"You don't need to go to that conference," she says. "Stay with your work." Loretta Howard is talking straight, not speaking business-school lingo to her mother, who can't abide words like prioritize. It's not a simple reversal of roles—advice to the mother who once harangued the child to get off the phone, finish the homework. My daughter is telling me—what I should know after all these years—to give myself to the difficult book I'm writing. She's sorting out what is important from what is unnecessary and, I suspect, reminding me that I'm still somewhat uncertain about my worth, apologetic about the writing of novels, mere stories that have consumed me. It's a matter of public record, my coming-of-age when women, too many of us, had to school ourselves to believe in our working lives.
But my personal history, so entwined with my daughter's, cautions me to be silent as she deals with Kate, who has decided against breakfast. Loretta's clever game that gets the cereal down reflects the same competence I see in her professional life, with the added sweetening of love and correction. We are privileged to live across the street from each other, which makes New York something of a village for us. Almost daily I observe Loretta's enlightened care of Kate. I remember mothering with a well-worn copy of Dr. Spock and an unreliable mix of hearsay and old wives' tales. Many of my friends claim we had it easier. Perhaps, but I'm learning what many women who never had the comfort of staying home have always known—that easier may not be better, that taking your place in the world may nourish the folks at home, as potable as mother's milk.
"Have a great time," my daughter says. The sky overcast, gloomy, I'm heading out for the weekend, my canvas bag stuffed with notes for Tuesday's lecture. But then, Loretta knows how to savor her vacations, how to switch from duty to delight.
"Sweat the onions," she instructs, just back from her course at Le Cordon Bleu. The onions must be limp and golden.
"The little pearl earrings, Mom." I put the big silver dazzlers back in my drawer.
We are in the gallery looking at a gorgeous Hans Hofmann canvas—bleeding primary colors. "What's so wonderful about Hofmann," Loretta tells me, "is the way he connects to the past while breaking new ground."
I believe I'm learning.
Maureen Howard is the author of Big as Life (Viking).
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