When my father was a few months younger than I am now, he tried to throw my mother a surprise party.
She was turning thirty, and although she had never been the sort of person who particularly cares about that sort of thing, thirty is kind of a big deal. It signals a farewell to a specific kind of youth and identity, and as my six months younger father cared quite a bit about that sort of thing, he wanted to do something memorable.
He put a lot of work into the party. He invited dozens of people, all of whom were thrilled to come and celebrate my mom- who would never in a hundred years organize anything like it for herself. And as my father was not exactly competent when it came to party planning, he delegated most of the food-related tasks to other people. But one thing he did do was order cheesecakes from a local bakery.
He placed an order for a dozen cakes, in a variety of flavors, to surprise his wife who loved cheesecake. Their friends would bring food, potluck style, their friends’ children would play with me and my sisters, and my mother would experience a spectacular thirtieth birthday party.
That was his plan. But in the early spring of 1987, a terrible flu spread through the city of Pittsburgh. The morning of the party he collected the cheesecakes, and the phone calls started coming in. All but three guests, or their children, had started puking and couldn’t come. My dad cancelled the party, and he and my mom celebrated her thirtieth birthday quietly, packing as much cheesecake as they could into the freezer and living off the remainder for the rest of the month.
I was completely oblivious to these events. I was three years old, and my memory of my mother’s thirtieth birthday is that my parents smiled a lot, my sisters and I got My Little Ponies, and the house was unusually clean.
Now, I feel like I understand my parents. Why my father, at my age, would have wanted so badly to do something special. I understand why my mother, at my age, with three children the ages of my children, would go out and buy them presents for her birthday.
I understand how helpless my father must have felt to make one day, any day, all about her. And I understand how much the gesture must have meant to my mother.
Now, I get it.
When you stay at home all day, when your job is your children, life is only about you if something awful happens. If you get very sick, or injured, or you lose a loved one. The only other way to make something about you is for you to make it about you, and let’s face it… nothing saps the fun out of a happy occasion like sitting down with your kids and forcing them to make you cards. The easiest way to be certain you have a good time is to make sure they’re happy. And that’s why my memories of my mother’s birthday involve my new stuffed purple pony hopping up and down on the dining room table.
As I near my own thirtieth birthday, I think about this. I think about my father as he was then, thickening around the middle, wearing faded blue jeans and subversive t-shirts. I can see his wide smile, his deep dimples, his bright eyes. I can picture him at my age, as clearly as I can picture him now. He looks like a stranger, or a distant cousin. This memory of him feels nothing like my father the entity, the man who, for me, defined men. But from my memories I can put him together, like a puzzle. These aren’t just images from photographs, not remembrances of pictures of him twenty five years ago. These are flesh and blood imprints he made in my mind.
But not my mother. I can picture the photographs of her, yes, but no matter how I wrack my brain I can’t see her as she was when she turned thirty years old.
I can see her hands, rolling cookie dough into balls, dropping them gracefully onto a pan. I can see her ring clear as day, and her fingernails, and her wrists.
I can see the backs of her jeans as she walks ahead of me down the sidewalk, the tail of her shirt hiding her back pocket as she pulls out her wallet to give me a dollar for the ice cream truck.
I can see her bare legs laying in front of her on the porch floor, her ankles crossed and a train of ants walking across them. They look like my legs.
I can see her silhouette at the bottom of the stairs, casually warning me to give up my attempts to somersault down to the living room.
I can see the barrette in the back of her hair as she sits at the table.
But I cannot see her face. I can’t assemble these pieces. My mother is an invisible force of nature, a supernatural entity made of love and discipline and constant presence.
I looked at my father when I was a child. I studied him, this person I loved, who lived with me but who’s comings and goings from a mysterious place called “work” carried the weight of disappearances and reinvention. I never had to look at my mother.
I was always confident she was there. Maybe not in sight, but nearby. If I shouted she would appear. If I misbehaved she would reprimand me. If I was suddenly scared or hurt or sad for any reason, I could run to her and wrap my arms around her blue jeans and her elegant hands with their narrow wrists and simple ring would run through the hair on top of my head, and her voice would echo from the everywhere of motherhood.
I can hear her voice, my thirty year old mother, but I can’t distinguish the words. It’s a hum that fills the universe, that permeates every fiber in existence, that rumbles through my bones and soothes them. I can hear its cadence.
At thirty years old, my mother was invisible to me.
Now, I am her.
Like my father, birthdays matter to me. I don’t know why exactly, but they do. Superficial, I know, but I still feel it. And like my father, I feel helpless to give this event some kind of meaning. I sympathize with him so much, this twenty-nine-year-old father of three. I understand him.
And I believe I understand my mother. But to me she will always be something of a mystery. No matter how closely my family parallels hers, no matter how similar our struggles and joys and the mundane details of our daily lives, no matter how much I understand her as she is now, I will never be able to put my feet into her shoes and sympathize with her thirty year old life the way I do my father’s.
And in a way, this makes me feel closer to every mother. To every other woman who has been a shadow, an omnipresent force in their children’s lives. To every stay-at-home parent whose children don’t bother to look at them when they come or go, who rush past and ignore them because they will always be there. It makes me feel closer to them, and at the same time it fills me with grief so deep I can hardly name it.
I am this vibration, this mysterious force. And in my own ethereal, faceless way, I will also be erased from my children’s memories, continuously replaced by the constantly changing, endlessly aging face before them.
In my memories, if I must picture my mother, I see her now. Maybe a little less grey, maybe somewhat thinner, but still- as she is now. Familiar glasses. Familiar lines on her face. Not the slender, black haired twenty-something beauty I know she was.
That girl, that young woman, she is somebody I will never know.
I feel the grief that I have already lost part of my mother forever.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was the only child so self centered that they never bothered to look up, but I doubt it. I see it in my own children who once stared forever at me unblinking as they lay swaddled in my arms, and now run past without so much as a glance when I remind them to wash their hands or hang up their coats.
Maybe it isn’t turning thirty that bothers me. Maybe it’s losing myself in motherhood. Maybe it’s the fear that I’m already gone, replaced by this ghost who’s voice will soothe my children’s memories, long after I’ve died.
And while I mourn this former me, I am filled with a guilt and a joy so great they bring me to tears.
I have always wanted to be this thing, immortal and benevolent and profoundly loved. Loved until I dissolved into the enormity of the word, until it absorbed me and replaced me with the all powerful phantom caring for every child, every person, with a fierceness so raw and so bold and yet so constant they disappeared into it.
I have always wanted to be a mom.