I noticed her from a distance. She headed toward us as we walked through the airport. If my mother noticed her, too, she said nothing.
The woman’s clothes were elegant, crisp and unwrinkled. Tasteful jewelry, expensive shoes, posture that was confident and unbent. Her hair and makeup were exactly right; her lipstick didn’t overstate its place on her face. I took in all of it as our strides closed the space between us, and my mind drew two columns. My mother at the top of one, this stranger at the top of the other. In that moment, it was impossible for me not to compare the two women.
When we passed her, she gave me a half-smile, neither kind nor unkind, only pleasant. And a thought skittered through my mind, unbidden, a dry leaf cartwheeling across the top of a thousand more, no bigger or smaller or more colorful than the others.
Why can’t she be my mother?
I thought I meant, “Why can’t my mother look like that?” But I probably didn’t. Not in that moment, not even now.
My mother had just come off a plane from England–for her, the trip of a lifetime.
She had saved for it and planned it for months, down to the smallest detail. The trip would feed her vault of information on our family’s geneaology and, for two weeks or so, she would see the sights. At the time, she was close to 60 years old, and it would be her first trip abroad.
We had visited each other only a few times in my adult life, after not seeing each other for 14 years. Our visits were spaced apart by years, by missteps and misunderstandings. By spaces of time when nothing was misunderstood at all, just unacceptable.
We were smoothing the wood of our relationship layer by layer, as with a plane, shaves of time falling away to reveal something new–with any luck, maybe even something useful. Even though we had been working at it for over ten years, it was too soon to tell whether what we uncovered would become beautiful furniture or a rough bench. Or nothing.
She flew into O’Hare so that she could spend a few days with us in Indiana before returning to her home in Kansas. After a long wait outside customs, I spotted her as she came through the doors, but it took me several moments to get her attention. When she got close, I opened my arms and leaned toward her to give her a hug.
She walked past me and through the doors to outside.
I stood there for a moment feeling like an asshole as my arms dropped back to my sides, their unreturned gesture all the more glaring in the sea of hugs and backslaps, among the chorus of “You made it!” and “It’s so good to see you!” and “How was the flight?” The waves of greetings swelled and faded and built again as another group of travelers burst through the doors.
I did the only thing I could do, the thing I had spent too much of my life doing.
I looked for my mother.
When I found her, she was smoking a cigarette outside.
“Where did you go?” I asked, stupidly.
“I just had to get outside. After being on the plane for that long, I just had to get outside.”
You had to smoke. Fair enough. Maybe you were going a little crazy, cooped up like that, I wanted to say. But how long does it take to stop and hug your daughter after you haven’t seen her for two years?
Splinters. This work between us was full of splinters.
She still made no attempt to hug me. I’m not a hugger by nature and, the fact was, my effort to embrace her was born of expectation and artificial emotion. My way of brushing a glossy stain over something unfinished between us, to give it an easy shine. So what right did I have to resent her for rejecting it? In that moment, an uglier reaction ran through me, pulled along on a string by my hurt feelings. At the last minute, she had asked us for part of the money she needed for the trip and we gave it to her. A nice thank you this is, I thought, even as I was ashamed of myself for thinking it.
I tried again. She did hug me back then, awkwardly, with one arm, her other arm holding her cigarette off to the side. Half of an embrace, a half-hearted embrace. Maybe half. Maybe that much.
We made our way to baggage claim (weren’t we carrying enough?) and toward the elegant woman.
I don’t hope or try to change people, not anymore, at least. That’s like betting on a bad horse. It never pays out. I believe that for the most part we can’t do much except to let people be who they are, and either take them for what they are or walk away. When I saw the other woman, my wish wasn’t that my own mother would take more care in her appearance. (And I knew that the other woman might possess none of the qualities I was assigning to her.) What I wanted was for my mother to be able to move through the world with greater ease, to use better manners, to treat people with kindness. I wanted her to treat me with kindness.
The elegant woman smiled, and my thought was, “Why can’t she be my mother?”
But I was asking the wrong question (a childish question, at that), and about the wrong person. The bigger question wouldn’t fully form until a year or two later, and I may never stop asking it, though nothing much comes of it anymore. It falls like a branch into a current of life that flows faster than the past can catch up to it. Maybe one day I will lose sight of it altogether and wonder why I ever bothered asking. I wish I knew more of the reasons why it cannot be, though I have a lock on a few of them. There’s little between us now but silence. The two of us–the woman who gave birth to me, and me–have passed each other, headed in different directions. The question lies between us, rough and shapeless:
Why can’t she be (why couldn’t she be) my mother?
And I can’t help but wonder if she asks a version of that question about me, if she ever wonders why I can’t be her daughter.