The way I walk I see my mother walking, the feet secure and firm upon the ground. The way I talk I hear my daughter talking, and hear my mother’s echo in the sound. The way she thought I find myself now thinking, the generations linking in a firm continuum of mind. The bridge of immortality I’m walking, the voice before me echoing behind. by Dorothy Hilliard Moffatt
The hostas are coming up; tiny shoots penetrating the soil and unfurling, the coils of their leaves break the earth in a luscious green array. The newness of each eruption symbolizes advent, a beginning. Winter’s end yields to a yawning genesis of pure potentiality; at its origin, the verdant metamorphosis of a living thing is simply breath-taking. And sensual. It is the caress of a gossamer breeze across the face; the warmth of sunshine on skin; the lyric birdsong of nest-makers in flight. It is, too, the delicate scent of a newborn’s hair inhaled, the soft curve of a cheek traced, the exquisite beauty of a child’s form realized. Senses awaken. Life, lying dormant, regenerates. From nothing, something. This is how it starts—the dawning of spring. The cycle of a human life.
My Grammy died a few months before Sydney, with a full head of copper hair, was born. My fiery Irish matriarch of a grandmother called me ‘love,’ drank Olympia beer from the little cans and quoted A.A. Milne. She was the first person I loved to die (“Don’t say ‘pass away’ when I’m gone, FOR GOD’S SAKE. I’ll be DEAD! Say, ‘She died.’”). I was bereft she wasn’t there to hold her great-granddaughter, but the significance of one life ending and another beginning wasn’t lost on me. Ancestral generations come full circle and begin again. I must fade so my children can blossom.
There is nothing more perfect in the eyes of a mother than her newborn babe. Pure intoxicated adoration transcends anyone else’s definition of pulchritude. I was convinced that no one ever loved a child as much as I loved mine. The moment I became a mother the brilliance and wonder of the miraculous circle of life changed me; overwhelmed me. I had only to hold my babies close or watch them sleep to feel deep stirrings of connectivity to this web woven between us. As my girls grow, blooming with all the freshness of a dewy April morning, I find myself transfixed by their becoming; a tiny new freckle, the suppleness of their skin, angelic faces of porcelain. And the shape of their bodies; works of fine art.
Sydney’s difference is innocently apparent; her face tells the story of her disability. Those who see no further than the recognizable features of Down syndrome miss completely the gift of her essence. But as her mother, I have the privilege of seeing with new eyes. Her purity and radiance transcends any cultural definition of beauty. Her sweet face with its button nose and wide blue eyes—slanted, with skin folds at the corners and highlighted by sparkling Brushfield spots—her gorgeous smile; her long legs and long hair, the long fingernails on short fingers evoke in me a profound reverence. She is elegance. She is poetry incarnate.
Witnessing the unfolding and becoming of all my children is humbling; my big kids, ripening in the heat and passion of summer, burgeoning and evolving into adulthood. That these fully-grown, stunning people are my offspring astounds me. When I notice Melissa’s shape, the swell of her hips, the lilt of her voice and the animation in her gestures—so reminiscent of my own—I think, “She has no idea how sublime she is.” I didn’t know either. I don’t think we can know. I remember cleaning out Grammy’s house after she died and looking at old photographs with my mom; a tattered black and white of her mother in 1936, leaning up against a Studebaker, posing with a easy smile embodying promise; another of my mother as a cherubic baby, curls framing her face; and yet another, my mom again, this time, as a young mother herself with a curly-haired cherub on her lap—me. Gazing at the snapshot, she said, wistfully, “I was so beautiful. Why didn’t I know it then?”
Last summer I had my 48th birthday and a gut-wrenching shift in perception: I will not live forever. Denial — or is it merely avoidance? — is strong, and I’ve been resisting growing older, though in this realization I felt more connected to the intricate web of life; from the vantage point of the autumn of my middle-age. The arrogance of youth is gone and I know how much I don’t know, and many things I won’t ever know. Recently the little girls were speaking of a friend’s mother who is, ‘old and sick’ in the hospital, “Like you, Mom!” Sydney said. Haley chimed in defensively, “Sydney, Mom’s not old and sick. Well . . . she’s a little bit old, but she’s not sick.”
She knows. I am a little bit old.
Catching my unexpected reflection or seeing a candid photograph of myself causes me to face these changes though I’m healthy and still full of life. As a fitness instructor it’s my job to be the epitome of strength and vitality. I drive myself to be a role model so I can guide, inspire and motivate others. My clients are kind and supportive and generous, and I hear their protest, “Oh, you’re not old!” But my hands give me away. My face, my wrinkles, the age spots and imperfections that cover my skin tell my not-so-secret secret. Crinkles hang at my neck, and the softness of my face has given way to a gaunt angularity. My body is starting to suggest I ease up through its injuries and slower recovery. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. Because I don’t feel old; the person who looks out from inside this body every day feels as young as an adolescent. More tired? Probably. Wiser? For sure. My experiences have brought me to where I am, but I don’t want to go back. In mid-life, I am less judgmental, more accepting, more mellow. I am, I think, gentler and more compassionate with everyone, especially myself. I like who I’ve become. So why do I still succumb to questioning my value as my age increases? In a culture that worships youth and beauty—where the two words have become synonymous—an optimistic, utopic wish for the fountain of youth has been ingrained in my psyche as a woman. But the reality is when I look in the mirror I see my mother. When I talk to my mother on the phone, I hear my grandmother.
I want to age gracefully, to love and accept my body and its changes as they happen, but I’m not there yet. But, Sydney is. She is intrinsically, bravely and simply herself, with no apology or thought to being anything but. She is present to every delicious moment, but holds on loosely so when it is time to release and move on, she yields. It’s a subtle paradox of embracing and letting go, of immersion without attachment. This is the gift she gives me. This is how I want to live.
In that spirit of release, I watch my mother, just entering the still, stark season of winter—with its own sage and sanguine substance—holding a quiet wisdom borne from the accumulation of all that has gone before. And just as the flowering plant drops its petals, softens and transmutes in its wilting to nourish the soil for the next blossoming, she bequeaths all that she is to her daughters, linking the generations, and completing the loop so it can begin anew.