It was not easy growing up with my mom. She was not a happy person. She found a lot of things to criticize in this world, especially her children. When a child, I somehow grasped that I would never be able to please her. So, I concentrated on just staying out of her angry way as much as I could.
As an adult, I felt grateful that my mother had inadvertently taught me a very important lesson — not to waste time and energy trying to be a people pleaser.
I fell in love at 13 with a 15-year-old boy who made me feel beautiful, loved and wanted. Fortunately, my mother approved of him and became close friends with his mother. Seven years later, she convinced us to get married at the end of my junior year in college rather than waiting until I graduated.
I followed a predictable path as the daughter she expected until, at 25, I told my parents that we had decided to adopt a child instead of having one the old-fashioned biological way. Depriving them of a "real" grandchild was a severe blow, but the reality of their only grandson being a mixed black toddler was even harsher.
When I asked my mother why I had never known that they were racist against blacks, she admitted that she had known being racist was wrong and hadn't wanted to pass that on to her children. Confronted with a situation she couldn't change, she and my dad made a sincere effort to be grandparents.
Ten years later, I deeply disappointed them when I made the very difficult decision to divorce. My son chose to stay with his father because he was the more predictable parent. Not truly knowing where my life would lead at that point, I accepted his decision. The relationship with my mother continued to deteriorate until I was about to move to Israel as an immigrant. She couldn't bear the thought of no contact with me as I wandered the world, so our relationship slowly began to mend with phone calls and letters from exotic places.
My mother didn't understand my attraction to then-third world China that brought me there time after time. My parents came to China for their 50th wedding anniversary banquet with my Chinese students and friends. During that visit, I saw my mother as she had never been before. She was laughing, happy, oblivious to all the many discomforts of riding overcrowded trains with the wafting odor of urine, bumping along a village road on a tractor to get to my friend's home, and sleeping on beds without mattresses. My students instantly fell in love with her, and she with them. They could never have believed that she was the same grumpy, always complaining woman who had been my mother. She said it was the best trip of her life.
Years into my own adulthood, I was able to see my mother more clearly. Her yelling rants and raves were like a child's temper tantrums. And the person she was unhappiest with wasn't me, but herself. She had been a very bright young woman who graduated Portia Law School at a time when few women even thought of it. She had her first job working in a law office when World War II interrupted. She loved my father enough to quit her job and follow him to an army base in Tampa, Florida, where they got married and he awaited being shipped out to the European front. Naive about birth control, she became a mother 13 months later. She never worked again.
When she died, I found a large carton of all my letters to her and my dad carefully laid out chronologically. On top of the pile was an advertisement for a vanity press. She had passed on her love of reading and writing to me, and I eventually published two books, "Memoirs of a Middle-Aged Hummingbird" and "Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son." I am now working on a third book — philosophical science fiction — that I'm sure she would love to discuss with me.
As I pack my suitcase to go back to Boston for my 50th reunion at Simmons College, I remember something my mother told me after she returned from her reunion. When asked by a classmate what she had been doing all those years, she had replied, "I have been strictly ornamental."
I may have been the one who chose my own path in life — to go where wanderlust led me, to indulge in the joy of a multi-faceted, multi-cultural life, to be an independent woman — but I suspect my mother and her unfulfilled life subtly pushed me along that path.