I opened my mouth the other day, and my mother popped out.
This was not supposed to happen, ever—at least not when I am still this young.
My sister and I used to joke together, back in our younger days (like, in our 30s) about how our mother was turning into Grandma. We’d chuckle that self-righteous laugh, because we knew that was never going to happen to us.
But somewhere along the line, we grew older and slid into another decade. We didn’t recognize that fact, at least not out loud and not to one another. After all, those odd stray gray hairs appearing at the most inopportune moments can be covered up. That “middle-age stretch?” Well, that’s what blousy tops and jeans with spandex are for. We can still rock it with the best of them…mostly.
Then one afternoon, after a particularly aggravating argument with a teenager, my lips parted, and my mother came hopping out: “Jason Patrick Dean (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent), if all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?!”
Oh my God.
There are no appropriate words to describe the look on my face when I recognized the momentous event that had just happened. How many times had I heard this same exact phrase throughout my own teenage years? I called my sister to commiserate. “I know,” she said. “I’ve already heard Mom’s words come out of my mouth too.”
For the record, although she is several years younger than I am, my sister started her family earlier, so she was slightly ahead of me on this downward slide. “I was afraid to say anything. I hoped it wasn’t happening,” she said. As we started talking and comparing notes, we came to the conclusion that we’d been guilty of this for more years than we cared to admit.
“Don’t make me come in there!”
“Don’t use that tone with me.”
“It’s for your own good.”
“I know all. I have eyes in the back of my head.”
“As long as you live under my roof…”
“Close the door. Do you live in a barn?”
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
“Do you think money grows on trees?”
“Because I’m the mom.”
“Because I said so.”
The statements varied with the ages of the children. There were the standard responses we used on the younger ones, and then as their years advanced, we gradually slipped into the intermediate course of Mother Talk, rapidly earning credits that would have us graduating with honors.
The day when that first phrase leaps out and you recognize that it’s your mother talking instead of calm, rational, grown-up, independent you–I think that’s your graduation day, the day you take the mantel (whether you want it or not) and carry on down the road. That’s the day when you realize you’re on a long, slippery slope and you’re sliding down it much faster than you ever expected to.
Not that we’d ever wished to move on down this road. During our 20s and 30s, we thought we were immune to this syndrome. We were strong. We were invincible. We were our own women, not ones who would parrot our mother for the rest of our lives.
“I’m going to give you to the count of three.”
“I’ve had it up to here!”
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
The memories of words spoken long ago come drifting back through my memory. That’s when I realize I’ve been my mother all along. This change didn’t magically appear in my 40s. I’ve been her. I’ve just dressed her up in different clothes and makeup to disguise something I didn’t want to acknowledge.
“I’ll treat you like an adult when you become an adult.”
I guess I am now officially an adult.
I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry for all the times we laughed about how you were becoming more like Grandma Jones every day.
While we’re on the subject, I may as well apologize for all the times I talked back to you. For the times I didn’t clean my room—instead, I shoved everything under my bed. For the times I lied to you about where I’d been or what I’d done. For all the times I didn’t appreciate you or the sacrifices you made to give us what you could.
“If I told you once, I told you a thousand times…” Yes, you did probably tell us a thousand times, just as we’ve repeated to our own children.
I take a look in the mirror. A slight twist, a slight squint of the eyes. Yes, there she is—my mother. Maybe this growing older part isn’t all as bad as I’d thought.