My mother’s father was a musician. He played in a wedding band and taught piano and most of his seven children inherited his musical talents or at least some interest and appreciation. I might be biased but with the exception of an aunt who studied music in college, I think my mother plays the piano better than any of her siblings. She would sit down to play after dinner and the classical pieces she sailed through became our early evening soundtrack as I loaded the dishwasher with my brother and wiped off the table with a damp washcloth.
She rarely played in front of people, saying she got too nervous but when I was in 3rd grade, she offered to accompany my class for our Christmas play and I was so excited. Sadly, the morning of our show, I woke up with a fever and a sore throat and my mother, unsure of what else to do, tucked me in her bed as I wailed that I REALLY REALLY WANTED TO DO THE CHRISTMAS PLAY and drove to the school to play piano for my classmates. She walked in the door an hour or two later with a plate of Christmas cookies and a cool kiss to my forehead.
The school district I attended from kindergarten through graduation mandated music beginning in the 4th grade. You had to choose an instrument or join the chorus. This is how it came to be that I took up playing the clarinet for six years which is a super FUN FACT! you may not have known about me. I don’t remember much about the clarinet except I routinely left it at home the day of my lesson and would call my mother from the school pay phone and beg her to bring it to me and bless her heart, she did it sometimes.
Other times, she did not.
“You were so forgetful!” she said recently when it came up in conversation.
“Was I that bad?” I asked.
She paused a moment.
“Yes,” she said. “I actually think you were!”
And it still holds true. I’m meticulously organized, I color code activities and scribble To Do lists in a notebook and plug appointments into my cell phone with a hundred reminders but…I forget. I leave my credit card at a restaurant, I have to buy a few pairs of sunglasses every summer, last week it took me four days to locate my flip flops.
But my mother does this too. When she leaves the house, if my father and I are nearby, we count out loud and usually before we get to ten, the door opens and she blows back in with a cheerful “FORGOT MY KEYS!” or a more stressed out “WHAT DID I DO WITH MY WALLET!?!”
And then she’s gone again, out the door, backing out of the driveway.
The best thing about my father’s final hip operation over the New Year was that I was finally close enough to see him every day. I am the only family member who lives farther than twenty minutes from my parents’ house and when he first fell ill, as much as I tried, I was never there enough. It was frustrating for me and frustrating for my family who often depend on me and look to me to bring reassurance or a silly story. Showing up once or twice a week felt like a flat out failure and so, when he decided to have his new operation in the city, I was ecstatic.
To make things easier on my mother, I offered up my apartment so she could be a short subway ride away instead of a two hour drive. My bedroom is obscenely large and I was able to move an old twin bed right next to mine so my mother would have a place to sleep. During the biting cold of the early new year, my mother and I would spend the day with my dad in the hospital, pick up some takeout and come home, watching television in my living room and then falling asleep beside each other in my room.
I can’t begin to describe how warm it felt to have my mother staying in my little New York City apartment. How it felt like I finally had something to give, some kind of meager repayment. I felt small and grown up all at once. My mother doing the dishes for me instead of me for her. Me taking her to the pastry shop for cookies instead of her taking me. As we left a restaurant, me reminding her, “Don’t forget your wallet!”
How wonderful and occasionally odd is the role reversal that happens as you grow up, as my mother and I become both simultaneously parent and child to each other. How hard and complicated the things that I never stop learning of how it is to be in her shoes, of why she makes the choices she does, of how she sees the world.
The relationship of a mother and daughter, at least in our case is never really easy. My mother and I often have to work to find common ground, to find the best way to communicate, to find a mutual understanding. We have moments of synchronicity, laughing at a ridiculous story, baking some cupcakes, falling asleep in the same room. We also have moments of dissonance, struggles and different views and wanting to both hold on tightly and let go and often not knowing how to do either.
But we pick up the pieces and we vow to keep trying.
So we clash or we harmonize but my mother and I, after all these years, still continue to make music. Sometimes it makes my head pound. But most of the time?
It is the most soothing sound I know.
*I took this video over the winter without Rita knowing. She’ll probably be mad because she makes a few mistakes but, SHUT UP MOM, NO ONE CARES. Also, breaking my heart a little is the hospital bed you can see in the living room where she’s playing. But awesome to note that we no longer have that hospital bed as dad can climb stairs and now sleeps comfortably in his own bed.*