I Have My Mother’s Freckles.
I had my oldest son at the same age my mother was when she had me. That makes for a handy benchmark. I can easily think of my son’s age, then myself at that age and ask myself, “How was she when I was 17?”
She was fine.
She was working and incredibly busy as a Realtor in the first big tech boom in the Silicon Valley. My father was equally wrapped up in work with the company he had cofounded years before. They were both occupied enough that when I got suspended from high school, for what can only be described as a lapse in judgement on a choir trip to Los Angeles, it seemed a relief to know I was squared away at home for three days, and wouldn’t need any management or transport to school and back. She worked with a partner, and they constantly juggled clients, newly flush with their start up winnings. Like farming, in real estate you make hay while the sun shines. Those days were very sunny, and very long.
She was, what I’ve come to describe as “fiery.” She could be riotously funny. We teased her sometimes about being ditzy, or about being a terrible driver, which she was. She laughed along with us, never afraid to be the butt of a joke. She looked at us the same way I find myself looking at my own kids, when they are emboldened, full of piss and vinegar, and teasing each other or me in that way someone can tease when they know you best, when underneath is a river of adoration through familiar country.
“How was she when I was 21?”
She was fine. I was in college, close by. She was still working full time. She was vibrant and social. She could talk to a stump, a gift she bestowed upon me, for better or worse. She would have been 48 then.
“How was she when I was 25?” She was fine. That would have made her 52.
She was still working and active. She was enjoying her first grandchild with another soon to be born. Her father now required full-time care. Having been weakened by Parkinson’s disease, he’d suffered a series of small strokes. He often spoke about his upstairs neighbors. The only problem with that was that there were no upstairs neighbors, not for 40 years, but he spoke about them contemporarily, as though he’d just seen them. I’d heard that when you lose your short term memory, the older memories remain intact. These seemed to fill in the blanks. When the newer imprints were lost, they made way for the day to day of the 40's to seep out of where it was hiding and expand into that void.
My grandmother, by comparison, was the picture of health. Sure, she’d fought breast cancer decades earlier, but she was fit and active, both physically and mentally. What happened with her happened later and more slowly, but it did happen just the same.
“How was she when I was 30?” She was slowing down. She was 57.
I was living in Manhattan with a toddler son and a brewing daughter. I’d discovered I was pregnant the first morning I awoke in New York as a resident. We’d been trying for another baby, and had talked about postponing while we settled in to our new life on the East Coast, but had shut down such notions almost immediately. My one condition, moving three thousand miles away for two years, was that life would not be on hold while we lived there. It wasn’t, and my daughter was born on Park Avenue, a bonafide New Yorker. My parents, though no longer traveling as they had previously, sublet a place in the city from March to April, so they would not miss her entrance into the world. They took in the city, and enjoyed their time developing city routines. They took the same walk home at the end of each day, and started to know their neighborhood. There was little she loved more than spending time with her grandkids, and my son adored having her with us in New York. He reveled in her delight of his antics. Every kid adored her.
Married at 19 and the less introverted of the pair, she was in charge of their social schedule as a couple. They didn’t socialize a lot, but they did have a core group of close friends that they would see, and that we would sometimes vacation with, as a family. If there were plans to be made for a dinner party or celebration, or when holidays were coming around, it was she who had the reins. This was happening less now. Some of this was probably because she was no longer working, and didn’t have the same easy social life that comes along with that. She was also busy with our own family and her growing passel of grandchildren. Those years were a veritiable grandchild baby boom.
It’s hard to really pinpoint the demarcations of when things got worse. Little by little, they just were, and here we are.
Once in a while, she looks at me, and the usual frustration fades from her face, replaced with a guileless gaze, straight back into my eyes. It’s those few seconds that I see her still in there, her on one side of a window, me on the other, like she’s on a train pulling away from a station.
When I think about dreams I’ve had, the kind where your surroundings dissipate like mist around you and the plot goes with them, I think maybe that is what this is like for her. When she takes my hand and leads me through her house, pushing me into corners, then taking it again and leading me the other way, maybe she’s in that dream now, not able to place or piece together what is happening, but always searching to make sense. When a spark of recognition happens, it flows through her fingers like sand, and she’s off to look for it again.
Sometimes, when I come home from spending time with her, I find myself reassuring my kids about how much I love them, and telling them that if this ever happens to me, and I don’t remember them or call them names, I want them to know that’s not me, that I don’t mean it. I know she doesn’t mean it either. In my most selfish moments, I can’t help but do the math and wonder how many more years I have before I catch up.
One night many years ago, I was tucking my daughter into bed and she pointed to my upper lip with her tiny finger.
“What’s that?” She asked.
I knew what she was pointing at. From my mother’s Irish side, I have a sprinkling of freckles across my face, while my daughter got the “salt shaker with a loose lid” version across hers. She also got the green eyes, and it suits her, beautifully. That wasn’t what she was talking about, however. Among other things, our family is also Sicilian. It’s not all red sauce and olive skin, however. I have photos of my Sicilian great-grandmother in her later years in Connecticut, with what was a decidedly unglamorous full mustache. I’d been lax in the rituals used to beat back our superficial bugaboos, and my daughter is nothing if not observant of the minute details. I already had a date with the mirror and a pot of wax after her bedtime. Right away, she’d made the same connection I dance with now. All of four or five years old and already a genetic scholar, she says, “I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”
Me too, my sweet, sweet girl.
P.S. You are welcome for the freckles.