I was in the shower one morning several years ago, hurriedly washing my hair when I glanced at the white tile wall and saw a perfectly rendered "Madonna and Child" there, delicately lined by the stray strands of my hair. I had stuck the hair there more out of concern for our troubled pipes than any artistic impulse. I threw the matted miracle away, figuring someone more zealous than I would eventually turn a shower into shrine. That I remember. But just after my first child was born, I understood for a moment something crucial about being both a mother and being a child, before that too went down the drain. I've been trying to rescue it ever since.
I was not one of those naturally at-ease new mothers. I was shocked, self-conscious and petrified that I was too young for the task. In the isolated, sleep-deprived blur of new motherhood, I focused on the physical: breastfeeding positions, car-seat positions, leaky breasts, leaky diapers. What's he doing? Is he supposed to do that? How the hell do I do that?
When my son was a week old, I stole a shower one morning as he slept. I was still sore, sapped of energy, focused on protecting my swollen, barracuda-bitten breasts from the sharp stream of water when it hit me: This is why mothers do what they do. I saw the line of mothers and children extending back forever and out into the future, ad infinitum. What I was doing, was going to do, made sense.
It was evolution at work — it was as if I had wriggled out of childhood and become a new species. My newly born perspective filled me with a fresh awareness of just how dependent a child, my child, was. I was 25; I thought I was living a great life.
And I was making it possible for him to live a great life, too. I realized that somebody had done all these never-ending, unremembered acts for me that I was now doing ... and it was my mother! As stupid as I am to admit it, it was a revelation.
Years later, once I'd had them transferred to video, I distractedly watched my parents' old home movies. In one scene, several siblings and I were on the floor, smiling and jabbering, when my mother appeared. She reached down, scooped me up and swung me around delightedly, then gave me a hard, visceral hug and a big smooch on the cheek. It took my breath away to see it. I know how good that feels.
The long-ago mother/daughter memories I have are of me screaming at my poor mother about the looseness of my shoelaces and lying to her about sneaking out of a Brownie meeting. Seeing us there in a few flashes on the TV, I was again in the explosive arc of the centrifugal force between a mother and child, feeling how it feels to love like that, to be loved like that, flying through that forgotten day to the days I swung my own children, to that day where I stood still, smiling stupidly at the flickering screen. Eternity goes by so damned fast around here.
My children are both adults now. God knows what they remember about growing up with me as their mother. I doubt it's the sweet, warm cuddling we did when they were young. I'm certainly not confident about what further video exploration would unearth. They'll probably remember that I woke them for school from the comfort of my own bed. "Time to get up!" I rasped. Maybe that's the only version of me they'll remember. I'm not new, and I rarely improve.
It's been 25 years since my shower epiphany. The day after it, stopped at a light with my new baby in the car, I tried to recapture the meaning of that moment in the shower. All I got was the mood, mixed in with the smell of pumpernickel bagels from around the corner. Maybe the meaning of life is a mood, and another one and another one, unexpected, unexplained and (almost) enough.