Love in the Time of Nazis
I've had a month to mull it over and I am ready to put words to my situation with my daughter. I am prompted by an e-mail I received from her today--nothing personal, just a random (and poorly informed) anti-French thing she forwarded to her whole list--but it left me with the feeling that she was reaching out to someone, somewhere. At least she did not delete me from her e-mail list, which I take as a hopeful sign.
We have had a difficult relationship, as many mothers and daughters do. But it wasn't always so. I remember the many times I felt completely blissed out by the smell of her hair or the little dimples on the back of her hands, how complete I felt with her tucked in safe in the next room. I treasure every one of her childhood particulars and can hear her voice in my mind at two, and six, and twelve. I will always have knowledge of her as the sweet and divine being she was before the culture and hormones took her to some dark place from which she has not returned.
I can see now how I have played Demeter to her Persephone, clinging and wailing as she pulled away from me and put herself in Pluto's path. And I can see that it is time to let her go. I was reminded of this last week when my partner and I happened to catch "The Horse Whisperer" on cable. That movie came out in 1998, the year before our lives fell apart. Because she was enamored of horses and a gifted rider, I took my daughter to see the movie after school one day in May of that year. It turned out to be one of those stories in which the characters were, then and now, archetypal forces that I recognized and felt deeply. There is a scene near the end where Robert Redford's character, who has been instrumental in healing a damaged horse and its damaged rider after a horrible accident, tells the young rider "There's a time coming when you're not going to need me any more, and that's time's now." It's a wrenching moment. It's the essence of what it's like to know the end of your abilities and the beginning of possibilities that will not be yours to see. It is a potent reflection of where we are now, my willful sprite and me. The time for assessing and intervening is past, and she can ride this horse or not. Time will tell.
It was a blessing to see her emerge from the crowd at the airport, from the nightmare of Iraq, into real time and a common place. We had a few good moments in which I remembered how we laugh at the some things and speak to cats in a language that only we comprehend. But too much of our time together was hard. During the course of our visit, I was ignored, snarled at, thanked sarcastically, and pummeled verbally. I was told not to touch her, not to talk to her, that I wasn't on her side, that I didn't understand, that I was beneath contempt. After spending my savings on furniture for her apartment, I was dismissed because I would not buy her cigarettes. I took as much as I could and then I left. We are two very different people traveling radically divergent paths. And yet we are so very much alike: strong, independent, even defiant in our urge for authenticity. Her choices have been driven by her desire to differentiate herself from me, so she quit school, refused counseling for her depression and self-destructive behavior, and joined the military, in part to distance herself from her educated, self-aware, peace activist mom. She accused me of loving her too much and not loving her at all, and the things I endured to find out which one was true would fry anyone's hair. I can still see my beloved baby in her face, contorted by rage and frustration at what she has created for herself, but since our visit I can also see the mask that covers it with false pride and unwarranted confidence. She has set a hard course for herself and it is inevitable that I am somehow to blame for all of it.
So what did I do wrong? I did not take charge soon enough or forcefully enough to shape her. I became a parent with the idea that a child is a full being unto herself, and I was too passive, letting her unfold like a little flower to reveal herself over time. Lacking authoritarian instincts, I failed to provide the rigid structure that I think she needed and that she has found in the military. I was too temperamental and wrapped up in my own difficulties to have known the depth of hers. I let myself believe that others knew better than I did what was best for my child, and we both suffered for it. Damaged by my own ancient history, I failed to assert my place at the center of her childhood with confidence.
I did some things right, too. I was there, and I made sure her dad was, too, even though we were divorced. I made a home that was clean and attractive and full of good things for her mind and body. I filled her life with people who shared her ever-changing interests and opened doors for her in music, dance, gymnastics, ice skating, horse riding, martial arts, and spirituality. Our house was filled with books--the one thing I could hardly ever say "no" to--and there were no questions I was unwilling to answer if I could. And I asked her questions. I encouraged her to think critically and follow cautiously. I shrugged off the blue hair and Goth clothes as a necessary station of the passion of her identity formation. I claimed my own flaws and kept them separate from her, apologized when I needed to so she would learn what it meant to be human and in progress.
Oh, to do it again knowing what I know now. It's every mother's lament.
I suspect there will be a long silence between us, and she will go through some trials by fire. She will be drawn to male authority and rigid dogmas and throw her righteous wrath my way. She will fail to understand the history leading up to the moment in which she lives. She'll rally with the gay-bashers and racists and fundamentalists and think that she's found something solid there to stand on. She will continue to engage in dangerous behavior until some germ or psychopath takes her dare and ups the ante. She'll fumble and fall, like we all do, until she recognizes that the monster she is fighting is herself, not me. Then her life will truly begin.
Until that day, I'll content myself with loving my vision of her and keeping it, like an heirloom, for the day this howling breech between us is closed, all the time knowing that it may never be.