I’m often asked what it’s like to be a writer — how I spend my days, how I experience the world. And so I will be sharing occasional essays from the front lines of my writing life. Enjoy!
I’m in Panera’s. Across from me is a mother and daughter. I’m guessing the mom’s in her sixties, the daughter in her thirties. They’re talking loud enough so I can’t concentrate on my writing but soft enough so I can’t make out what they’re saying. But I can tell from the body language that the daughter is in a pissy mood and that her mother is trying, unsuccessfully, to engage her in conversation. I don’t like the daughter.
And this makes me wonder about conversations between mothers and daughters. More specifically: Why do daughters expect their mothers to hang onto their every word?
Part of a mom’s job responsibility — and you can look it up in the manual — is to think her daughter is wonderful. The mom is to applaud at recitals, croon at good report cards and take dozens of photos every time her daughter loses a tooth. She is to listen to her daughter’s dreams of becoming a president/archaeologist/rock star/etc./etc./etc., and to make her think they all are possible.
According to the manual (Chapter 3, Subsection 16.4), a mother is to do all this right on the spot, even when she has cramps or has fought with her husband, or is overwhelmed by bills, work deadlines and a dirty house.
She is to do this late at night or first thing in the morning, when she is struggling to stay awake and to balance who she is with whom she wants to be. She is to do this when all she really wants is for someone to listen and nod at her every word.
All of which is to say: Mothers are people too. (Chapter 7, Subsection 4.8). In fact, and with time, mothers become more interesting people. They’ve been more places and have met/loved/hated more people. They’ve worn more hats, learned more lessons, dreamt more dreams. And for these things, they deserve respect.
One way to show respect is to listen. And this is what I want to tell the pissy daughter sitting at the next table. She makes a face whenever her mother talks; she frequently looks away. And still her mother smiles, leans forward in her chair.
“Sit back, lady!” I want to scream. “Yours is a one-way conversation!”
And to the daughter I want to scream: “Shut up and listen! Ask your mother how her day is going, if she’s still blue because she didn’t get her promotion. Ask her what she wants for her birthday. Better yet, don’t ask anything. Just make eye contact. Smile, nod, lean forward in your chair. Reach across the vast expanse of the table and squeeze her hand.”
I say nothing, of course. It is not my place. And who knows the nature of their relationship. Perhaps this mother is in the running for “Worst Mother of the Year.” Perhaps this daughter should be commended for even showing up this morning; what a courageous girl.
Nonetheless, I still stick by my thoughts about mother-daughter conversations. Which is why I will call my mom after I end this missive.
“How ya doing?” I will say.
“Pretty good,” she will answer. “What’s up with you?”
And I will share the minutia of my life. In painstaking detail. Ad infinitum. The kind of stuff I wouldn’t dare tell anyone else because it would put them to sleep. But she’ll stay. She’ll listen. She’ll say things like: “Really?” “Uh-huh.” “Don’t worry.” “Screw ’em; they’re idiots.” “Remember your blessings.” “Try adding salt.” “Let me know what happens.” “Love ya.”
“Love ya, too” I’ll say.
How could I not love her? Out of all the people in the world, she’s the only one who lets me ramble. She makes me believe my life is remotely interesting and that I am special somehow. All this without seeming to mind that ours is too often a one-way conversation.
If she were here, now, I’d reach across the table and squeeze her hand. “Thanks for listening,” I’d say.
And she’d say: “Anytime.”