I place the phone in its cradle (yes, I still use that kind of phone) and allow the sound of my daughter’s enthusiastic voice to fade. We have just finished what used to be our weekly, Sunday morning phone visit and now is our in-the-car-on-the-way-home from-work call. I know when she’s pulling into her driveway because she always chirps,
“I’m glad everything is good with you, Mom. I love you.” That signals the tender end to our conversation. I have received my allotted time.
This is not a complaint. My daughter and I love one another deeply and our relationship is sustaining and satisfying to both of us. Yet there is always a moment, in the quiet after I hang up the phone, that I hear the questions that remain unasked. She doesn’t yet know enough about what it is to be an old woman to know what they are.
I can’t expect her to be interested in or curious about an experience she knows nothing about. I don’t talk to her about my body and its decline. About my crepe skin, aching joints, the ways in which I work harder to hear, see, remember. Daily life is more complicated at seventy-nine. I marshal my energy, reach for my good spirits, and try hard to gather up all the assorted post-it notes that are designed to alert me to what needs to be accomplished that day. All these subjects are sources of gallows humor with my women friends. The organ recital, we laughingly call it. But these are not subjects I discuss with my daughter. She would respond with genuine sympathy and concern, I know, but not that immediate sense of rueful recognition I receive from women my own age.
She is in the midst of a very complicated and demanding professional, personal, and domestic life and must remember every single necessary and relevant detail. Just as I once did. She juggles everything expertly. As did I. Now, she reports what she calls, “the chapter headings” on her way home from work.
I remember my phone calls with my mother when I was in my early fifties and she was my age. Like my daughter, I wanted her to know what I was doing in my active life, and I provided her the high points. But the more granular details—the love affair that was limping towards its end, the fear that my job might be unstable, the menopausal mood swings—those remained unsaid. I wanted and needed her to feel that everything was all right with me. That I was fine. That she didn’t need to worry about me.
Then I’d ask, “And you, Ma? Are you ok?”
She’d always respond, “Yes, honey. Everything here is good.”
Maybe she’d add a sentence or a detail or two, but I simply never thought to ask her any questions. About her friends, her body, her dreams, her aging. I assumed there would always be time for such a conversation. That I would know what questions to ask and when. Questions about compromise, adjustments, deferred dreams.
I understand now, all these years later, that in our phone calls she needed me to think that everything was all right with her. She never spoke about her loneliness, the hours she spent looking out her front window watching cars pull up to the front entrance of her apartment building and disgorging families who had come to visit. Grandchildren who arrived to spend the day with their grandmas. She never asked if she could come for a visit, worried that there would be a pause, just a beat too long, and I might tell her that it wasn’t a good time—perhaps in the summer when the children were out of school and my work slowed up. And I never thought to ask what she felt when she looked out her front window. I do know now and want my own daughter to ask me. But she isn’t there yet.
I can see my mother’s life so much more clearly now that she is dead and I am old. I can allow my mind and my heart to wander through all the doorways she kept closed. To protect herself and me. She placed all her dreams upon my life, with both the sense of loss and pride that accompanied those gifts.
My mother kept much of her life from me, imagining she was behaving appropriately by not complaining and putting forward a good face to her children— values she took seriously.
Now I too am an old woman. Like my mother, I’m proud of my daughter. She has outgrown her need for me to know the details of her life. I don’t want to burden her with the details of mine. I’m careful not to complain in our phone calls, and I put forward an optimistic and positive spin on my life. I don’t say I worry about my memory, or my finances, or my arthritis. She doesn’t need to know I worry. We fill those spaces with “chapter headings” and end with a deeply felt, “I love you.” The rest remains, for now, in the silences.
MORE ABOUT IT NEVER ENDS
As mothers and daughters age, their relationship shifts and changes in complex and often demanding ways. In It Never Ends, women speak openly about the satisfactions and sorrows of mothering middle-aged daughters and discuss the issues that continue to surface, the ongoing effects of the past on the present, and the varied and often invisible ways they continue mothering. Mothers acknowledge an inevitable recalibrating of authority, autonomy, and independence now that they no longer are as central in the lives of their daughters as they once were.
In these pages mothers reveal the courage that comes with aging and their engagement in a time of reckoning: acknowledging past mistakes, forgiving themselves and their daughters, and moving toward a greater acceptance of their connection in all its human imperfection.