teabag so that can I steep two cups out of one, it does make me wonder. Just as well, in these economic times, that I remember those lessons.
Having grown up during the first Great Depression, Mom’s fiscal nature was hardly surprising. Nor was her small, well-used collection of Depression glass: assorted plates and dessert dishes in patterns like “Blue Bubble.” She acquired them, she told us, at the movie theater, emphasizing that in Lincoln it was called the “the-A-ter.” At a nickel a shot, it was a bargain that enhanced the daily shows. I loved eating out of these fairy tale dishes, and when I was old enough to go antiquing I started buying look-a-likes for my own kitchen. I added her pieces to mine after we lost her to ovarian cancer. Too soon, too soon.
When my sisters and I were clearing out the family home, one of the tasks was recycling her vast array of jars. A good jar had potential. It could store so many things, from buttons to leftovers. It could mix flour and water for gravy or dressing for salad. Jar labels were soaked off. Bristling clean, they were arranged by size in the cabinet under the sink. These days, in spite of a healthy supply of plastic containers, it is still hard for me to pass up a good jar. Standing at the sink, scraping away at some label, I wonder, “Why do manufacturers have to use such strong glue?”
Inheritance is Crazy Glue. Let’s face it. You might have Dr. Pretty abbreviate your nose or bolster your breasts. You might get pierced, painted or permed. It just doesn’t matter. My husband likes to say that fifty percent of the things you do, you do to spite your parents, fifty percent you do to please them, and the rest is your own free will. Even post-therapy, post-meditation, post-medication, a girl’s still going to turn into her mother.
Being able to differentiate among various maternal qualities is key. I can choose not to be a back seat driver if I really concentrate. Some days I can avoid being critical. But I can also remember that it is better to finish a book than the housework. That an outing to the grocery store can be an event. That your favorite clothes are also your most comfortable. That while aging is inevitable, whitening hair and softly lined skin, can be beautiful. That I might as well concentrate on staying active rather than the fact that the veins on my legs are starting to look like a Blue Highways road map.
I think that my mother left me a road map. While Paul Simon thought up fifty ways to leave your lover, I don’t think that you really can leave the ways you are like your mother. You just need to figure out your own routes and detours and destinations.