That is the question

by Jennifer on July 25, 2008

I noticed her from a distance. She headed toward us as we walked through the airport. If my mother noticed her, too, she said nothing.

The woman’s clothes were elegant, crisp and unwrinkled. Tasteful jewelry, expensive shoes, posture that was confident and unbent. Her hair and makeup were exactly right; her lipstick didn’t overstate its place on her face. I took in all of it as our strides closed the space between us, and my mind drew two columns. My mother at the top of one, this stranger at the top of the other. In that moment, it was impossible for me not to compare the two women.

When we passed her, she gave me a half-smile, neither kind nor unkind, only pleasant. And a thought skittered through my mind, unbidden, a dry leaf cartwheeling across the top of a thousand more, no bigger or smaller or more colorful than the others.

Why can’t she be my mother?

I thought I meant, “Why can’t my mother look like that?” But I probably didn’t. Not in that moment, not even now.

My mother had just come off a plane from England–for her, the trip of a lifetime.

She had saved for it and planned it for months, down to the smallest detail. The trip would feed her vault of information on our family’s geneaology and, for two weeks or so, she would see the sights. At the time, she was close to 60 years old, and it would be her first trip abroad.

We had visited each other only a few times in my adult life, after not seeing each other for 14 years. Our visits were spaced apart by years, by missteps and misunderstandings. By spaces of time when nothing was misunderstood at all, just unacceptable.

We were smoothing the wood of our relationship layer by layer, as with a plane, shaves of time falling away to reveal something new–with any luck, maybe even something useful. Even though we had been working at it for over ten years, it was too soon to tell whether what we uncovered would become beautiful furniture or a rough bench. Or nothing.

She flew into O’Hare so that she could spend a few days with us in Indiana before returning to her home in Kansas. After a long wait outside customs, I spotted her as she came through the doors, but it took me several moments to get her attention. When she got close, I opened my arms and leaned toward her to give her a hug.

She walked past me and through the doors to outside.

I stood there for a moment feeling like an asshole as my arms dropped back to my sides, their unreturned gesture all the more glaring in the sea of hugs and backslaps, among the chorus of “You made it!” and “It’s so good to see you!” and “How was the flight?” The waves of greetings swelled and faded and built again as another group of travelers burst through the doors.

I did the only thing I could do, the thing I had spent too much of my life doing.

I looked for my mother.

When I found her, she was smoking a cigarette outside.

“Where did you go?” I asked, stupidly.

“I just had to get outside. After being on the plane for that long, I just had to get outside.”

You had to smoke. Fair enough. Maybe you were going a little crazy, cooped up like that, I wanted to say. But how long does it take to stop and hug your daughter after you haven’t seen her for two years?

Splinters. This work between us was full of splinters.

She still made no attempt to hug me. I’m not a hugger by nature and, the fact was, my effort to embrace her was born of expectation and artificial emotion. My way of brushing a glossy stain over something unfinished between us, to give it an easy shine. So what right did I have to resent her for rejecting it? In that moment, an uglier reaction ran through me, pulled along on a string by my hurt feelings. At the last minute, she had asked us for part of the money she needed for the trip and we gave it to her. A nice thank you this is, I thought, even as I was ashamed of myself for thinking it.

I tried again. She did hug me back then, awkwardly, with one arm, her other arm holding her cigarette off to the side. Half of an embrace, a half-hearted embrace. Maybe half. Maybe that much.

We made our way to baggage claim (weren’t we carrying enough?) and toward the elegant woman.

I don’t hope or try to change people, not anymore, at least. That’s like betting on a bad horse. It never pays out. I believe that for the most part we can’t do much except to let people be who they are, and either take them for what they are or walk away. When I saw the other woman, my wish wasn’t that my own mother would take more care in her appearance. (And I knew that the other woman might possess none of the qualities I was assigning to her.) What I wanted was for my mother to be able to move through the world with greater ease, to use better manners, to treat people with kindness. I wanted her to treat me with kindness.

The elegant woman smiled, and my thought was, “Why can’t she be my mother?”

But I was asking the wrong question (a childish question, at that), and about the wrong person. The bigger question wouldn’t fully form until a year or two later, and I may never stop asking it, though nothing much comes of it anymore. It falls like a branch into a current of life that flows faster than the past can catch up to it. Maybe one day I will lose sight of it altogether and wonder why I ever bothered asking. I wish I knew more of the reasons why it cannot be, though I have a lock on a few of them. There’s little between us now but silence. The two of us–the woman who gave birth to me, and me–have passed each other, headed in different directions. The question lies between us, rough and shapeless:

Why can’t she be (why couldn’t she be) my mother?

And I can’t help but wonder if she asks a version of that question about me, if she ever wonders why I can’t be her daughter.

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan July 25, 2008 at 1:45 am

This makes my heart ache…for you and for my husband and his sisters. Some women just aren’t cut out to be mothers…I don’t know, maybe something is just broken inside of them.

I hope that someday you and your mother can make peace with each other.

Susans last blog post..Saving KT

Madge July 25, 2008 at 3:39 am

Please please, if you can, stop wondering if she has that version of the question in her mind — don’t do that to yourself. You have done everything to be a “good”, daughter or even just a daughter and she hasn’t allowed it.

I love you Jenn. (and you know I’m not a huggy kind of person either)

Mary Alice July 25, 2008 at 5:31 am

This brings tears to my eyes. It’s not you…..she just doesn’t love herself enough, to be capable of loving anyone else the way they need or deserve it.

Hilary July 25, 2008 at 5:37 am

Sad for you that you have every idea of what’s missing. Sadder still for her that she does not.

Beautifully expressed as always.

Hilarys last blog post..One Year After

Kate July 25, 2008 at 5:38 am

I can relate so well.
Except, I never changed the question until today.. reading your post.

My therapist has even brought up the point that my mother is not my mother – and it didn’t occur to me.

So, thank you.. I think that is one step closer to some sort of healing, being able to deal..

My biggest fear lately is that no matter how much time I spend with my mom, how hard I try to be close to her.. one day she will be gone and I will stll ache for more and not get it. Because then it will be too late.

Kates last blog post..Meme

ReluctantFarmChic July 25, 2008 at 6:52 am

Wow – you are an amazing writer, and incredibly insightful. Even with the questions you ask, it appears you know the answers – from some other place within yourself. Thank you for sharing on such a personal level. You are an inspiration.

McSwain July 25, 2008 at 8:13 am

Sadly beautiful. I love the line about the splinters.

McSwains last blog post..

Ducky July 25, 2008 at 8:42 am


Treasia July 25, 2008 at 8:59 am

Jennifer you are such a beautiful poetic writer. You have a way of expressing thoughts like no one else I have ever read. It brought tears to my eyes to think or even imagine how this makes a person feel. To love and want to give love and not have even a tiny portion of it returned. Don’t let the splinter get under your skin and fester inside.

Treasias last blog post..New Beginnings

Jenn @ Juggling Life July 25, 2008 at 9:15 am

It helped me to deal with my mom (who was very loving, but broken in other ways) to remember that she was very much a product of her upbringing.

I focus a lot on the fact that I’ve broken all kinds of cycles with this family I’ve built.

You do write about your family issues with such poignancy.

we_be_toys July 25, 2008 at 9:32 am

We none of us can choose who we are related to. Some of us luck out, some of us make do, and some of us have no choice but to walk away and try to start over.
It bowls me over when you write about your relationship with your mother. It’s incredible writing and I marvel at how effortless you make it look, but the meat of what you are writing makes me so sad. So much of our time as families is wasted on petty anger and misdirected hate. I have a hard time understanding the whys of it, as do you. I may know academically that abusive people were often the victims of abuse, but their angry actions still generate a cry of “why?” in me. I’m proud of you for breaking the circle and not dumping that baggage on your kids. At the least, the BS ends with you.
Sending you a big hug today – partly for you, partly for me!

we_be_toyss last blog post..Painting With Words

kacey July 25, 2008 at 10:00 am

See, this is the thing about blogs. I hopped over from Meg’s funny blogroll post. I land here and immediately get sucked into your post. The emotions, the beautiful word choice. I figured if Meg liked your blog, so would I.

Some women just aren’t meant to be mothers. At least you’ve broken the cycle.

kaceys last blog post..Increase Blog Traffic

Hatchet July 25, 2008 at 10:19 am

I’m so sorry.

Lisa July 25, 2008 at 10:49 am

It is absolutely HER loss–not yours!

Lisas last blog post..Coming Out

Chani July 25, 2008 at 11:31 am

Your mother and mine come from the same cloth. I’m quite a bit older than you and I’m not sure we ever reconcile all of this entirely. I like your approach. We can’t change others. We all have our own paths in this world and some come better equipped than others.

In the end, all you can do is wish someone like that well… and not let them close enough to do any harm.

(Followed you here from Emily’s site. I hope you’ll let us know how the Tweeze works out. 🙂

Tina July 25, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Wow, sweetie. This is some powerful writing. My mother and I had a difficult relationship and this really hit the nail on the head for me. She’s been gone five years now and I’m still trying to figure things out. Those who say it’s your mother’s loss are SO right. To be fair, my mother was a great mom when we were little, but I have learned from her what kind of mother I do not want to be to my adult kids. It hurts, but learn from it…

flutter July 25, 2008 at 12:09 pm

I feel like you are wandering through some really tough yet beautiful territory.

Lisa Milton July 25, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Those splinters are hard to shake. I agree with flutter; tough and beautiful.

Trollpop Bagelstien July 25, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Motherly musings what can he say. The days are not unlike the pedals of metal shards, the shrapnel of the heart, A flashlight deeming the world of consequence. Who knows not the power of words. By Cactus!

Its too much to see the horse take to gallop unless the proverbial spawn have turned upon the Beatles that engorge on the cantaloupes of our discontent. The popular troll has no pain yet yours, in rounded pastry we burn for your relief, amoungst the aged candelabric Scholar.

Trollpop Bagelstiens last blog post..Please Me Twice…

Bruce July 25, 2008 at 2:34 pm

This appears to be a never ending theme with our generation. The emotionally crippled parent, or the infantile parent that cannot express emotion to their children and for some reason feel bitter about the way their lives turned out. It hasn’t been the case with me, but I have known dozens of my friends that have the same experiences that you have.

Keep in mind, that they serve as a lesson on how NOT to behave toward your children when you are older. These older parents have been damaged and you can’t fix them at this point.. So use them as a guide on what to do and not to do in your future.

JCK July 25, 2008 at 2:40 pm

She’s broken. And you’ve picked up the pieces. I’m continually in awe of your strength and how differently you are loving and raising your children without any role model to help you along the way. You are amazing!

And the writing…well, it always draws me in.

melissa July 25, 2008 at 2:56 pm

Okay, when your book gets published I’ll have to read it with a highlighter because you have so many lovely turns of phrase.

That said, I have often thought the same thing–never about strangers, but about women my mother’s age who I know. Why can’t they be my mom? *sigh* I only pray my sons never feel that way about me.

melissas last blog post..I scream, you scream, we all scream…

slouching mom July 25, 2008 at 3:07 pm

this was incredibly beautiful.

heartbreaking, too. and close to home for me.

but i’ll choose to focus on the beautiful. like this line:

a dry leaf cartwheeling across the top of a thousand more, no bigger or smaller or more colorful than the others.


Rhea July 25, 2008 at 6:30 pm

Wow, this was amazing. Deep, thoughtful, insightful, funny and heart wrenching.

Rheas last blog post..Ask…and I just might answer

Louise July 25, 2008 at 8:27 pm

So this is exactly how I have always felt about my grandmother. I saw my friends interacting with their grandmothers and always wondered, “Why can’t my grandmother be like that.” I do know, however, that she always wanted something/someone else in a granddauther as well.

I say this because it was my grandmother. I cannot imagine how much deeper the feeling is, how much harder it is, how much more it hurts, when it is a mother.

Well-written. You have you own answers. The answers do not always make sense, but you know what they are.

Louises last blog post..Wisdom from Chic and Chicklet

Prof. J July 26, 2008 at 5:34 am

This is a lovely post. I remember once watching my mother pet her beloved cat–by patting her on the head–and I realized that she never had it to give. It didn’t make all those years of craving her affection go away, but it did help me make some sense of it all.

Prof. Js last blog post..Wouldn’t you like to be a Derfwad, too?

Stacie July 26, 2008 at 7:32 am

I can’t even imagine how much this hurts you (although your beautiful writing does paint a vivid picture). I hope you can put this pain to rest somehow for your own peace of mind…and I hope that she can too. Don’t be fooled, I am pretty sure she is puzzled and guilt ridden by her own actions. Who knows how deep this runs with her. Anger is so soul consuming…try pity, it’s not as bad.

Stacies last blog post..Tony at Work

Stacie July 26, 2008 at 7:36 am

Oh! and this might make your day…Did you know that today is The Day of the American Cowboy?

Stacies last blog post..Tony at Work

RiverPoet July 26, 2008 at 8:30 am

That’s big stuff to be handling, Jennifer. I’m really sorry that your mother is not the mother you deserve, but you’re right. We can’t change others, and those mother-daughter relationships are so damned hard, so easy to screw up.

But you know what? You’re a strong, capable woman who has immense talent. Your mother can’t take that away from you.

Peace – D

RiverPoets last blog post..Quick, Recommend a Voice Recognition Software!

Mrs. G. July 26, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Sometimes it seems that what could have been is more painful than what actually was-do you know what I mean?

Mrs. G.s last blog post..The Seventies

JCK July 27, 2008 at 12:33 am

Once again, this was writing at its best.

I tried emailing you a couple of times, but they bounce back saying your mailbox is full.

JCKs last blog post..First one letter, then the next ..and the next

Asianmommy July 27, 2008 at 6:47 am

A beautifully written, touching post. You’re right. People can’t always be what you want them to be.

Ann July 27, 2008 at 8:47 am

Ah yes, the gaping hole that forever begs the question…what if I had…who would I be if…? The mother we never really had, but wonder who we’d be if she’d really been there. Yes.

That closing line is extremely provocative. I DO wonder what she asks herself about your absence in her life. How does she just sit with that (know the history)? How does she frame it, justify it? I guess you may never know. And I hope you are peaceful knowing that that is her hook to bear, and not yours. My heart goes out to you, as always.

Anns last blog post..Carpet Art, A Dog Psychic, & A Throwdown

Ree July 27, 2008 at 10:09 am

How very insightful. And beautifully written, as always.

Rees last blog post..Visit with the Goldens

Kimberly July 27, 2008 at 6:11 pm

This is so beautiful and so sad. My heart hurts for you. You are wise to recognize that you can’t change people (so many people I know have wasted years trying). I hope someday you can make peace with you mom even if only in your own head.

As always, a really fantastic post.

Kimberlys last blog post..Wordless Wednesday: But it’s a classic, right?

Treasia July 27, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Jennifer I wanted to let you know I passed a blog award on to you. Stop by sometime and pick it up and spread the love.

Treasias last blog post..Always Treasure gifts received

anymommy July 27, 2008 at 9:27 pm

How do you keep writing like this? My heart is right there with you, even as I notice the lovely structure of your words. Again.

anymommys last blog post..The Space Between

Milena July 27, 2008 at 10:07 pm

In her heart of hearts, she can’t hide from the true answer to that question Jennifer. That is your mother’s bane to carry, this knowledge. For you, it is exactly the opposite. In the understanding you have found a way to liberate yourself.

Powerful post. It tells me much about how power-full you are.

Jules~ July 27, 2008 at 10:58 pm

Jennifer, I am so sorry. I do understand. I don’t want to wipe away your feelings with quotes. That can’t be done. They are your feelings. I just want you to know that I relate. How many times over the years I have asked the same of my father. I never thought that things would ever get better. I always figured one day I would stand at his funeral and people would even whisper “who is that lady?”.
I can tell you that it is her loss and you never need to define yourself by what you mother does and doesn’t do……but it still hurts, it still rips, as you vacilate between craving and being numb to protect yourself.
I want you to know that YOU ARE special.

Jules~s last blog post..God’s Strength….

Meg July 28, 2008 at 6:32 am

Jennifer, as usual…beautiful, powerful, strong and amazing just like you! Oh…and I AM a hugger and I am sending you one…

I get your pain…I really, really do.


Megs last blog post..El Jefe~There Were Signs Everywhere

tysdaddy July 28, 2008 at 8:23 am

My relationship with my father is somewhat similar. While we haven’t necessarily been separated by time and distance as much, we remain emotionally distant. We talk about the mundane things. There’s that, I guess. But it’s so hard to have the meaningful type of conversation I know we both want. Too much has gone on in our lives for us to really connect.

We’re going down there to visit at the end of the week. I hope to find some common ground. Dig deep and not shy away when we have the inevitable disagreements over this or that. They won’t be arguments. But I fear we’ll never really see eye to eye. That he won’t really want to know my side of things. But I’ll give it a shot . . .

Amazing post, Jennifer. I’m sharing this on the sidebar of The Cheek.

Are you still in Indiana? Shoot me an email and tell me more . . .

tysdaddys last blog post..Being Kirk

Tricia July 28, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Beautifully written, and haunting. The idea of what could have been drives us to answer ourselves through our children and our own lives.

Tricias last blog post..A Hypocrite’s View of Leaving Home

sauerkraut July 28, 2008 at 6:32 pm

Interesting. Cannot remember when I last hugged my mother, or she, me. Have only talked to her, barely, a couple of times during the past… well, years.

Guess that old saying about picking friends and relatives comes to mind.

sauerkrauts last blog post..3 things that annoy me

Denise @ EatPlayLove July 28, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Reading this post makes me think about how I feel when I see my mother, which is a couple times a year. Thank you for sharing, once again.

Denise @ EatPlayLoves last blog post..As The Smoke Clears…

Lee July 29, 2008 at 6:20 am

This hurts. It never stops hurting. But I think working on trying to realize that we just aren’t going to get what we want helps. So I try to find other things to focus on. Sometimes it works better than others. I hope you reach a place where the expectations and efforts that almost seem to guarantee disappointment cease.


Kathryn July 29, 2008 at 8:21 am

My heart just aches for you. I have been trying to help a girlfriend of mine through similar feelings about her mother. It is so difficult. Being hurt over and over again by someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally. But still you hope. And you are right to hope, but it is just so hard.
Wonderful post. I came here via David.

Sandi McBride July 29, 2008 at 4:53 pm

I don’t know what to say…our mothers can be so (or could be so) ornery and contrite, cultured yet boorish…they’re never the same to other people as they are to us, for better or worse…sometimes we have to be the mother to our children that we wish our mothers had been to us. David sent me…

Sandi McBrides last blog post..On Leaving England Episode 3 (or "Why is our Mattress wrapped around the piano?"

Jennifer's Mother September 4, 2008 at 2:01 pm

I just discovered this and haven’t read all the chapters yet, but I’m truly not the monster many of you think I am.

Jennifer’s memory is slightly flawed about our meeting in the airport. I’d only walked a few feet past her when I heard her call out “Mother!”. She did *not* have to chase me outside. But thanks to my own mother’s family not being the kissy-huggy sort (altho my father’s side was, we didn’t see much of them), it’s not my custom to hug *anybody* in an airport no matter how long it’s been since I’ve seen them. I didn’t have to stop on the way back, btw. If I’d known not immediately hugging Jen in the O’Hare terminal would be published here, I might’ve changed planes in Chicago and gone straight on to Kansas instead. Now *that* would’ve been something to get your shorts in a knot over, Jen.

Hopefully you will mention the morning when Girl, only a week old, wouldn’t stop crying no matter what you did. It was already 10 o’clock, you hadn’t had a shower, let alone dressed. I’d been outside on the patio with Boy, heard Girl’s wailing, went inside to find you standing in the kitchen holding her and looking frantic. I said “Go take your shower”, took Girl out of her arms, at which point Girl immediately stopped crying. While you showered and collected yourself, Girl and her grandma had a bonding session in the big chair in the living room.

Again, I haven’t read all of the chapters here, but perhaps you will mention, after the many times I’ve been to your homes (plural), why you have never ever visited mine despite many requests to do so.

Emily R September 4, 2008 at 8:02 pm

It is not a child’s place to reach out to her mother. It is the other way around.

Emily Rs last blog post..And, now, back to our regularly scheduled posts

flutter September 4, 2008 at 11:21 pm

Blah blah blah blah blame everybody else, make your daughter feel like shit, like you always have, don’t take any personal responsibility for the fact that you are a hack as a parent.

You held Girl so Jenn could take a shower? OH MY GOD. Why was the media not alerted?! This is truly an amazing and heartening display of nurturing that must immediately be rewarded. I know! I’ll make certain that a bust in your likeness is placed in the White House.

You have some nerve lady, and may I applaud your absolute class? Oh, nope, I can’t since none is apparent nor forthcoming.

Let your daughter have her space. You are not identified by name, none of us know who you are, but with every vitriolic word you spew, we are getting to know better WHAT you are.

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