I am blessed with an inordinate number of very wise friends, with whom I can not only goof off and have fun but also with whom I can talk about things that really matter.
One such friend and I were catching up. A lot of crap was going down for both of us, most traumatically her dad’s being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. She told me about visiting her parents, about going to the doctor with them, about her mother’s fear of a future without her husband. And then she said she was just so, so glad that she had been able to get through all the wildly opposing views she and her parents held, and all the anger and all the resentment—and get to a place where she and her father were reconciled. “And I suddenly realized that they are my people,” she said, “the people that would do absolutely anything in the world, in a minute, for me.”
That got us going on our changing relationships with our parents. Yes, indeed, they are our people. Our parents are irreplaceable. They would go to any lengths to help us. And now, we had to be our parents’ people, too.
I tried to pinpoint what had happened with my relationship with my mother in recent years. I spent decades focusing all my efforts on separating my identity from my mother’s. But what in God’s name would I be doing now still trying to separate at my age and hers? I appreciate all that is wonderful about her, and am willing to name those traits I’ve inherited from her—well, the positive ones, at least! Also, with age my mom has shrunk a few inches, and maybe that physical reality somehow is a metaphor for no longer feeling she looms over me.
I was finally able to extend to her the compassion that I had been working on extending to other people. And when that happened, everything shifted. It opened up an empathy about our identities as mothers, as single women, as human beings on journeys of aging. I love the time we spend together.
So there’s that. There’s also a sense both my friend and I have that our parents have softened with age. We debated whether this happens because for the first time they have a sense of vulnerability (or is it just the first time we realize it?), or because they have a strength in their own identity, a being comfortable in their own skin, where they don’t have to prove themselves to anybody.
She and I also talked about the great circle of life from being a child to being a parent yourself. Now we were the ones would do absolutely anything for our own children, no matter what they did, or what they said, or how much they took us for granted, just like we did our own parents for so many years.
A couple of years ago the defensiveness with which I’d related to my mother for so many years was staring me in the face in the form of my son’s suddenly irritated dealings with me. Wow, I did not see that coming! I realized I didn’t want that outdated relationship with my mom to be the model I presented for him to relate to me. So I started back-pedaling for all I was worth, and trying to explain to him the transformation.
Another friend used to have her own issues with her mother. But in a short few years she has gone from a stand-off to having invited her to live with her, and doing that with a genuinely open embrace and respect that has her mother retaining her dignity even as she has to recognize her increasing dependence.
And yet, while in some ways the tables have turned, our parents continue to be “our people.” A recent trip to visit my father was an immensely nurturing experience thanks to both he and my stepmom, largely because I left all my problems behind and didn’t have to make a single decision or be in charge of a single thing for those few days.
Then, just a few days after my return, it was Christmas. My mom had always been very anxious about the careful handling of her mother’s delicate, gold-rimmed china, which had been stored at my house for years. That anxiety made me anxious and not inclined to use it for many years. But recently I’ve been getting it out at holidays, because I know how much it means to her. After a delicious dinner, we sat relaxing over coffee and dessert. I told everyone to leave their dishes on the table, saying since Sammy cooked, I’d clean up and wash them by hand as usual later. My mother raised her head deliberately, looked at me like a child proffering a dare, and said, “Or, we could fly in the face of common wisdom and put them in the dishwasher.” She was more worried about me (nursing a couple of physical ailments at the time) than about the possibility of a slight wearing down of the gold on the dishes she cherished. And that, for me, was golden.
“Our primary relationship is really with ourselves. Our relationships with other people constantly reflect exactly where we are in the process.” (Shakti Gawain)