At Arm’s Length

I watched a short interview about Moms. The woman-on-the-street asked passers by in Manhattan, “What was the best advice your mother ever gave you?” The responses ranged from “always put on clean underwear” to “don’t EVER get married”. I’ve been sitting with this interview, somewhat disturbed, because for the life of me I can’t recall ANY advice my mother EVER gave me that was “best” or even “good”. Worse than that I can barely remember any advice at all!

My mom died more than 10 years ago. I still miss her. I had the blessing of leaving her at 18, with a return or two for short stints before leaving for good at 23. I had the added blessing of having my parents follow me to my rural community more than a decade later.  We decided to live on adjoining properties. Initially I went into shock and immediately into therapy. The good news is I received the gift of getting to know my parents as people, the good people they had always been. I grew from wanting to run away, as many children do and must, to loving them from the deepest part of my being.

As I reflected when I first “left home”, I couldn’t understand how two intelligent people could be such bad parents. When I look back with my high school friends and the long conversations we’ve had as adults about those days, my parents weren’t all that “bad”. One thing we have in common is that we all feel as though we raised ourselves. Our parents endured the Depression and World War II. They were thrilled to give us the things they never had. And they were clueless — of what we were doing and with whom. They didn’t create healthy parameters and boundaries. They rarely expressed interest in my life, though they were always willing to give rides to lessons, dance classes, friends houses and after school activities. They loved me and did what parents “do” for their kids.  They were so absorbed in their own Manhattan working, suburban living, lives — and simultaneously, they were confused, detached, over-engaged, under-engaged about parenting.

My mother held me at arm’s length. Afraid to be close, afraid to let down her tough armor, afraid I would see how vulnerable she was. As I got to know her as an adult, she began to let that armor go. As I learned to love, as I became the nurturer, she opened her heart.

It was a different Mommy that I saw when my son was born. She and my dad arrived at the hospital to hold their two-hour-old grandson and my mom’s eyes filled with tears of joy and wonder. My dad laughed and cried. He saw his grandson younger than he saw me. When my mother was in labor in 1951, he dropped her off at the hospital and took the train to the city to work, receiving the news by phone and seeing me in the evening, after cigars and martinis not doubt.

How things change. I know that grandparents are different than parents. Given close proximity, they have the luxury of spoiling grandchildren with the time and attention they may not have had for their own children. Yet my mother changed so much that she was almost unrecognizable.

My son recalls his Mimi as his champion. Recently, he told me that Mimi was the one person in his life who loved him unconditionally. I do believe that if unconditional love is even possible, Nick and Mimi had that. Mimi “got over” her terror of snakes, because she was determined her grandson would not be afraid of snakes. She took him on walks exploring the grounds in search of “Luigi”, as Mimi named all the snakes, large and small, corn snake to garter. There time together was precious, secrets told, songs sung, snuggles shared, books read, giggles and booming laughter. I could be jealous if it hadn’t been such a joy to witness this special relationship between Mimi and Nick, to know that my mother was capable of that kind of love and Nick was the lucky recipient. My son experienced something so special and precious that he will hold this love in his heart for a lifetime. He grew to be a kind child and young man, in part because of her love. He helped me care for her in the last few years of her life. He joked with her, made her laugh, helped with her walker, encouraged her to finish her salad. He was there at the end with her, as she had been at the beginning with both of us. Holding and loving, close and sure.

At arm’s length with Mommy [continued below]

Mommy and Me

Mommy and Me

With her grandson, close, heart-to-heart, vulnerable, loving, loved and in love. And it is all perfect. Nick and Mimi

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5 Responses to At Arm’s Length

  1. CoachBarbie says:

    Such an intimate glimpse into your life and your relationships. I admire the way write with love and understanding, while still being vulnerable enough to admit the twinges of jealousy. Seems both you and your mother matured over the years! I hope my own son is as understanding about my shortcomings when he matures.

  2. Win says:

    Very real and moving. Pictures are great!

  3. Kris says:

    So true. So wise. Thank you for this wonderful remembering.

  4. Beautiful, Cate. Times were so different when we were growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. You were truly blessed to experience such a loving relationship between your son and his grandmother.

  5. lexiesnana says:

    Grandkids do that to people and I don’t know why. This was lovely and made me remember my champion grandma!

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