I talk to my mother nearly every day on the phone. I call to ask her whether I can still eat the chicken that has a sell-by date of last Thursday, or whether I should get a new mattress because mine is suspiciously lumpy. We talk about everything—the Gabriel Byrne show on HBO, my boyfriend’s new job, her photography, my writing, Oma’s last trip to the doctor—the same things we would talk about if we still lived under the same roof.
One of her chatty e-mails—in which she referred to Ed Koch as New York City’s “eunuch mayor”—was the inspiration for the book I co-wrote, Love, Mom. It’s a collection of e-mails, texts, and instant messages from mothers to their adult children, and the flood of submissions my co-writer, Doree Shafrir, and I got for the book made me realize that the constant, amiable connections I had with my mother were not unique. You could read the book—and I’m sure many people do—as a portrait of an emotionally stunted generation unable to make a move without Mommy’s counsel. But there’s a lot to be said for this new mother-daughter model we’ve invented, especially compared with its predecessor.
When my mother was my age, my parents lived and worked in the Bronx, as medical residents and then interns. My grandparents lived 45 minutes north, and every Sunday my mother and father would schlep upstate for dinner, their dirty laundry in tow. Though this may seem like a fair amount of contact, especially by 1970s standards, these interactions were prescribed. My mother and her mother drank my grandmother’s infamously lethal martinis and gossiped about the extended family. But there was never a word about anyone’s inner life. In between these somewhat formal visits, there were no phone calls, no letters, not a word.
In fact, my mother can’t remember her mother ever writing, but that’s selective amnesia. I remember the birthday cards Oma wrote my mother, always on genteel stationery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The cards included checks and the instructions that my mother should spend the money on something frivolous for herself.
My grandmother, even in her 90s, has an air of joie de vivre, though there is something circumspect to her charm. She will draw you out with an entertaining story, like the time she met a dissipated John Cheever at the Peekskill DMV before he sobered up. I always got a sense her trifles were intended to distract you from something. My grandparents came to the United States in 1938 from Vienna, Austria. It was an unspoken rule that one did not inquire about that past.
We all knew about the factories lost by Oma’s family and that many in my Opa’s family had died in the Holocaust. But there were basic facts we didn’t know, as we discovered at her recent 95th birthday party. Since my grandfather died in 2005, she had become a little more open about their early years. She’d mentioned the fun they had seeing the original Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya and the evenings out dancing before the Nazis came. On this night, she mentioned, almost blithely:
“There was a brother and a sister.”
We’d always known my grandfather had been sent away to Belgium. Apparently, his siblings had stayed in Vienna and had died of starvation. My mother said nothing. I figured she had known about this, that there was more to my grandfather’s family than his ne’er-do-well brother, Hugo, whose familial claim to fame was his appetite for hookers. On the way home from dinner, I asked, just to make sure.
“I had never heard about them before,” she said, “but there’s a lot I didn’t know about their past.” She didn’t seem upset. By then she had already integrated the image of her parents as immigrants who wanted to assimilate quickly and forget the past.
This is not a place my mother came to without pain. A natural introvert, the silencing cues she got from her parents pushed her further into herself. Instead of acting out, she followed the intellectual path to self knowledge: She became a psychiatrist. This was her way of exploring without making familial waves.
My brother and I are the beneficiaries of all her hard work. When we left for college, she told us that she didn’t want to get in the way of our independence, so she would never call us, though we could call whenever we wanted. The result is me on the other end of the phone asking about spoiled chicken. And my mother talking about her latest depressing novel, or expensive cheese, or someone she’s met and sized up perfectly, revealing herself as a full person in the way her own mother never did.
So, yes, my mother and I are “friends,” but not in the way my friends and I are friends. Even if one day my mother discovers how to use Google chat, she will never be my peer. As I get older, I look to her for solutions less and less. But knowing that she’s there to answer questions is an irreplaceable comfort.
This piece also appears in Double X.