I just realized this yesterday when I was thinking through the choreography of the surprise birthday adventure Isobel and I were planning to take my mommy on today. The way I keep track of the passage of time as each year unfolds – my own personal calendar — is by following the turning of the final digit in the ages of some of the people who are closest to my heart. It goes like this: It begins with Isobel’s father Jean-David in January (this year he turned 57), followed by my mommy’s birthday on Ground Hog’s Day (this year she turned 67), followed by Isobel’s birthday on Saint Valentine’s Day (this year she’ll turn 17), followed by Simeon’s birthday around the winter solstice (later this year he’ll turn 57), followed by me. I will turn 47 two days before Christmas. Ten years difference between me and Jean-David, me and Simeon. Twenty years difference between me and my mommy. Thirty years difference between me and my daughter Isobel. Forty years different between Isobel and her father. Fifty years difference between Isobel and my mommy, her Gramma. Odd. Interesting. Perhaps meaningful only to me. But meaningful in a way that I can’t really explain in words.
This is really a story about my mommy (and my mommy and me), a tribute to her on her birthday, but every story begins with a preamble, at least the stories I like to tell. So, here’s the story.
My mommy and I were little girls together.
She was twenty-years-old when I was born in 1966. The Vietnam War was in full-swing and my father, also twenty-years-old, was an Air Force Private. When he went overseas to serve as an electrical engineer during his tour of duty my mommy and I lived with her parents, my Gramma Jewell and Grandpa Preston Hotz. During that time it was just little me and my little mommy living and playing together under the watchful eyes of my grandparents (I believe this is the time when my Gramma Jewell and I began to form our deep connection, as well.). There is a photo of me as a toddler playing naked in an inflatable kiddy pool in my grandparents’ Menlo Park, California backyard, my tan, skinny young mommy’s face glowing with happiness as she watched me splash.
My mommy and I have grown up together.
We’ve helped each other through uncertain, frightening, and dark times: The end of relationships; serious health emergencies (this February 19th will be seven years since her ruptured cerebral aneurysm); multiple household moves; economic insecurity; professional struggles and disappointments; spiritual and identity crises. We’ve also supported each other in our shared deep desire for safety, purpose, growth, wellness, and happiness in whatever life-times-and-circumstances we happen to experience.
There have been periods over the decades during which we’ve both been adults when we haven’t understood each another, didn’t know how to talk to or hear one another. There have been periods when we didn’t spend very much time together or talk to each other very often, times when the quality of our relationship wasn’t what either of us desired but was all either of us could muster. But we’ve always in this lifetime been there for each other when it really mattered. We’ve always loved each other, admired each other for all the ways we are so similar and so unalike. And in recent years, we’ve grown closer together as we’ve grown deeper and wider as individuals, as we’ve grown up.
The day I write this essay is my mommy’s sixty-seventh birthday. I can’t believe it! She’s all ages and no age and the age she is now, all at the same time. I remember her during my early childhood, long thick hair down her back, bell bottom jeans on her girl-body, taking care of me and my little brother. I remember taking naps with her. Sweet memories!
Later, in my early and full-on teenage years I remember her working so goddamn hard all the time to keep life going for all of us (and this has not changed); thinking back to those dark times, I feel even now her almost totalizing sadness and disappointment about how things seemed to be turning out for her life, and for our lives.
But I speak of memories, I tell stories about the past. Let me tell a story about now.
Susan Enslow Hotz, my mommy, is a complex, dynamic, amazing human being. She is vibrant, adorable, enthusiastic, fundamentally smart, and open to the world (Even though sometimes still uncertain and not quite sure about who she is and what she should be doing in this world, what this weird human experience is all about. But aren’t we all uncertain sometimes?). My mommy is one of the most sensitive and generous people I know. She was a gifted nurse for many years, and now she’s a gifted caregiver of elders—an elder taking care of even older elders.
I’ve watched her over recent weeks respond to and manage challenges – an unexpected change in her work-life, her brother’s serious illness — that in the past would have knocked the wind out of her so completely that she’d have entered a paralyzing confusion leading to a narrowness of her perceptions about reality, a reduction of her personal agency. But not this time, and not the past few times Big Challenges have come her way.
I’m not engaging in hyperbole or fawning on the occasion of her birthday when I say that my mommy is a major teacher in my life – What an unexpected gift it has been to get to witness how she navigates the current storms with which she’s been faced. Her capacity to be present to what is happening, let herself feel what she’s feeling, but also do what she needs to do to handle difficult stuff gives me great hope about my own growing capacities. And the dreams she dreams about her future self, the adventures she wants to have alone and with me and with me and Isobel, speak to the fundamental optimism she has about her life.
I surely wish I could help make all of her dreams come true. But today I did what I can do right now. Isobel and I took her on a surprise birthday adventure to the coast. We had a decadent lunch (fish and chips, glasses of Vouvray for me and mom). I gave her roses and bought her a book of short stories. We had cardamom honey lattes at one of my favorite cafes. We ganged up on Isobel, teasing her about not wanting to go on a long walk with us and correcting her driving (Izzy drove us to and from the coast…Yikes!). We also shared a heart-breaking moment at lunch when Isobel began to cry–we were talking about some difficult family history as well as our travels through the life course (specifically, our growing older, her father growing older).
In other words, we had a perfect, complex day as three human beings inexorably intertwined with each other, for better and for worse, in good times and in bad. In other words, we lived life as this life is meant to be lived.
What an honor it has been and is now to be my mother’s daughter. Happy Birthday and many returns, mommy!