Yesterday was my mother’s 60th birthday. A milestone year. I have these vague recollections of being twelve or thirteen or so and doing the math in my head of how old I’d be and what my life would look like when my mom turned sixty.
A week and a half away from 27, I imagined I’d be settled down somewhere in a rustic Victorian in Vermont working as an elementary school teacher with a horticultural fantasy garden, a Veterinarian husband, and maybe a kid on the way. My neighbors and I would all drink tea together on my immaculate screened-in patio, temperature-controlled for every season, and my life would be not unlike a movie-still from Steel Magnolias–without the southern accents and Diabetes. And as for Mom’s birthday celebration? Well we’d have it at my house, of course, with a three-tier cake, Mom and Dad surrounded by hoards of family and friends, a champagne toast, and tickets to her European vacation wrapped up in a little bow. (“I know how much you’ve always wanted to see Paris at Christmas…” Clink.) And hey, Mom, you think that’s all? You’re gonna be a Grandma! How’s that for 60?! No champagne for me, thanks.
Okay, sure. Pre-teen girls are epic with delusions of grandeur and I was no exception. I did not know that three years later Mom and Dad would split up for good, that my college debt would crush that Victorian dream into shoe-poop and that my eternal spinsterhood would all but suffocate that whole grand-kid thing (here’s hoping for 70?), but my ‘cup half full’ outlook always gets the best of me, and ultimately leaves me bummed out and disappointed, running my finger over the bottom of the glass in search of that last droplet of hope.
What Mom’s 60th actually looked like? Well, let’s just say it’ll at least be memorable:
I take the day off work so I can read in this little poetry gig, a three-minute performance that I almost turn down but I know it’s good to keep “getting my name out”. Mom calls me three times during, wondering if I’ve left yet, cause even though I’ve told her a thousand times what I’ll be doing today and when I’ll be arriving, her capacity to hear me has shriveled with time. “I just couldn’t remember when you said you’ll be coming.”
From the gig, I jet back to my house to pick up the delectable offerings I’ve made for this occasion. Can’t afford an actual gift or a nice dinner out, so I come up with the next best thing: Pot Roast and Sweet Potato Pie–complete with marshmallow topping. When I was a kid, everything came in a box or a carton, but the pot roast was Mom’s claim to fame. Melt in your mouth kind of good. I don’t eat a lot of meat these days and have never made such a dish, but I’m a self-taught culinary mastermind of improvisational prowess and I’m pretty sure Mom’s favorite foods will come out without a glitch. I leave the oven on to slow-roast the beef while I’m gone. But when I get home the roast is still rubbery and I have to leave pronto if I wanna beat the torrential rain that’s supposed to follow me up I-90 and into Central New York.
I pop my pup in the car, plus the unreasonably well-behaved Chihuahua I’ll be fostering for the next six months or so, and think to myself that their cuteness will serve as the gift I couldn’t afford. We make good time and arrive in under an hour and a half. We ring the bell and it takes my Mom something like ten minutes to let us into her little cookie cutter two-story on a hill, opening the door just enough for me to squeeze through for fear that one of her three neurotic cats will run out and throw themselves into traffic. (Premonition? Read on.)
Mom’s in her sweats, swimming in an oversized sweater. It surprises me to see her so small, as she instilled in me such fear and reverence as a kid. Now, seeing her tipping the scales at about 110 lbs., no taller than 5’2, I am dismayed to imagine myself once so small as to hide shyly behind her calves in supermarkets and bank lines.
I begin the night with profuse apologies, “I promise I’ll have something for you to unwrap at Christmas time/Can we throw the roast in your crock pot for a half-hour just to tender it out a bit?” I try to tell her that I can do it all on my own, but this is the woman who can’t even let me open the fridge to pour a ginger ale without instructing me on the best ways to avoid spills. She plops the meat on the stove-top, having sliced it for optimal cook-time and begins telling me where I went wrong with the meat. “Yup. I know, Mom. I know.”
Eventually, dinner’s ready and Mom looks like she’s gonna fall face-down in her potatoes with fatigue. It takes her five minutes to move her fork from her plate to her mouth and I tell her we don’t have to stay too long if she’s so tired. She reacts defensively of course, “What are you talking about, I’m fine!” But her slurred speech tells me she’s on one of her manic nocturnal kicks and probably didn’t sleep last night.
We chew our food in relative silence–“I mean it’s delicious don’t get me wrong, but it’s just a bit too salty for my taste”–and move on to the sweet potato pie. I feel awful for having forgotten her birthday card in my mad-rush out the door, as well as the birthday candles with which I had hoped to decorate the pie. I wonder if Mom finds her birthday party as depressing as I do and wished that she’d had some buddies to smoke a joint with or something, a date to tell her she looks dang good for 60 and give her a reason to dress up or drink wine. But Mom has become nonplussed with human interaction and spends most of her time talking to her cats and cleaning the house. I try not to let the blaring florescent warning signs of my own future blink maniacally at me and chew my beef slow between sips of flat soda. Mom rattles on about how pretty Meghan McCain is and wonders whether or not I’ve heard of a band called “One Direction”. No, never have. She spends the rest of the evening talking to me about Anderson Cooper from behind her kitchen counters while I try not to obsessively check my phone as she stuffs everything in portion-appropriate tupperware.
A couple of years ago I went to my college roommate’s Mom’s 60th birthday. It took place in the backyard of their family’s gorgeous country house, fifty or so people eating pulled-pork sandwiches and drinking beers under a massive tent decorated with seasonal lanterns. A center table was littered with professionally wrapped gifts and her husband made a toast to her that left everyone sniffling.
I don’t know if it’s more about me than it is about my mother that makes me so sad tonight. She doesn’t seem unhappy that there’s no catered party to go to and I’m the only guest she has. It makes me feel terrible to want so much more for her, and at the same time, ashamed at myself for putting so much stock into what she is lacking. The rain is beginning to fall now and I know I have to get the dogs in the car and head for home. I have work in the morning.
Mom hugs me and asks me to be more patient with her. She has this unending (and okay, somewhat validated) complex that her tastes are less sophisticated than mine. No matter how many times I tell her I don’t have a television and don’t care about “The View” she still wants to talk to me about tabloid fodder. I buy her a book for Christmas, I find it a year later in the same drawer she keeps the toilet paper in, no crease to the spine. She thanks me for coming and tells me that the food was delicious. Because she’s my mom, and a constant worrier, she slips a one hundred dollar bill in my pocket, knowing how much it depleted my funds for the week just filling up my tank to get here. I am overcome with guilt and wish I had the wherewithal to say to her, “I don’t need your money!” But here I am, taking the last bit of dough she probably has, on her birthday no less, to make it through the week. I drive away from her house with a knot in my stomach.
On the way home, the rain begins to fall in torrential sheets. I am driving through the mountains and there are ten minute periods every so often of no visibility; the fog is so thick I can barely make out the lines on the highway. Eventually, there’s a bit of a clearing and it lasts until I’m back, safe and sound, in Northampton. I heave a sigh of relief. It really got scary a few times. I get off I-91 and about a thousand feet in front of my house, a small black cat darts directly in front of my car. It happens in a quick flash. My own little, black cat was run over by a car last March and the experience was so devastating to me I still can’t talk about it or look at pictures of him. For an absurd moment, I think it’s him. At 30 mph I swerve violently into a street sign and up onto a curb. The dogs in the back of the car come flying to the front and my sternum jolts heavily into the steering wheel. I don’t know what else to do but scream like a banshee: “IS THIS SHIT ACTUALLY HAPPENING?!” The little cat scurries away and is lost behind a sheet of rain. A passing cyclist sees the collision and almost bikes into a parked car before righting himself and pedals away, bemused. The dogs are crying. I am crying. My car is crying. I slowly heave it off the curb and, with two flat tires, crawl into my driveway.
I call my Mom, as is always the case, to tell her I’ve gotten home safely. But I can’t conceal the choked bellows coming from my throat and she starts yelling, “What’s wrong?! Are you alright?!” and I tell her what happened. I want to say, “Sorry, Mom. These are the cards you were dealt. I am your fucked up daughter. These are our combined fucked up lives. Happy Birthday!” She tells me to calm down, to drink some tea and to please not get drunk (really?) and says, “Well, at least no one got hurt.”
Of course, she’s right. It could have been a cop calling her at 11:30 on her birthday to tell her I wrapped myself around a telephone pole. But it was just me, panicked as usual, apologetic and helpless. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ruined your birthday.”
Today, I get a day off from work and a million concerned phone calls from my extended family at my office. “Take as much time as you need. Thank God you’re okay.” Triple A comes and tows away my car, I apply for a loan through my fiscal office, take the dogs out for a good long walk and wait for my mechanic to call with the damage. My chest hurts if I inhale too heavily. I buy a quart of mint chocolate chip ice-cream and scan my Netflix account for feel-good movies. Steel Magnolias is on ‘instant play’. I take this as a sign. It’ll be okay, right Truvy? Right Clairee?
Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you.