It Happens To All Of Us Eventually

(Les Anderson/Unsplash)
(Les Anderson/Unsplash)

It’s as if I was possessed. My toddler’s face and hands were smeared with … I don’t remember what. Spaghetti sauce? Peanut butter and jelly? No matter — she was sticky enough that anyone touching her risked adhering to her. And so I did what I vowed as a beleaguered, grossed-out child that I would never, ever do. I spat liberally into a napkin, then scrubbed her face and hands.

In that early moment of motherhood, I started becoming my mother and, in some cases, my mother-in-law.

While my kids loved my husband’s mother — an admirable and good-hearted woman — they did not love their stays in her Long Island apartment. Keenly conscientious about healthy eating, Esther had created a kid food desert. No, it was crueler than a desert, because it was stocked with food, but none of it was palatable to anyone under the age of 55. Our little daughters would awaken on Saturday morning, hungry for breakfast, and be faced with a choice of desiccated bran cereal (“twigs ‘n milk,” we called it) or plain bagels with nothing to spread on them but pasty organic almond butter submerged beneath a sludgy two-inch pool of oil.

The author pictured with her late mother. (Courtesy)
The author pictured with her late mother. (Courtesy)

Now, as I realized with horror when I recently had the rare pleasure of having a child in the house, my house is barren of Fruit Loops, freeze pops, or even flavored yogurt. My kid-hostile kitchen has become her kitchen. It’s the gastronomic equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s basic cable — 57 channels and nothing on.

I used to be perplexed by my mother-in-law’s habit of standing in the living room talking, abruptly leaving to go do something in her bedroom, returning to the conversation mid-sentence, then departing it again for another dip into her bedroom.

“Why doesn’t she just go into the bedroom once, at the end of the conversation, and do everything she needs to do in there at the same time?” I used to ask myself. Now I realize that this was a stupid question. She was doing whatever she needed to do – writing that check, emptying that trash can, applying mascara — in the moment that she remembered to do it. She was demonstrating the wisdom of not relying on her aging memory.

I now do the same; in fact, repeatedly climbing the stairs to do multiple tasks that the younger me would have done in a single trip has become a crucial part of my fitness regimen. I also employ my mother’s “visual clue” strategy. Like her last two apartments, my home has become dotted with post-its containing names, numbers, and oblique references (“MAH – Tues reg” and “PPM Ithaca? 1964?”), all scribbled in a vanishingly tiny script that appears to be mine.

Like my mother, I now study real estate listings in other cities, just in case we might want to move. I ask my daughter to text me when she returns home from her travels, and needlessly urge her not to drive to work on snowy days. I buy far more dark green leafy vegetables than any two people can eat in a week, and helpfully send job ads to my daughter's boyfriend. I am convinced that our thermostat is out to get me.

I don’t know if I’m ripening, regressing or simply manifesting who I’ve been all along.

But having come to grips with the fact that I’m becoming my mother, I am also now consciously trying to emulate some of her more endearing qualities. I compliment total strangers on their clothing and chat with them about their children. I doodle on restaurant napkins (though only the paper kind). I sing with friends, even in public places.

I don’t know if I’m ripening, regressing or simply manifesting who I’ve been all along. But I do know that I’m not alone in noticing these moments when my past holds up the mirror to my present and saying “Welcome back.” Almost every woman and man I know within my generational cohort has these instances of astonished recognition as we find ourselves channeling our parents.

So on my birthday this year, when my daughter wished a happy day “to the woman I’m proud to be turning into,” I felt blessed to be mother to such a wise child.


Headshot of Julie Wittes Schlack

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, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” and “Burning and Dodging.”



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