I Can Now See My Mother's Life Reflected In My Own

by Nicole Johnson
A mother holding her baby tight and kissing her forehead
Shanina / iStock

I remember the smell of smoke in our living room. My father sat on the velvet green couch, a Lucky burning in the ashtray beside his tumbler of Scotch. He held one eye on the sports section of the paper, and the other on the nightly news. My mother often came in, though she rarely joined him. The living room, with it’s intricately beaded throw pillows, belonged to him.

From the kitchen came sounds of the radio, low melodies whispered about love and loss as my mother hummed along. That room was to my mother what the living room was to my father. She owned it. After loading the dishes into the dishwasher, with its butcher block top, and hooking the silver nozzle to the sink, she would write out the bills. The soft tap of calculator keys and the tape roll as it ticked away hard-earned dollars and cents, comforted me as I moved from my bed to the black and silver table-top television in order to change the station.

I remember the quiet stillness of domesticity as my parents unwound from days filled with work and responsibilities I couldn’t yet understand. I would lie in bed and try to fall asleep to the muffled sounds of the television and radio, the sounds of a life they had created and were maintaining. I would dream of one day being an adult myself so I could recreate my own rules.

As I sit in my own living room now—an adult, a mother, a woman—I am reminded of my own childhood, but instead of focusing on the little girl I once was and identifying with her feelings and the restless desperation of wanting to grow up, I identify with my mother. I know what it means to manage a life I quietly try to balance while attempting to remember who I was before the children, the marriage, the house. I know my mother now in a way that I never could before.

I finally see, not who I thought she was, but who she really was. I see her relationship with my father reflected in my own marriage. The fights about money and children that scared me as a child scare me still, but for very different reasons. Now I understand the fights between two married people because I am a participant in fights of my own.

I finally know the sadness my mother felt when my father disappointed her. I have a new appreciation for how hard it was to hold an entire world together while still trying to remain a whole person in her own right. I am the woman she once was, and I wish I could tell her that I understand, but now she is gone. Life has a funny way of allowing us to live so many lives ourselves. I wish I could thank my mom for giving me a part of her that would be mine and only mine. I wish for more time to listen to the lessons her life held for me as I try to live one so similar. I wish I could tell her that I finally get it.

Lying in bed at night, I often think of her dreaming and wanting. I think of her planning her life the way I do now. I think of how quickly it all passed. I wonder if she thought, as I do, about how everything would someday end. I suppose we all do, even if only subconsciously. I am living the life my mother once did, as my daughter will one day live the life I live now. It is a circle, a line, a square, a curving path, that while different in the details, is similar in the broader strokes. The symmetry of our lives is powerful and frightening. The world my mother lived in during her middle years is a mirror to the one I live in now.

I recall her rushing and raging. I remember her body as she went through the hormonal changes of midlife. I hear her voice from the past as she yells and hums and makes all the other sounds of motherhood, midlife and marriage. I miss her, but I feel blessed that I have had a chance to see life from both sides.