I was so nervous, I felt nauseous. It was Saturday August 11th at 9am and I was on my way downtown to see my mom for the first time in ten years.
Would I remember what she looked like? Would she remember what I looked like? Do I look anything like I did at 22 years old? What would we talk about?
She spotted me standing at the intersection of Randolph and Dearborn and started bawling immediately. She looked both different and exactly how I remembered. Same hair. Same glasses. Same style. She hugged me and buried her head in my shoulder, sobbing “You’re so beautiful. So stylish. I’ve missed you so much.” I stared at the ground, waiting for my own tears to well up. But they never did.
For all the tears I cried talking about her, writing about her and thinking about her over the years.. when I actually saw her, nothing came out. It felt like meeting a stranger — because for all intents and purposes, she was.
The morning blurred together as I showed her around Chicago and told her about the city I now call home. “Here’s the Bean. There’s the Wrigley Building. This is the river walk.” The more I talked about the city, the less I had to tell her about my life and everything she’s missed out on.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want her to know, it’s just that I didn’t know where to start. Ten years is a long time in anyone’s life, but it’s an especially dynamic chunk of time for someone young and just entering adulthood. So much changed between 2008 and now. I switched careers. I changed jobs multiple times. I moved to Rochester to live with my dad and then moved out on my own. I assembled a crew of incredible friends who changed my life forever. Left Rochester and moved to Chicago. Made even more incredible friends. Dated. Had my heart broken. More than once. Went back to school. Found new hobbies. Fell apart financially. Got back on my feet. Traveled all over. Lost grandparents. Watched my sister move to Texas. Cried happy tears when I found out she was moving to Chicago. Started teaching. Left an abusive job and went out on my own. And on and on..
It’s been so long that I entered and exited entire cycles of life that she wasn’t around for. Talking to her was like a first date, if my date was someone I had 30 years of baggage with. Every word felt both rehearsed and uncomfortable. And every question grated at me — a stinging reminder of how much she missed out on.
We were sitting in a restaurant eating lunch and out of the blue, she asked me, “So, what do you do for fun?”
Of all the words spoken that weekend, those seven will stick with me for a long time. An icebreaker question from my own parent. Because she didn’t know the answer. I immediately thought of my dad, and what he would tell her on my behalf. That I love trying new restaurants, but usually the gritty hidden gems, not the bougie places that headline newspaper reviews. That I’m one of the most well-read people he knows. That I love music and going to concerts. And almost any sporting event. Cooking, but not really baking. That I love taking my fur nieces to the dog beach, and snuggling with my cat Kiko.
He knows because he knows me. And in the moment, I wanted to tell my mom she’d have to learn those things by getting to know me again, too. But I just didn’t have the will to fight. So like a business card swap at a networking event, I recited off my “stuff I do in my spare time” list so that she could check another box of things she now knew about her estranged daughter.
That’s how so much of the weekend felt. Like she had a list of facts she came to collect so when someone asks about her kid, she’ll have a couple stories to tell in return. “What do you do for work? When did you leave journalism? Do you have any published pieces anywhere? How many? What is your apartment like? Do you own your place? How much is rent? Where is your office? Is it nice?”
I was annoyed to be having what equated to a job interview style conversation with my own mother, and simultaneously relieved to be answering those questions instead the ones I thought we’d be discussing, like, “Do you think you and Molly will ever be able to forgive me for what I did?”
But that topic never came up.
My sister and I have talked ad nauseam about why mom lashed out at me the way she did all those years ago. The most plausible explanation we can come up with is that as I got older, I became a living example of everything she didn’t get to do, everything she didn’t get to be. I went to a prestigious university and she never had the chance. I got to spend months living in another country and she barely traveled at all. I got to spend my early 20s being a college kid instead of being a new parent with her first child.
You can apply those same statements to my dad, but I never felt like he was anything other than thrilled for the opportunities presented to me. Every time something awesome happened, he was genuinely excited and told me to keep going. But I always felt like my mom resented me for my adult accomplishments. Like she would’ve done the same or even better if she was just given a chance.
I spent the entire weekend wondering if she still felt that way. While she’d say things like, “That’s great,” or “Good for you,” there would be moments in between where she’d slip up and say something like, “I wish I could’ve gone to college. Still paying for you and Molly, you know.” Or, “Oh, you’re getting Invisalign? Wish I could do that. We paid so much for your dad’s teeth years ago.”
In conversation, I brushed them off. After the fact, I can’t help but view them as a window into how she really feels – which is exactly how she felt all those years ago. That her family held her back from the life she was meant to live. And that no matter how many years go by, no matter how many miles and memories are between her and us, she’ll never get over this feeling that we all did her wrong.
I had hoped that ten years away from the baggage she so detested would allow her to go do all the things she had always wanted. To make herself the person she always wanted to be. To see the places she always wanted to see. And she did do some of that. But after all the exotic trips, theater shows and work promotions, I realized the person deep inside is exactly the person she’s always been. The woman whose insecurities and shortcomings are everyone else’s problems but her own. A different outer shell, but the same insides. A stranger on the surface, but a familiar core.
That’s what is making it so hard for me to figure out how to move forward from this. I don’t think anything about her has changed. And if I’m honest, I mostly knew that going in. When I told her that Molly was still really hurt and didn’t want to see her, Mom’s only response was, “Well, you guys hurt me too.”
She’s never said “sorry.” Not for what happened ten years ago and not about anything ever. My dad says it’s her biggest flaw – she never apologizes. So instead, she brushed it all aside and spent an entire weekend trying to build a new house, in a new city with new memories.. with no care that the foundation’s still broken.