By Vivian Maguire
My mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her.
“Wow, your mother was really on a roll today,” my husband said as we unpacked the containers of food my mother had sent us home with. I knew exactly what he was referring to; my mother had been full of opinions during our holiday lunch. “Is this all the girls are wearing?” she said as she rubbed the fabric of my daughters’ sweaters between her fingers. She squeezed my six-year-old’s hands between her own, “They’re freezing!” she said. Then my younger daughter committed the ultimate betrayal and coughed. My mother’s hands moved to her hips, her eyes saying loudly, “You see?”
Before we sat down at my mother’s table my mom ran her hand down the front of my dress. “Is this lump from the dress or your tummy? You need to do some crunches. Let me show you.” During our meal, my mother pressed me to eat more, forgetful of her earlier comments about my stomach. After we ate, my mother stuffed spoonfuls of food into plastic containers and sandwich bags despite my protests. “That’s more food than we could eat in a week Mom! Honestly, I can’t eat all of that.” I reminded my mother that I hadn’t had much of an appetite lately. She paused momentarily before reaching into her cabinet and withdrawing a suspicious-looking bag of herbs that she pushed into my purse. “This is yerba buena, it will make you feel better. Do you need a tea ball? You can steep these with a small strainer. I hope you have one! Are you taking probiotics?” I told her I was eating yogurt. She shook her head for a full five minutes in every direction as if trying to shake off a stubborn fly.
Back at home, my husband shook his head. “I couldn’t believe when she started rubbing your stomach!” I threw my head back and laughed, my husband’s eyes growing wide with concern as I giggled until I started wiping tears from my cheeks. I knew I was not reacting to her criticism the way I should, the way I used to react.
I remember snapping into a scalding fury early one morning when I was twenty, and still living at home. My mom had come into my room looking for something that she immediately forgot about when my t-shirt grabbed her attention. “Are you wearing a sports bra or is the shirt making you look flat?” She wondered aloud as she peered at my chest up-close as though she could see through the cotton. She raised a crimson, polished finger to poke at my front when I ducked out of her aim. “That’s quite enough!” I yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders and gently but firmly steering her out of my bedroom. “I’m just asking!” my mother said, throwing up her manicured hands in a gesture of innocence. She is always “just asking.”
But I’m not twenty years old anymore, with an ego that can be cut into bits from a few sharp remarks. And my mother is not the harsh critic that I viewed her as when I was younger, how others might still view her. It is easy to listen to my mother, and think that she is just too much. I know how she sounds to my husband when she comes over, hugs me hello, and then starts weaving her fingers through my hair, grasping at the grays like spider webs and asking when I will color again. I know how my friends must have imagined her, when I told them that she would ask almost daily if I was still breastfeeding, and shouldn’t I cut the cord already? I can tell that my husband thinks I am intimidated by my mother, when I am cleaning the house from top to bottom, and even scrubbing out the toaster lining before a visit. “Who is going to look in the toaster, Vivian?” I don’t answer, but I know. My mother, my mother will.
When I behave compulsively like this, or when I talk about the things my mother says, I can see in people’s faces that they think my mother drives me crazy. But, the thing is, she doesn’t. These days, when my mother puts in her two cents, I sigh, I smile, I usually laugh, but I am not angry. And that’s because, she has always been like this, she has always had something to say, but that is not all she is.
When I see that pitying look in people’s eyes that says, “Oh, you’ve got one of those mothers,” I want to give them some of the other pieces too. Like the night when I delivered my first child, I had encountered a series of complications over the course of fifteen hours. My labor was not progressing, the Pitocin I was given pushed my contractions to unthinkable levels of pain that would spike until I would lose consciousness, only to be brought to again by the next contraction—screaming myself awake. When it came time to push, there was one voice in the room that I remember with razor-clarity. “Bear down, Vivian! Bear down!” I didn’t know what she meant, and my husband would later ask, “Was that even helpful?” It was. My mother’s voice was the solid anchor that pulled me down from my heights of terror in that moment when death felt so possible.
Later, my daughter’s squeak-cries filled the room as I lay perfectly still in my stirrups, so my doctors could sew me back together. My body felt melted; I could not lift my arms to hold my first child. But, I knew she was safe in my mother’s arms. My mother held and rocked her, her eyes bloodshot from the long night, and her nose a matching pink from the sinus infection she had been fighting. She was ill and exhausted, but she never left my side.
Eight months after that, my husband was accepted to graduate school in Austin, and we packed up our house for the move. To our surprise, my mother packed her up her house too, “I want a new beginning.” She had said, referring to her separation from my father. A few days later, she was hired as a counselor at an elementary school just blocks from the school that had just offered me a job. She moved into an apartment four minutes from ours. “Call me anytime,” she offered. “I’ll be here whenever you need me.”
I called her when I had to leave work early one day with a bad case of mastitis. “Will you pick Amelie up from daycare?” I whispered, my head throbbing so hard with fever, I could barely speak.
I called her when I was weeks away from defending my thesis. She came to our apartment many times to stay with my daughter, while I studied for hours in hers.
I called her when we had to go into the hospital to deliver my second child via C-section. She washed, fed, dressed, and entertained my older daughter for four days, while I recovered in the hospital with her second grandchild.
Over time it began to occur to me, that while there were things my mother always said, like, “You’re getting too thin; The girls should be taking vitamins; You might want to put on some lipstick,” she never said, “I can’t right now; I’m busy; Can someone else help you?”
At some point I came to understand that my mother’s well-meaning comments were exactly that; she wanted to help me. And when I think about all my mother has done for me, I realize that I can never, ever repay her. So no, I am not angry when my mother makes comments about the things I do, or the way that I do them. She is as hard on me as she is on herself. She is the voice in my head, the strength in my hands, and the mother I dream to be.
Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog, storymother.wordpress.com.