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December 06, 2006

Mothers and Daughters

By Elaine Viets

"My mother will be at dinner," my friend Emily said.

"Good," I said. "I want to meet her."

There was a slight hesitation. "My mom likes to talk."

"She has the gift of gab," I said.

"It’s a gift that keeps on giving," Emily said, and sighed. "I hope she won’t be a trial."

Emily’s mother was napping when we arrived. She made a grand entrance, coming down the stairs slowly, holding her audience. She was an elegant woman on the shady side of seventy, very thin and straight-backed. The first view of her was startling. It was like looking at a picture of Emily that had been artificially aged.

A talking picture. Emily is a quiet person. Her mother regaled us with stories of her life in the arts and the theater. She talked nonstop, but she was entertaining. She wasn’t loud or drunk. But I could tell Emily was upset.

I went into the kitchen to help Emily. She was in an agony of embarrassment. She fussed over the sweet potato casserole and lost the serving spoons.

"No one can get a word in edgewise," she whispered. "Look at that. Mary hasn’t had a chance to say anything. Neither has Don."

"We enjoy her," I said. "We’re listening."

"You can’t do anything else when Mother’s here," Emily said.

During dinner, Emily tried valiantly to turn the conversation back to her other guests, but her mother deftly wrested each topic away from them and turned it back to herself.

I was enjoying the struggle. Emily was not. Midway through dinner, she jumped up and said, "I forgot the salad."

"Emily makes the best salads," her mother said. "I used to, before I had to work."

Emily fled to the kitchen. I followed with a stack of dirty plates.

"She’s telling the story now about how she went to work when we didn’t have any money," Emily said through gritted teeth. "I’ve heard it a thousand times."

"We haven’t," I said. "It’s an interesting story. Your mother was very clever. It was hard for women to get good jobs back then."

"I know. I know. I just wish . . ."

"Emily," I said. "It’s OK."

"It’s not OK," Emily said. "She monopolizes every conversation."

"She’s entertaining," I said. "And we get to listen to the stories without years of old baggage. Go sit down, and enjoy her like we do."

Emily tried. But she had a haunted look. I’d seen it before on good daughters’ faces when their beloved mothers started a political lecture, asked an embarrassing question or took over the conversation.

Fathers and sons are natural enemies, the saying goes. But mothers and daughters often become allies once they get through the difficult teen years.

That’s when you hear the refrain, "I love my mother, but . . ." I’ll hear it a lot more during the holiday season, when I visit my friends’ homes. I’ll see that stricken look when Mom pulls out a cigarette in the nonsmoking kitchen, or starts talking about dear departed drunken uncle Horace, or asks, "When are you two getting married?" or "When are you giving me grandchildren?"

The mothers are exercising the privileges of old age, which allow frank (and nonstop) talk. The daughters will react like Emily.

Emily loves her mother like a good daughter. She wants her to be perfect. Poor Emily will never understand that it is her mother’s imperfections that make her so fascinating.

Until Emily herself is on the shady side of seventy, and terrorizing her daughter.

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Comments

Is that some of Josie's voice I hear? Really interesting post, Elaine. The holidays really seem to magnify our parent-child issues, both good and bad.

I have a couple of friends who recently lost their mothers, and all those things that used to make them crazy are already becoming fonder memories.

Emily is lucky to have you as a friend.

Yikes, what are y'all at TLC trying to do to me. First yesterday's blog was about my father. Now today it's my mother.

Come on. We don't have to be over 70 to be terrorizing our children. I take great pride in knowing that I am helping the next generation of psychiatric professionals send their children to top-dollar colleges and prep schools.

That's the spirit, Josh!

Any time I think my mom is driving me crazy, I remember The Manchurian Candidate. Yikes.

Good for you, Josh. We don't want any starving shrinks.
Emily fascinated me. I saw only a funny, chatty older woman, but Emily seemed to re-experience a lifetime of embarrassment as her mother talked on and on.
Elaine

That's where our parents went wrong---by skipping that early training. My kids might have been embarrassed by their mother in kindergarten, but by the end of elementary school they were accustomed to the humiliation. Now my girls are quite kindly disposed toward me and even seem willing to be seen with me in public.

LOL Kathy my mother used to come over and clean my house. Not that it didn't need it but....now that she's gone I appreciate her take charge attitude a lot more

I think you hit the nail squarely on the head, Elaine -- the non-relatives get to enjoy the parents without the lifetime of baggage. I thoroughly enjoy my husband's parents and other relatives, whereas they terrify him. And I cringed the first time I took him to a gathering of my family, but he had a perfectly good time.

I think in some ways that actually helps; having someone else look at our family with fresh eyes helps us appreciate their good points and overlook the not-so-good. At least, that's what we hope for, right?

This generated all kinds of family anxiety for me. I have one on each side of the family. I've come to the conclusion that the monopolizing and not allowing true conversation to happen is about insecurity. The point of every story seems to be for the listener to come to the conclusion that the person telling the story is so clever, interesting and unique, when they are not. It may be that I appreciate some self-depreciation and that is never presented.

Now, I am all for tips on future humiliation of my children. I am guessing that it comes naturally, but any tips would be appreciated. Mine are young, so I have plenty of time.

I am really enjoying the reactions to this blog. Thank you all for stopping by.
Cheryl, as your children become teenagers, the opportunities will grow.
You can wear funny clothes, or worst of all, be a pal and offer to take them to the local high school hangout. That will send them into spasms of horror.
Elaine

I tried to post this earlier, but I guess it didn't go through.
Having lost my mother years ago, I've found some comfort in my mother in law, a rare gift. My sisters in law continue to complain about her (yet talk on the phone to her nearly every day by noon). Sadly, I know what awaits them when their phone no longer rings each morning.
Enjoy your mother now.

When I took my boyfriend home for Christmas ten years ago and he sat attentively through my mother's sailing stories, and worse, the photo albums that accompany the sailing stories (do all oceans look alike? Yes.) while my siblings and I had wandered off, to play poker, to do the dishes, to pass out . . . I knew I had a keeper. I married the guy.

Sweet Story Harley.

Hey Elaine, please bring Emily and her mother to the Main Library when you visit tonight!

I'll be giving a speech at Cinema Dave's library tonight in Fort Lauderdale for the Friends of the Library.
Hope to see you there, Dave.
Elaine

Two members of our TLC Community surrounded by books - somebody call the AP and get a photographer over to Dave's Library!

Hopefully like Nancy's girls my boys are used to being embarassed by me. Started when they were in preschool. My 15yo's friends are a bit scared of me. My 18yo's friends love me cuz I punk the kid every chance I get.

Appreciate her while she's there because you will miss your mother terribly when she's gone. My mom died 10 years ago when I was 34. My first thought,"I'm not finished with the questions I need to ask her yet!!!!"

Public Service Announcement: Blond Bond will be on Letterman tonight.

There, Harley. I shared. Happy?

Twas a nice evening....:)

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