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~Author Jennifer Leigh~

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My mother's visit

29 May 2005

My mother’s visit is almost at an end, and in some ways, I cannot believe that it’s been two weeks.  In the 12 days since she arrived, we went from mid–May, cold and stormy, to end of May ‘where are my shorts’ weather. But more than that, I’ve been transported from my life as a child to the life I lead now, and even been given hints about my future. I think my mother would be surprised to know these things, because all we’ve done is chat, laugh, and read, though not to each other, except the passages we find particularly wondrous.  She’s reading Barbara Kingsolver, I'm reading Elizabeth Berg.  We like good female authors.

            My mother asked, a few days into the visit, if I was proud of how little she was smoking.  I could feel my brow tighten and thought, How was I to respond to that?  With each cigarette, and it seemed they were back to back, I visualized my mother’s lungs crying for air.  I haven’t lived at home for almost 30 years, and live far from anyone who smokes, and am amazed that anyone still does this awful thing to their bodies.  And consider the cost of a pack of cigarettes!  Are cigarettes made out of foreign oil?  Why are they so expensive? There should be a life insurance policy payment, a dollar from each pack, so that, when smokers die from inhaling all those toxins, their families can bury their shriveled, wasted bodies in style.  It’s so sad.

            During my mother’s visit, my husband showed my mother his alternating good and horrible sides.  He was pleasant, but distant.  It was the end of the school year, and this is always a bad time, since he’s a procrastinator who hates grading papers, though it’s an important part of his job. He kept taking me aside, bemoaning that he wasn’t able to spend time with my mother. Again, I felt the quizzical look cross my face.  Why would he think my mother had come all the way from California, braving an airplane ride, though she loathes flying, to see him? It had been four years since she'd seen me, her only daughter, or my son, her only grandchild.  We provided plenty of experiences, giggles, poignant moments, and the occasional tension.  My husband was fluff, and, since he was in meltdown mode, his fluff had flattened to a rough imitation of felt.  Not pretty, but useful in some survival situations.

              My life, to me, is mundane, and loosely structured to accommodate the orderly world I live in.  After my husband is gone to his job at the high school, I arise at 7:30, to send my son off to school.Then, usually without guilt, I slip between the sheets in my king-sized bed in my cool and quiet bedroom.  I put the phone in the office, shut and lock my door after my dog Keeta has jumped onto my husband’s side of the bed.  Of course, I cover his side with the bedspread, and then I sleep, usually without dreams, until noon. 

I think sometimes, when guilt starts pricking at me, I sleep til noon!  Isn’t that what drunks and losers do? But my loosely structured life as a writer and editor keeps me up late at night. I like typing into the wee hours of the morning, the cool of the night drifting in through my office window.  My muse doesn’t rise until long after noon, so I need to be awake before I’m being inundated with words begging to be typed upon the electronic page of my computer.

Now that school is out for another year, my life becomes less my own, and this has become even more true with my mother here.  She has insisted on washing dishes by hand when we have a perfectly serviceable dishwasher. I am charmed to see her make her way from counter to counter, lifting my plates and forks and cups, first covered with food, then clean because of her own handiwork. She made soup, even though it’s 80+ degrees Fahrenheit outside.  Though I don’t consider my life all that exciting, she thinks I’m Superwoman for all I accomplish in a day: taking care of my husband, who is too busy making up his grades that he should have been doing all semester (he’s engulfed in what I call the end of year grading frenzy); driving my son to baseball games (and staying and cheering for the Nationals) and off to a fishing program every Tuesday night; and caring for our horses who need an exorbitant amount of care, since the mares are all foaling, and the stallion needs to be put into a pen by himself, or he’ll try to breed mares through the fence that don’t belong to us.

I see my mother’s point.  My life is full, though I don’t find it remarkably stressful (except for the stressed out spouse issue).  I haven’t edited or written much during her stay, so all my ‘work’ has been basically heavy labor, mucking out stalls, hauling full laundry baskets to the washer and dryer, jockeying my three dogs into different areas of the house and yard so my two bitches (aptly named) don’t tear each other to bits, literally. My mother says she is exhausted  just watching me, and grunts and groans sympathetically while I cavalierly tell her this is nothing.  But I’m telling the truth.  This really is nothing, and I’m proud of how easily I carry this load. 

Weeks before, my husband was working a second job (which is part of the reason for the major-ness of his meltdown this year.  He was not only completely disorganized and frantic, he was exhausted.)  Everything fell to me while my husband ran from one job to the next; his days began at 6:30 AM and ended at around 11 PM.  Talk about guilt pricking me.  I continued to sleep til noon!  But I also did all the cooking and shopping, two jobs my husband adores and I avoid.  Every night I looked at my son and asked him, “What are we going to do about dinner?”  I was in a stupor about dinner preparations, and ended up making sandwiches or having pizza delivered.  Craig had cooked for so long, it’s like I’d forgotten how. I am warmed, thinking of my mother’s contribution to dinner preparations.  I felt so taken care of, that she cooked for me.  I don’t know if she knows that this gift is all the more precious because she relieved me of a chore I truly loathe, and she so enjoys it.  I felt good handing this responsibility to her.  “Here, take it,” I said without words.  “You will make far more of this than I ever will.”

            While Craig worked his second job, I single-handedly took care of the horses, which is usually pretty effortless, but we were in the midst of the longest rainy season Utah had had in years. If I wasn’t sloshing in mud from the horse pasture, my dogs were tracking it in because I couldn’t keep them in the mud pit known as the dog run.  Oops, better get Shadow into my son’s room before Keeta runs up the stairs!  Dog fights became the stuff of nightmares.  Though my husband was exhausted, my own vulnerability (created by the necessity that I do it all while he was gone, made intense by weather, which I had no control over) gripped me pretty intensely, too. 

            Into this mayhem flew my mother.  As I was driving her home from the airport, strong winds blew a truck over on the freeway, and our 45-minute drive turned into bumper-to-bumper traffic for 3 hours.  Winds buffeted my car on the road, and I feared my mother would slump over onto the passenger door, killed by the stress of the flight here, and the drive home.  An auspicious beginning.

            What has surprised me most is how pulled apart I have felt by my mother’s absorbing love for me, and my husband’s maniacal blaming, since, because I'm his wife, his tiredness and lack of preparation are somehow my fault, though I always refuse to accept responsibility.  My mother, who said she didn’t smoke much, became a veritable chimney after the day my husband lost his temper en masse and peeled out of our driveway in a rage.  I was surprised and slightly pleased that I didn’t want to run to my mother’s arms and beg her to take away my big meanie husband.  I wanted to flee from her and her worry and trying to stay out of it and her wanting to scream at my husband (I knew she was holding back, I could feel it) just as much as I wanted to get away from my frenzied, idiotic husband.  I wanted neither husband nor mother at that moment.  I wanted my peaceful days of writing and editing, the ordered days of my egocentric little life.

            I remember when my son Caden was born, and how helpless he was as an infant.  He was an easy baby, but let’s face it, infancy isn’t all that exciting.  Every day I held my little son close and realized, this is The Only Day.  Tomorrow would bring more that my son saw and responded to.  He would only be my very own sleeping baby for a short time.  I found myself feeling this way about my mother’s visit.  At times, I struggled, wanting my orderly little life back.  But I will miss her, oh how I’ll miss her the minute she flies away into the sky. 

            It’s funny the things you recognize as an adult that you took for granted as a child.  My mother makes really good French toast, but I don’t remember her making it for me even once when I was a girl.  My mother is a saver, and uses everything up until there’s nothing left, as if it was she who lived through The Depression as an adult, and not my grandmother.  When did my mother become so patient?  So non-judgemental?  I realize now she always was, but I feared her rejection so much, I tried desperately to never disappoint her.  I smile and think, you mean I could have pushed my limits a little more as a teenager?  Better not go there.

            I watch my mother watching me care for my son.  I can tell my mother is proud of me, and I am proud of that pride.  It’s absolute fact that my son Caden makes being a mother look easy.  But my mother also knows my heartache of my other children who struggled when I was a young mother to them. 

            One day I embarrassed my mother.  I thought she’d be more upset, especially as she expressed that hurt to me later.  I could feel myself emotionally duck and cover, horrified that I’d hurt my mother’s feelings.  But then, like magic, she was okay, and I was okay, and I thought, when did she become so okay with being embarrassed by me?  I suspect she always was pretty laid back, and it was me, in my constant effort to not worry her, who turned myself into a pretzel of anticipation: don’t do anything wrong.

            I realize now that my mother and I have been able to meld into the wonderful, effortless relationship of two grown women friends, but still have the attachment of mother and daughter.  It is only too true that you never know how much your mother loves you until you become a mother yourself.  But I still remember my fierce childish love for my mother, my delight in her that she sought to please me in hundreds of ways. 

            In the long run, I’m glad that my mother came when my husband was partially insane.  I couldn’t have phonied through those two weeks anyway.  Now, I smile, she has even more to be proud of me for.  Look at the marriage I’ve made with this sometimes odd, angry man.

So I relish our days.  Soon, she’ll be gone and I’ll find things in the house she’s done, folded the dishtowels just so, when I just throw them into the drawer topsy-turvy. I’ll eat some of her soup, maybe in the middle of the night when it  can get cold here, though the days are hot.  I’ll smooth the sheets of the guest room bed, after they’ve been washed and readied for more guests expected during the summer.  And late at night, when I’m at my desk in my office, writing my future bestseller, I'll pray that someone will walk by the house.  I’ll see the orange of their cigarette glow in the darkness, smell the scent of smoke, and miss my mother, my heart splitting in two.

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