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my mother's daughter
reflecting on one day and two lifetimes
by michelle von euw

We walk the edge of the ocean, just beyond where the waves trickle and die against the sand. There are thick beach towels wrapped around each of our waists; actually, mine is around my waist and hers is cinched up higher. We both wear navy blue tank suits, and we both have dark wet hair, totally different shades when dry, but now, pushed back from our foreheads by salt water and a sprinkling of sand, it looks the same.

We are the same. Once, we were so different. Worlds apart. But the older we get, the shorter the years are between us. I don’t know how that happens; it shouldn’t. We will always be twenty-nine and a half years apart, but how great that distance is has shrunk so much in three decades, and I imagine it will continue to.

The ocean pounds beside us and the sand is firm beneath our toes, and then it’s not. It is gorgeous today; perfect. Perfect on its own merits -- warm enough to feel like exactly the right amount of sun and wind and sky is on our bare arms, but not hot. Not humid. Not uncomfortable. Warm enough to spend an hour, maybe two, in the waves, jumping and floating and completely submerged.

The ocean is how I know for sure I’m not adopted, that there wasn’t some mix-up at the hospital like I used to claim when I was younger, when I was ten and all limbs and burned easily, harshly enough that every summer, I’d miss at least one day of vacation to a dark room and thick white cream slathered on my swollen, bright red skin, while my mother and brother were beautifully tan.

But the ocean: it makes me happier than is logically possible. No matter how cold or how rough or how rocky, I never don't love the ocean. I’ve stood on snowy beaches in single-digit temperatures, and still had to fight off the desire to shed my heavy winter layers and dive into the choppy surface. I’m at my most childlike in the water, dashing at waves, splashing and diving and unabashed in my enthusiasm.

This unreasonable love comes to me naturally, straight through my bloodlines, my DNA, whatever it is in my genetic code passed from my parents, both ridiculously attracted to the ocean, and into me.

* * *
We are not the same. At thirty-five, my mother was putting me on the school bus to go to kindergarten and wiping spaghetti sauce off my brother’s face and cleaning the house she owned two towns away from the one where she was born. At thirty-five, I’m relentlessly avoiding adulthood, living in an apartment five hundred miles from home, working four jobs, staying up too late, watching too much television, sometimes drinking too much alcohol. I’ve never asked, but I can pretty much guarantee my mother never won two games of beer pong in an Arlington, Virginia apartment after last call on a clear cold December night.

“Last week, before church, this strange man said to me, ‘I bet you were stunningly beautiful when you were twenty,’” she tells me as we continue down the shore, the late afternoon sun warm on our backs.

We puzzle over both the words and the context, dissecting the strangeness of it, laughing at the reality of my mother at twenty, barely visible beneath her full Catholic habit, using a name not her own, and vowing to place her life on a path so different than the one it’d eventually settle upon. At twenty, there was no one to admire the beauty of a young novice, at least not out loud, and there were no thoughts of the husband, the children she’d have a decade later. At twenty, she was learning Spanish so she could live among the people of Lima, Peru and teach small children how to read.

It’s safe to say that where I was twenty, my life was pretty much as far as you could get from hers.

We are on vacation, the end of hers overlapping with the start of mine, and the winter has been so tough, so miserable, so mind and body crunchingly brutal, that I cannot imagine being more free, more happy, than I am at this moment, walking beside my mom, with the ocean beside us and the sun above us and the sand slipping its way into the crevices between our toes. There are papers in my bag -- five of them -- which I vowed to finish grading on the plane, but then I got caught up in my book, and my music, and this pattern will repeat itself for the next five days.

I am no one’s teacher this week. I take responsibility for no one’s anything. I am on spring break.

* * *

“Remember when I was a teenager, and you hated me?”

We laugh at it now, about how much I loved talking on the phone and shopping, the things my mother hated the most. Add my emotional response to everything, my utterly loud and squeally and dramatic pitch from laughter to tears, and I still don’t know how we got through those years without her deciding a daughter wasn’t worth it, especially one as erratic and giddy as me.

“I never hated you,” she said, and this is vacation, this allowing ourselves the luxury to ruminate over who we were, and whether daddy ever gave me back my tea set after I refused to clean it up, and was my brother ever punished for crashing my car, an act itself that no one in my family even remembers except me.

My mom reaches down, and picks up a small, tiny shell. “For the babies’ funerals,” she says, and here we are a thousand, fifteen hundred miles away from our oppressive lives and our all-consuming jobs, really away, really on vacation, and the illusion is shattered. Just as my students are always with me, their papers roasting in the beach bag alongside my sunblock and my ipod, my mother’s patients, the ones she serves as a hospital chaplain, are always with her. I don’t pretend that our jobs are at all similar, that instructing college students about pretty sentences is anything like supporting strangers during the worst moments of their lives, but it’s how we react to our jobs, how we take them totally inside us and let them shape us in return, that’s the same.

I say something about the papers I’m not grading, and my mom squints in the afternoon sun. “I was telling my friends about your grading process,” she says, “and I said, ‘I can’t believe how much extra work she does, I don’t know why she does that to herself,’ and then they all laughed. And they said, ‘Yes, we can’t imagine where Michelle gets that from.’”

We turn and we walk, mother and daughter, into the sun.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw


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topic: writing
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juli mccarthy
5.8.09 @ 10:42p

It is both happy and sad when I hear my Mom's voice come out of my own mouth. Sad of course because I will never hear that voice come from her mouth again, but happy because this is the single thing I have of my Mother's, that no one else does. My sister and my daughter both sound similar to her, but three years after she died, I still think it's her when I hear my voice on my answering machine.

I hear women say all the time, in mock (or not) horror, "My God, I've become my mother!" It's a funny comment, but it's also almost always true in some way, isn't it?

lucy lediaev
5.11.09 @ 6:28p

I've always looked like my mother. People I'd never met would pass me on the street and say, "You're Liz's daughter." My sister did not really look like my mother or like me as we were growing up.

Something strange has happened now. In our latter years now that our mother has left us, we look at each other and we see our mother in each other's faces and gestures. We hear our mother, too, as we chat with each other and advise our children and grandchildren.

sandra thompson
5.21.09 @ 8:23p

My cousin, Jean, and I never stop being amused at how much we've each come to look like our respective mothers.

lucy lediaev
5.22.09 @ 2:07p

When I was in my 40s, I met a childhood friend at Disneyland I had not met in 20 years. The first thing out of both our mouths was our mothers' names. We had both turned into our mothers.

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