Growing up without my mother, yet getting sweet letters in lovely penmanship from her set a pattern for longing and dreams. My next visit with her would be perfect, she would wind her arms around me and tell me how much she wanted to be with me, but that was never how it turned out. Living with her mother, Gram, who had also abandoned her, I was unconsciously absorbing what might be called “mothering angst.” As psychologists say, whatever is not worked out will be played out in succeeding generations. Today, I honor the love they tried to have, and honor too the new story that’s being written in my family with my daughter and me.
In Don’t Call Me Mother, I wrote about the first moments of my mother’s visit as she arrives on the train from Chicago.
The train seems suspended for a moment as in a mirage, not moving; the earth begins to tremble, the whistle splits the air. The power of the onrushing train shocks me, makes my heart pound. People scatter as the steel beast roars in so fast I’m sure it will never stop. When the brakes finally take hold, the train keeps going for a few moments, metal screeching on metal. Finally, amazingly, the huge train shudders to a stop.
I wonder if I will recognize my mother—it’s been a year. I watch a heart-stoppingly beautiful woman step down. She wears open-toed shoes, carries a paper bag, and walks purposefully toward Gram. I watch them watch each other, like birds circling. I break into a run, patent leather shoes tap tap tapping on the brick platform.
“Mommy, Mommy.” I fling myself at her, grabbing her legs, looking up into beauty itself, my mother’s soft eyes, her dark wavy hair. She smiles and bends down so I can kiss her cheek. I can hardly believe she’s real. I cuddle close, inhaling her. Absorbing the musk of her skin, trying not to notice her pushing me away already.
“Hi, Mommy.” I’m nearly speechless with joy.
“Hi, Linda Joy,” Mommy says casually, as if we’ve been apart only a few hours. She kisses my cheek lightly.
“Hello, Josephine,” my grandmother says in her cool voice, eyes slitted.
“Hello, Mother.” My mother exudes a feeling I can’t understand, but she’s no longer looking at me.
We three walk toward the pink Nash Rambler as the great silver train growls and coughs under the wide blue sky.
For the last few years when I visit my daughter, the mother of Miles and Zoe, we make a ritual of riding the red trolley into San Diego, keeping up the tradition of loving trains. My father was a train man, I rode the Amtrak to Iowa dozens of times, and there’s something special and magical about the rocking and rolling, the whistle, the silver tracks. New chapters of our story are being written on each ritual train trip. A happier story is the gift of the generations.
Amanda’s children, wearing their Thomas the Train and Dora the Explorer backpacks, jump up and down as they look toward the train tracks. “Nana, when is the train coming?” Miles, seven, cries out, his big brown eyes glowing with excitement.
Amanda’s her dark eyes and hair reminds me of my mother, her face so much like others that appear in photo albums through the generations.
“The train, the train!” Zoe, four, exclaims, blonde hair flying as she jumps up and down.
I blink my eyes to make sure that it’s now, the new century, not the seventies when my daughter looked like my granddaughter does now. A shiver of delight rushes through me as I watch their excitement about the train, how much they love it, the thrill of the ride. These trains are not the Texas Chief of my childhood, the gigantic silver engine bearing down upon me like a monster, puffing and smoking and trembling. When mother arrived, I’d jump up and down like Zoe is right now.
Those memories are like a pentimento, the ghost image under a painting, shimmering beneath the cheery San Diego day. The red trolley appears down the tracks, vibrating in the light the same way the train did as it rounded the turn near Perry, Oklahoma so long ago.
“Stay back, be careful,” calls out Amanda, a hand on each child’s head. She’s good at this, mothering my grandchildren, and I enjoy watching her, a better mother than I was. How do we learn to mother? I supposed from being mothered, so at least I have somewhat of an excuse for what I didn’t know, and yet I made some difference in our pattern. My mother and grandmother and I never had such joy in simply being together.
Last week, I sorted through thirty years of photographs—there we are, Amanda and I, cheek to cheek, smiling, mother and daughter. Our faces change as we both grow older, but I’m deeply grateful and happy that in fact we are mother and daughter, that we can do the day to day things that allow us to be mother and daughter, imperfect though we are, as life is.
It bugs me that she still smokes, even if a little, and when she gets upset she reminds me of me when I was younger. We are different, and respect our differences. I admire how patient she is with the children—she hugs them, dances with them, giggles and tickles, and talks to them—explaining, teaching, even yelling when necessary, as mothers do.
I observe us doing what Gram and Mother couldn’t do: they didn’t keep loving in spite of their differences. They tried to mold, shape, or criticize anything that did not mirror their version of reality. They lost so much. They lost each other, they didn’t know me or my children. Amanda and I are starting from scratch here. Today at the train station she glances back at me, a knowing look in her eyes as we both smile at the children’s excitement as the red trolley draws into the station. I know what she’s thinking, and she knows what I’m thinking.
She: “Mom, I know how much you love this, how you love having your grandchildren here with you and taking us all the train. This is a better way to know trains than in your childhood when everyone kept leaving. I’m happy that you’re happy, and you have the family you always wanted.”
I’m thinking: “Wow, if you live long enough and do the inner work, keep up your hope and faith in love and work toward forgiveness, you get this reward!”
I’m grateful Amanda is witnessing this with me. I touch Zoe’s soft hair and lean down to kiss Miles. They both laugh and look up at me with big wise smiles on their faces, almost as if they know that we’re chipping away at the lost moments of my childhood, as if they understand the new portrait of a family that we are creating as the red trolley swirls us down the tracks toward a new future.