Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Outgrowing My Mother

Okay, I admit: I haven't had to grapple (much) with the effects of aging yet. I haven't hit the 30-mark and honestly, I'm more worried about building my nest egg, having healthy kids, getting my hubby through a few more years of medical residency than things like gray hair popping up on my head. Still, I know from my mom, who isn't someone you'd describe as vain despite her inner and outer beauty, has said approaching 60 has been more challenging than she'd imagined. She has said the biggest challenge is that she'll look in the mirror and be shocked at what she sees - not because she thinks she looks bad but because she feels so much younger than she thinks she looks.

Yet, she's also quick to silence any negative thoughts about her aging and to be grateful for those lines of life (what we call wrinkles and what so many women are trying to erase with Botox, facelifts, or in the very least, expensive creams) because it means she has outgrown her mother whose own life ended at the young age of 46.

This Thanksgiving, I remember the grandmother I never knew. She passed away on Thanksgiving Day 39 years ago. I also welcome any harbingers of old age that will eventually come my way as signs as that I have lived a long, happy life. And I say a prayer of thanks for the wonderful relationship I share with my mom, my daughters' Gaba.

Now here's a guest post called "Outgrowing My Mother" written by Eileen Pankow, my own lovely mom:

For what it’s worth, I figured I’d be dead by now. As an adult orphan, I can’t really visualize myself growing old gracefully. Really, I can’t picture myself growing old at all.

When my mother succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 46, she had beautiful skin, hair in all the right places, few wrinkles and very little cellulite. So that’s the way I always figured I wanted to go – not the dying of breast cancer part, but looking good when I went. So it was a rude awakening when I looked in the mirror a few years ago and saw long, graying nasal hairs, crow’s feet and dimpled thighs staring back at me. Instead of just being happy that I was still alive at 51, I found myself scrutinizing every wrinkle and age spot.

People say women turn into in their mothers, but my mother didn’t live long enough for me to turn into her. Or maybe I’ve lived so long that I’ve somehow outgrown her. I was 16 when she died, and sometimes my mental image of her is fuzzy, much like the old, faded pictures I peruse through, searching for a likeness.

I don’t have a model to compare myself to as I age, but there have been a lot of other things I’ve missed as I’ve gone through life without a mother. I often wonder if my mother enjoyed reading Janet Evanovich-type novels? Did she fantasize herself in the embrace of one of those fictional hunks? Did she ever wish she had been a bounty hunter or a forensic scientist? I can’t remember what types of books she liked to read or what heroines she admired.

Then there’s my health history – something people with parents take for granted. I cringe when I have to fill out one of those long medical questionnaires.

“Does breast cancer run in your family?” Yes. That’s easy.

“Did you ever have chicken pox?” Hmmm… I vaguely remember pulling a bandage off of my knee when I was about 6 and seeing one little bump. My siblings were both getting over chicken pox, so I was very pleased and excited to see this tiny, red bulge. I didn’t want to be left out. I’m not really sure if the bump was chicken pox, and I have no mother to confirm or deny my symptom as being anything more than a mosquito bite.

“German Measles?” I had one of the measles, but I don’t know if it was of the German, or Polish or Greek variety.

“Does anyone in your family have high cholesterol?” How do I know? My mother (and father) died before they even started testing for cholesterol, the good or bad kind.

Then there were the landmark moments in my life when I really felt my mother was missing. Planning a wedding can be a stressful affair for any bride, but being 18 and without maternal assistance, it can be devastating. Undaunted, I planned one, canceled it and planned it again, all in a three-month period. I didn’t doubt the love of my future husband (now of 37 years), but a part of me didn’t want - couldn’t picture - a wedding without my mother there to share it with me. It’s a visual thing. My child’s eye, even as an adult, can’t envision some things without Mom at my side. And maybe if my mother had been alive, she’d have talked me out of those bright yellow and white floral bridesmaid dresses.

My first pregnancy brought its own set of problems. Was it normal to throw up every morning for nine months? How much weight did my mother gain? And when the bundle of joy arrived, I wondered which end to powder. I was clueless, but I was on my own, except for Dr. Spock – a poor substitution for a mother’s wisdom.

Despite many unanswered questions, there are some things I do remember about my mother. For instance, I know for a fact that my mother was a fastidious housekeeper. I have pictures to prove it. And I – for better or worse – share her fervor for cleaning and organizing. The smell of ammonia, washing down cabinets, alphabetizing DVDs, ironing sheets and trying out a new vacuum cleaner make me tingle all over.

I also vaguely remember my mom having trouble with clich├ęs. I wonder if it’s a genetic disorder since my daughter, older sister and I all share this unique challenge. Are we all a chip off the old shoulder?

I’ve lived almost four decades without my mother, and there are many things I’ve forgotten or wonder about. But what I do know is that I still miss her, that my mother was my best friend, that she laughed at and with me, she made me feel like I could conquer the world, and she loved me unconditionally, even when I squirted ginger ale all over the freshly painted ceiling. And when I think about it, I’m happy to say I'm probably everything my mother would have been after she turned more than a half-a-century old – wrinkles, cellulite and all. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the cart.


Cathy Adamkiewicz said...

Eileen -- thank you for this wonderful post! I feel I've gotten to know you a bit through Kate's blog (it is obvious that you are an awesome mom and the world's best Gaba!)
Hearing "you'll turn into your mother" can be scary to some, but I know Kate has nothing to fear!

momto5minnies said...

I just popped on over here ... somehow.

BEAUTIFUL post!!!!!!