I can think of no harder subject to write about, than my mother and me.
Not because she was the classically “bad” mother—she rarely hit or “spanked” me. She taught me to work hard and be honest, to be gracious and well-mannered, to devote time to spiritual growth, as that is the glue that holds us together.
At the age of 89, she is still a highly capable, well-educated, well-informed and honest person. We care about many of the same things—politics, nutrition, children’s lives, the environment. We’re both strong, modern women. But the similarities end there.
Our temperaments, our ways of seeing the world, are very different. Where she is all business, I’m all creativity. Where she is hit-them-right-between-the-eyes honest, I’m more evasive, wanting to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. And where she is hyper-critical of me—so am I.
She has always harped, with criticisms and corrections. Either I wasn’t dressed right, wasn’t eating right (the food or the manners), wasn’t doing enough about something or wasn’t making the right decisions out in the world.
For most of my life, my mother seems to have had a hard time speaking to me outside of Criticism and Correction Mode. I left home right after college, in part to get away from that. Though she knows me to be the same perfectionist who practiced classical piano for hours every day beginning at age six, she somehow missed the point that I am far harder on myself than she could ever be.
My mother was born during the Depression, the third from the youngest in a family of eight children. Though she clearly didn’t get enough attention while growing up, she “made” something of herself. She went to bible college, then found work in insurance and banking. At every job, she was promoted. Her keen natural business sense and professional demeanor would have landed her a high flying job at a major firm had she been born a generation later.
At 23, she married a man who was studying to become a Protestant minister. She remained faithful to him (though that faithfulness was not returned) through thick and thin, over 47 years of marriage.
Right around my fortieth birthday, my mother finally accepted that I would never marry. That I was going to travel, to work independently, to author books and plays—that the house in the suburb with husband, kids and SUV was not going to happen.
Though she has accepted the reality of how I live, including stints as a full-time volunteer in foreign countries and nonpaying creative work, it’s only in theory. She still harps about my income and lack of retirement investments. In one of our recent phone conversations, she scolded with her typical candor, “You’re aging! How are you going to live at sixty? Or seventy!?”
This still strikes me as a debilitating moment, though to a lesser extent than it did in the past. I consider surviving the depression and anxiety I battled for years to be a bigger accomplishment than most of the things I’ve accomplished outwardly. Yet how could I have gotten through those terrible years, without the discipline and strength that she instilled in me early on?
She is rock-granite-hard where most of us are only basically equipped to deal with life. She is tough and resilient where most of us are bitter or nostalgic. She is philosophical and accepting where I am eternally asking Why.
When she walked down the aisle for the second time at age 75, having been a widow for three years, it was an affirmation not only of her love for the fine man she’d met. It was an affirmation of our lives together—of us four kids, the dog, the houses we’d lived in, the father who wasn’t home very much and was often abusive when he was. An affirmation that life is worth it, that it is in a constant state of renewal, that it goes on.
She’d affirmed that through the drudgery of life, through the many times she’d driven me to lessons, rehearsals and get-togethers that kids need and require. The times I was able to tell her my heart had been broken, and the times I wasn’t. The times she’d lent me money and commiserated that some jobs and some bosses can be very hard to deal with.
Her long-lastingness is symbolized by her age now, but not defined by it. What I see now, though I didn’t appreciate it when I was younger, is her ability to carry on, to be consistent, to stand still where others are only rushing back and forth.
It is her strength and her legacy. It’s what runs underneath the conversation where she has trouble understanding why I find it hard to save and invest. It runs under the things we agree on and the things I no longer bother disagreeing with her on.
It’s what has held us together over the years, and part of why I am still here. She never gave me the impression that it was OK to cut out early in life, to give up or give in. There was a sacred job to do, and we are here to do it.
I have finally forgiven myself for not being the more conservative daughter she wanted me to be, making the “safer” life choices. Much of that strength is down to her—what she modeled for me, and the fortitude that I inherited from her.
That is what is there between us, even when conversation and personalities fail us, as they often will. That is what is real, and that is what remains.
Caroline Oceana Ryan is writer, speaker and author of a travel memoir about Northern Ireland, An Old Castle Standing on a Ford. She blogs about peace, compassion and bullying prevention at carolineoceanaryan.com.