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Transforming A Home — And The Nature Of A Mother-Daughter Relationship

(Nolan Isaac/ Unsplash)closemore
(Nolan Isaac/ Unsplash)

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A week before her daughter’s wedding, my cousin Carla told me that she was off “to do whatever Sasha needs me to do.” What a lovely gesture, I thought, to submit yourself so thoroughly to the needs of your undoubtedly overwhelmed child. But then Carla had always been a tireless, devoted mother, admirable in the myriad ways she put her children first.

A month later, I had a similar opportunity. Our daughter and her boyfriend had just bought a house – their first (and only, they fervently pledged).

What a lovely gesture, I thought, to submit yourself so thoroughly to the needs of your undoubtedly overwhelmed child.

Buying a home, buying a home with someone else, with all of the spoken and unspoken negotiation and commitment that entails – that’s a big league, grown up move. We’d served as an occasional sounding board when they were house-hunting, even gave advice when solicited, but we were fundamentally just bystanders. And we’d discovered that it was surprisingly easy to be a mere witness. Their deliberations about financial feasibility had been realistic and disciplined. The trade-offs they’d made between location, amenities and price were thoughtful and sound. Our frugal, practical daughter had made it easy for us to let go.

They had three weeks between closing and moving day in which to turn a structurally solid but aesthetically dismal little split level into a home that wouldn’t depress the hell out of them. Constrained by budget, but empowered by YouTube do-it-yourself videos, Layla and her boyfriend created an ambitious renovation agenda and enlisted family members to help them.

My husband and I drove four hours to the Connecticut city that would be their home. When we arrived at the new digs, Layla was packing up their soon-to-be-vacated apartment, but she sent us an admirably terse text message enumerating our tasks, ordered in descending priority. My husband was to install new flooring in the basement. My job was to paint, starting with the living room. The specific instructions for each room were explicit and, I felt, inviolable.

I hated scrubbing the corners of the walls, trying to scrape away the decades of grime. I chafed against the tedious precision of taping and painting trim. But I loved the simplicity and directness of our activity. In scraping off black and orange wallpaper that had been retro kitsch when it was first applied 40 years ago, in transforming living room walls that had been the color and texture of fossilized oatmeal, we were helping them to create a home that would be airy and light. Armed with nothing but energy and brushes, we were laying down a floor beneath their feet that would be unblemished by years of grit.

In that empty, echoing room, I was taken back to other rooms – the one we’d built from two-by-fours and sheetrock when our older daughter was born, and the one we’d painted and adorned with stuffed monkeys and elephants and dancing mobiles when Layla followed her five years later.

I’d prepared those rooms for the babies that would soon inhabit them in the delusional belief that I would be master of their universe, able to create for them a safe, loving, creative space in which to grow. They would be blissful and untainted by history or fear, and so would I. Of course, being the mother of small children is never that simple and rosy. The joy is tempered by fatigue, helpless worry and nagging self-doubt.

I had discovered the unexpected joy of being a parent to an adult, of being free of power, free of choice and free to simply be of use.

But now, 30 years later, I was experiencing the purity of purpose that eluded me then. That work weekend and the one that followed didn’t feel like a sacrifice, but like a lovely sort of freedom. It was akin to being a new mother all over again, intensely focused on my daughter’s happiness, but without the responsibility of creating it.

She was a grown-up, signing the mortgage documents, shoveling the walk, choosing the paint colors, assigning the tasks. She didn’t seek or need my authority or advice, at least not about these matters – just my unquestioning help.

The days wore on, and the freshly painted walls turned from mush to sky. Like my cousin Carla, I had no agenda of my own beyond being of service to my child. And I realized that there was nothing self-abnegating about it. I had discovered the unexpected fulfillment of being a parent to an adult, of being free of power, free of choice and free to simply be of use.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery. By day, she leads the product innovation team for C Space, a Boston-based consumer collaboration company.

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