Funny how some moments stick in one’s mind forever. I was just making myself a salad for lunch and every time I make a salad I remember my mother. Not all of her, just one precise incident, one small moment in time. It must have been in the ‘60s, we were at my parent’s weekend house in Valle de Bravo –a small lakeside town in the wooded hills of the State of Mexico about three hours’ drive from Mexico City- and they had invited a Norwegian couple with whom they had been friends (and neighbors) for years: Ella and Ivar. My mother set about preparing dinner and Ella offered to help (I was in the living room talking to my father, I think). Suddenly my mother stomped out of the kitchen; she was livid, her thin face all screwed up into a grimace, her boney hands tightened into little fists.
“She sliced the lettuce! How can she be so dumb? Lettuce for salad should be torn not sliced!” She seemed beside herself with rage. I remember being shocked not that my mother was mad (a state she often found herself in), but that she could get so upset over such a small detail. What in earth did it matter if lettuce for salad was sliced with a knife into even pieces or torn by hand into uneven pieces? I don’t suppose anything came of my mother’s tantrum that night because I remember nothing more about the evening, but even today I can never prepare lettuce for salad (tearing it, of course) without thinking of my mother and her rather absurd anger that one evening, and when I slice the endive that I usually include in my salads, I wonder if she would have thought I should tear it also.
I must admit that my mother getting angry was something that happened more often than I like to remember. One of my early “traumas” stemmed from the yelling fights between my parents after they had had a couple of evening cocktails. I remember my mother saying once that she never slept so well as after a fight with my father (she would stomp off to the bedroom and lock the door leaving him to sleep in the living room or library).
Strangely enough, the fondest memory I have of my mother is precisely of her getting angry. It comes from when she was much older, in a nursing home in Madrid, Spain, and completely gaga. Senile dementia had stolen her capacity to speak and to understand all but the simplest of phrases, such as ‘Would you like some ice cream?’ The only thing she seemed to have not forgotten was how to get mad. Some days when I would go to visit her in the residence, she would see me come through the door and her face would screw up into a grimace of anger and her hands would tighten into those two little angular fists that seemed to say she was ready for a fight. She would glare down and off to the side as I stepped into the room.
“Are you angry, Mother?” I would query gently, smiling to myself and her whole body would tighten even more like a spring forced to twist against its natural coil. “Ok then, I’ll just sit here beside you for a moment and wait,” I’d say, taking the empty chair to her right. We’d sit there in silence for about three minutes and then she would stand up, take two steps, sit herself down on my waiting knees, lift her legs so I could pass my arm beneath them, and cuddle up to my neck like a child. She weighed no more than 47 kilos by then, so holding her thus was easy and delightful. All the love that many times I had failed to feel for my mother previously would flow through me at those moments and I would melt with tenderness for that head-strong, demanding, spoiled woman who had given me life. She… Life… gave me that most precious memory that even today –more than eleven years after her death- I cannot remember without feeling tears of joy filling my eyes and without my heart swelling with love. It is strange, perhaps, that this should have been her parting gift, seeing as she had seldom been physically demonstrative towards me before. As a matter of fact, I have very few –if any- memories of physical closeness with my mother except this incredible present of her final years.
When I was 50 (my mother would have been 77) and recently divorced from alcohol, cigarettes and my husband, I went into a prolonged period of psycho-therapy and discovered that I, much like my mother, was filled with rage and that 99% of this fury was directed against what I saw as the spoiled, selfish, egocentric adolescent of a mother I had. I remember entire sessions with the therapist, me insisting that I hated my mother and she gently suggesting that, actually, I loved her. Little by little, I worked through the anger, learning to place limits, to not allow her manipulation and to see her as the aging, frightened, lonely woman she was. Then something happened that changed our relationship forever.
She had dropped by my house and was about to leave when suddenly into my head and out of my mouth came the following words: “I want a Mommy-hug”. She looked at me obviously bewildered. I stood there in front of her waiting. By that time, she had shrunken quite a bit and I was around 6-8 cms taller than she was; I could have easily taken her in my arms forcibly and done the hugging, but that wasn’t what I wanted. “Give me a real Mommy-hug” I insisted opening my arms but not moving towards her. She cautiously and stiffly lifted her arms and placed her wrists at the height of my waist, giving a little squeeze.
“No,” I stated firmly, “I want a Mommy-hug, a really real Mommy-hug.” She moved a little bit closer so that her forearms could sort of bend behind my waist but she still was centimeters away from the bulk of my body. I felt a slight increase in the pressure, but whatever it was, it was so far from a hearty hug that I repeated with even more emphasis: “No! A Real Mommy-Hug!”
With that, she suddenly moved in close, entwined her whole arms around my waist as I put mine around her shoulders and we hugged a real hug. I have no explanation for what happened in that instant. I can only describe it like a lightning-bolt of energy passing between us through the whole length of our bodies. I don’t even know if she felt it too, but I was left speechless. She quickly let go and stepped back, mumbled something and headed for the door. I couldn’t even move, fixed in place by the memory running through my body of what had just happened. I heard her car drive away, but still I stood there, glowing with the absolute realization that I loved my mother, and that what had passed between us could only be the intense discharge of the energy of that love so strongly denied.
A few minutes later, I was still standing there or close by, when I heard her car pull up again. Then I heard the car door open, and her feet rapidly mounting the steps to my door. Suddenly a small morsel of paper was slipped under the door, and her steps descended again, the car door closed and she drove off. I moved to pick up the paper. Written on it, in pencil and in her neat, measured script I read:
That hug was the most important that has ever happened to me in my life.
That was all, nothing more: no gushing, no overstatement, just sixteen simple words expressing –perhaps- her painful, lifelong incapacity of physical closeness with her daughter. From that day on, every time I saw my mother, I would adopt a mischievous expression on my face, tilt my head and laughingly say: “Oh boy, oh boy: time for a Mommy-hug”, and we would move easily into each other’s arms laughing.
A short time later, my mother began to lose her cognizance and over a period of eleven years she slowly left. In the beginning, it was not easy for either of us because she was terrified and I was intensely and selfishly working on rebuilding my life, but we did the best we could as we all always do. Those eleven years, during which I was responsible for making my mother’s life as easy as possible given the circumstances, were a gift. I never brought her to live with me (as my brother had suggested the moment he knew her mind was going, to which I countered that he might consider having her move in with him, thus ending the conversation) because I had decided that I had a right to love my mother and I knew that if I burdened my new life with her ever increasing care, I would end up closer to murder than affection. While in Mexico, I hired the best help I could so that she was always seen to, accompanied and cared for while living in her own abode. When I moved to Madrid and brought her with me, she was placed in the best nursing home available, only six blocks from my home so that I could visit as often as possible. I know I did the best I could and, therefore, I have no regrets. And I asked the Universe, God, the Cosmos or whatever you wish to call that which governs our existence on this plane, that if it was possible I wanted to be with her when she passed. That wish was miraculously granted as I have written about in another place and will not repeat here.
Now I am near the age my mother was when we had our first hug, progressing through my own 70’s and I begin to contemplate (still, I hope, at some distance) the wrapping up of my personal story. I cannot say that I have done a better job than my mother at mothering because I doubt very much that I have. But fortunately now I know –just as I hope that she did- that I have done the best I could, always and that I love my children just as much as my mother loved me which –in the end- turned out to be more than enough.