How to Train Your Mother
"Gwynff?" my mother repeats.
"That's right, I'm going to name your one and only granddaughter Gwynff."
Silence. "Is that an actual word?" she asks calmly.
"Yes, I believe it's Welsh for 'We're not telling people the name we've chosen,'" I answer with equal calm.
"Middle name?" attempting nonchalance.
"Nosferatu," attempting to preserve privacy of middle-name decision.
"Ava is a nice name," she says, floating a trial balloon.
"Yes, you've mentioned that," I say, bursting it.
"I mean, not that you have to go with Ava or anything.... Lauren, Emma, Rachel, they all work."
"Gwynff," I say.
My mother and I go back more than 42 years. It took a lot of time, but I've trained her well. She no longer tells me my paintings hang too high or my hemlines hang too low. She doesn't suggest I get my head out of the clouds or the hair out of my eyes. In exchange for which I refrain from complaining bitterly that she served broiled chicken with a side of Birds Eye frozen green beans virtually every night from 1974 to the bicentennial. She doesn't throw my inability to parallel park at me, and I've quit addressing letters home to "the woman who forced me to wear a coat over my Halloween costume." We've managed to forgive each other's frailties, to accept that she's neurotic and I'm, well, even more neurotic. We understand that I will never wear anything that involves appliqué and she will never eat anything that involves calories. It's a complicated truce, but it generally works for us, and when it doesn't, we moan to our respective shrinks and live to love another day. Others are less fortunate.
My friend Robin insists that the next time her mother decides to slip her phone number to a divorced orthodontist from Great Neck, she fully intends to fake her own death. I applaud Robin's creative problem solving and hereby volunteer to show up at her phony memorial service and repeatedly sob, "Oh, dear God, I guess all that blind dating finally did her in."
They say good fences make good neighbors, but I look at the mothers and daughters I know and find myself wondering if the fence must be electrified to keep one's mother from straying into dangerous territory. Will this little person who's currently occupying space in my uterus have to one day line the borders of her heart with razor wire to stop me from chipping away at her choice of laundry detergent and footwear? How do we keep from becoming trespassers in each other's lives?
I ask my mother about this, but all she says is that everything will be fine. She insists I'll know what I'm doing, and that if I don't, little Gwynff Nosferatu will train me. Her vague response annoys me no end. I'm looking for some hard-core mothering here, for a Campbell's commercial in which we're wearing chunky hand-knit sweaters and sharing deep truths over piping hot bowls of tomato rice soup. I want her to brush my hair and call me Cupcake and say the kind of things you read in Hallmark cards—but that's just not my mother's style, nor was it her mother's, and for better or for worse, I'm pretty sure it won't be mine, either. Instead I'll leave my daughter irritating phone messages suggesting she switch laundry detergents and invest in better shoes. And because I'm a writer, I'll probably write her all the things that my mother has said to me over the years—if not in word, then in deed: Always try. Always care. Always believe in what you're doing. Always respect yourself. Always know that you are loved. And always remember how happy you've made me just by showing up for the big dance.
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