Conversation after my mother read my first novel:
Me: So, what did you think?
Mom: I don’t like the mother. She made me feel bad.
Me: Not all mothers are you, mom.
Mom: I hope not. The mothers in your stories are always a bit rough around the edges.
Me: Did it ever occur to you that I’m a mother, too? The mother in my story could be me, right?
Mom: I guess so.
Me: All my characters are reflections of me, mom. The young men, the old women, the antagonists, the side characters, they’re all me. Me, me, me.
Mom: If you say so.
(a few days later, on the phone)
Me: Okay then. The mothers are you and me and all mothers mixed together. It’s a subconscious thing, archetypes that keep crawling in from my dreams. I can’t help it. Okay?
Mom: Okay, I think I can handle that.
When I look in the mirror, I don’t always see my reflection. I mean, I don’t see clearly: I see the teeth I’m brushing or my new earrings or a or a giant zit or the sixteen year old girl I was or today’s to-do list or stray droplets that dried on the glass, leaving a white sediment, but I don’t examine the face that ignores my gaze. Sometimes I don’t feel like looking.
At my mother’s house there’s a mirror that hangs in the bathroom, one of those magnifiers that enlarges your pores to the size of manholes and makes your wrinkles look as deep as dried-up riverbeds. That mirror is a portal to an alternate reality, a shocking Cindy Shermanesque freak show where I’m the scariest clown. When I visit my mother, no matter how hard I try to resist I invariably get sucked in. Spend five minutes with that mirror and you’ll never see yourself the same way again.
My mother’s mirror is a test of strength. It’s an optical illusion, a gom jabbar, the minotaur’s maze, a test of mind over matter, and when I look in that mirror it subtracts every illusion of youth, adds a generation, and I invariably become my mother.
I can’t talk about my mother without talking about myself without talking about my mother. The older I get, the more this is true.
In the 1980’s when my brother and I were off in college, my mom was free to take professional risks and opened a boutique for her hand painted silk clothing. In 1989, she and I took a trip to Shanghai, where she had a factory to produce her designs. I took a semester off school at UC Berkeley to work in the office. In Shanghai, there were few inexpensive housing options for foreigners so we lived in a tiny, dingy dorm room on a college campus: We slept side by side in two twin beds, got up before the sun to make a breakfast from the mini refrigerator, bathe and brush our teeth with tepid, rusty water, mount our bicycles and pedal to the factory. After work we’d go back to the dorm room, grab our decks of cards, sit on our own beds facing each other, and play solitaire for hours, not together but not apart either: tandem amusement, parallel play. She’d smoke her Marlboros and I’d smoke my Indonesian clove cigarettes and we’d talk in half sentences and go for long stretches without speaking, letting words hang in the air and the room fill with smoke and the soft slap of cards. Some evenings there’d be a banquet to attend or the expatriate community would put on a party or we’d visit the discotheque of one of the new hotels. She’d borrow my white blouse and I’d wear her black stockings and we’d take turns in the comfortable shoes (since we wear the same size) or kick them off and dance together since the Chinese men were far too reserved to dance with us.
My mom can dance. If a song moves her, she claps her hands, humming along to the music, feet moving in a loose, vestigial Lindy Hop, arms swinging free as Woodstock with a little James Brown thrown in. She likes a partner but she’s happy to dance alone.
The trip to China solidified a friendship that had always been there, buried under the mother-daughter thing. During my childhood, I usually called her Gail. At 12 I was working at an ice cream parlor, and after she and my father divorced, she got no spousal support so, in order to support my brother and me, Gail stopped painting canvas and started painting houses. She was the only woman on the crew. I moved away from home at 17, went to Europe alone at 18 and traveled around the world by myself at 20. Gail got her contractor’s license and started her own house painting business, the only MFA contractor who’d mix custom colors for her clients while I worked my way from a junior college to a UC to grad school.
For most of my life, and certainly by 1989, we’ve seen eye-to-eye. In 1989, I was 23 and she was 46. She was the age I am now and when I look at pictures, I’m astounded by how she looked, although at the time I didn’t see her in terms of young or old or beautiful or any other external measure, I was too close to see her: maybe I’m still too close. For me, looking at my mother is like looking into a magnifying mirror: she’s too near for focus. I can see the contents of every pore and the tiniest flaw but I can’t take in the larger picture. The boundary between us blurs and warps: she’s me but not me, the past and future, cause and effect all at once.
After the divorce, Gail experimented freely to discover what kind of life felt right for her and I eventually did the same. She taught by example and hid very little: she let me watch and learn and if there was a lesson, it was an implicit directive: Try Everything Until You Find the Thing That Feels Good. You won’t know until you’ve tried all the classes, groups, jobs, styles, men, movements, dance moves, philosophies, gurus, gestalts, weapons, and substances. Put it all in your mouth. If good, swallow: if not, spit.
When I was 3 and snuck the bowl full of chocolate pudding from the refrigerator up to my room to decorate my bedroom walls, I could sense a muted pride in her exasperation. In elementary school, she dressed me in overalls with a wimmin’s lib patch on the bib. She didn’t brush my hair or buy dresses because she wanted me to be more than a pretty girl. When I ran away from home, she always let me. In my teens, the experiments got explosive and for awhile, I kept looking at Gail to see what she was going to say about it. What do you think about these neon green ripped fishnet stockings and my spiked ankle boots? How do I look with skunk streaks in my hair and eyes blackened with thick eyeliner? How do you feel about cocaine and LSD? What would happen if I didn’t come home at night or if I went to live with my father and his new family in his big empty mansion? What would you say if I moved 500 miles away at 17 or posed nude for a magazine or fell in love with a jerk? But the authoritarian thing was not Gail’s style: control and judgment, of self or others, were not components of her reality.
But always, always, I have felt her watching from the middle ground, a benign and constant patience, an intense and burning interest peering over the horizon, waiting to see what I’d do next. After awhile, I learned to stop looking outside for answers when the only reaction that mattered was my own.
We look to mirrors to see ourselves, after all, and I have learned what feels good to me: My daughters, my man, my home, my friends. Writing and reading. Working hard, polishing a thing until it shines. A hot bath, a sound sleep, dancing, riding a bike, cooking good food, driving fast with the windows down and the music up, my garden, telling the truth, and my mother.
The more clearly I see myself, the more I see her: distinct, individual, and strong. I see how anger conceals her tenderness and the tough layer covering her pain. I recognize her exuberant, muscular joy and the true meaning of beauty, how my eyes delight in the look of her and how, by letting me see her true face, she has allowed me to be myself. Sometimes I don’t feel like looking at myself in the mirror, but thanks to my mother, I can.
Alice Walker said it right: “Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.”