Virginia and I walk to the Indian place on the corner for our bi-monthly lunch date. They seat us at our favorite booth by the window, and I gaze across the table at her. She looks down, puts her napkin on her lap, and sneaks a glance up at me. She has made her eyeliner in a cat-eye style I remember doing, and the hair around her face is pulled up into a half ponytail. Matching her gold hoop earrings is a necklace that says “Milano.”
She’ll be off to college in 3 months. Only a few weeks ago, I felt crumpled by the task of raising a teenager. I’m not doing it right. I know nothing. I’m harming her instead of helping her. Now over Baighan Bharta and Aloo Palak, we talk about religions and the Enneagram, manifesting and desire, choosing college classes, and the time that I failed Physics for Poets.
What would the past 17 years have been like if I had been less fearful, and more loving? If I had not been ashamed of who I was? If pearls had formed around the grit of my regrets, and I had jewels to then press into her hands?
For Mother’s Day last week all I wanted was for everyone to go on a family picnic at the dairy farm. It was the first Mother’s Day that not all of my children were there. Sofia is in New Mexico working on a farm, and next year, Virginia will be gone too.
Standing on that pasture under the cold May sky, I felt smaller. Smaller in the way that you do when you take off a heavy wool parka that you don’t need anymore.
I tried to be who I was supposed to be — strong, sure, un-confusing. Then motherhood became a shield that helped me hide all of who I am.
The waiter with the shiny head and jovial eyes brings us a take-home box, and as we pack away the eggplant and tomatoes, the spinach and potatoes, Virginia tells me how every morning she goes over what she’s grateful for. “But if you don’t say why you’re grateful, it doesn’t work,” she tells me. “It just becomes a list.”
Who am I to her now, who is she to me? Once dancing in the roles that life had cast us in, we are now characters leaving the stage. I who made rules, monitored, and enforced. She who needed guidance, protecting, guard rails. What remains is something that cannot be categorized or explained. No teacher and no student — maybe we have always been both.
“You don’t realize what power the top bunk has,” I overhear Mark saying one night in his room while he and Virginia are trying to pull a fitted sheet around the hard-to-reach corners. “Monsters can’t get you up here.”
“You don’t think monsters can fly?” Virginia says, as she tickles him and tells the story about how she used to hang from the top bunk to make faces at Sofia, and one time she fell off, laughing and crying at the same time.
When she is away at work one night, I find her pine green fleece jacket inside out on the window seat, and intertwined in it, a strand of her golden hair.
There are only so many more vegan grain bowls she’ll prepare for us, only so many episodes of Master Chef we’ll watch together, only so many mornings her sweet-sad pop songs will billow through the house.
When she gets home, she’ll fix a snack and go down to watch The Sopranos until after I’ve gone to bed. In the morning I’ll coast by her as she cooks her oatmeal before logging into her Stats class. When she leaves for work, I will have already gone to pick up Diana. We go on with our lives.
A wave crests, and then it falls. The day unravels, night comes. Endings and beginnings, leavings and arrivals: they’re all bound into one unbreakable thing.
Mothers and children, grandmothers and grandchildren, ancestors and unborn babies, inextricably tied one to another. There is no end and no beginning. Yet in the heaving, tumbling middle, it feels like we are living through a million deaths and a million births.