March 2, 2000
All About My Mother
After three days at a Palm Springs spa with my mother, I felt like I had just returned from a tour of duty in 'Nam.
That's not really how you want to feel after saunas and raw broccoli and hours of stretch classes, but I blame only myself for the weekend that went horribly wrong.
Our family agreed to chip in to buy Mom a few days at a spa for her holiday gift, a plan that seemed suitable enough until she uttered the following words, plaintively, over the phone: "It wouldn't be any fun without you."
Right then, I should have suggested another gift, said I was too busy, hung up the phone and pretended we had a bad connection. In my heart I knew that three days alone with my mother in close quarters would spell disaster. I knew that to agree to such a plan would be to fly in the face of our time-tested family rule; never, ever go one-on-one with any relative. But I went renegade, dispensing with the buddy system and putting myself directly in the line of fire.
I just couldn't say no.
That is the way it goes between my mother and me. She cultivates a low-level depression and I see it as my lifelong duty to cheer her up, to do whatever might make her happy. The little girl that once starred in dance recitals and brought home gold stars is still tap-dancing as fast as she can just to get one smile out of that surly curmudgeon.
I don't mean that. Well, maybe I do. That's how incredibly complicated this mother/daughter thing is. How can the person I love and depend on more than anyone else in this world drive me so crazy? Sometimes, the obsessive fear of her dying keeps me awake at night, because we're so close I can't even conceive of myself without her. Still, there are times when five minutes of her company gives me the slightly acidic nausea I'm certain is the beginnings of an ulcer.
When I agreed to Viet-spa, it was not only that I was hoping to make my mother happy. I was also buying into the fantasy that my mother would morph into the soccer mom of my dreams: chirpy, polite, listening intently to stories of my life and offering a stream of positive axioms.
This was not to be. By the second hour of our ride to Palm Springs, she was up to her old tricks. Mom isn't real comfortable with deep or personal conversations. I tried to talk to her about my hopes and fears, she commented on a road sign, switched the radio to a news station and looked out the window. Let the resentments begin!
My mother and I dined together, aerobicized together, hiked together. Her every habit began to get under my skin, the constant coughing, the accidental rudeness to service staff, the snoring, the not listening.
Spa cuisine was purging my body of toxins, but constant exposure to my mother was replacing those toxins with guilt. I hated myself for being so annoyed with the person who had worked two jobs to send me to private school and would do anything for me. How could I be so petty?
It happened to be mother/ daughter weekend at the spa. At dinner one night, I looked around at all the other daughters and they looked exceptionally serene. I wanted to be like them, patient and loving.
The hours passed and I wondered how I would make it. Guilt, irritability, and the inability to smoke freely were turning into the trifecta of mother/daughter spa weekend hell. I just wanted to be alone, but I lived in fear of hurting my mother's feelings.
On the last morning, I woke up, stepped outside and looked at the mountains. They were crisp and jagged against the sky. I stopped, my room key dangling from my wrist, just staring. And the first thing I wanted to do was show my mom.
"The mountains just open up my heart," she said. I wanted to freeze that tableau forever, because she seemed almost happy and it wasn't the effort of my tap dancing that opened up her heart, but just the mountains, solid and distant and not something made by me, cut out in desperately perfect construction paper and felt.
On the drive home, she informed me she would be staying another night. My stomach tightened. Traffic clogged at the 101. I got home to find that the plumbing in my building had ruptured, leaving a film of sewage across my bathroom floor. It was too much. I snapped at her, she snapped back and it was all over.
I couldn't stop crying over how much I had failed to make the weekend perfect. I had hurt her feelings and let her down and I just wanted to fix it. She just wanted to leave, which she did, also in tears.
Weeks later, when the smoke had cleared, I asked her if she was ever annoyed by her own mother. "How long could you be around grandma before becoming irritable?" I asked.
She paused and held up five fingers. "Five hours?" I asked.
"No," she said, tensing each finger and turning up the corners of her mouth. "Minutes."
Teresa Strasser is a 20-something who writes for The Jewish Journal.