"People like people who like people," her mother said. "In other words, what I’m trying to say is, if you just like people, then they will like you back That’s really all there is to it."
She looked out the window in her kitchen. It was dark outside and so it shone black in the background with her reflection nearly perfect and seemingly projected out from the surface back toward her. She was wondering at this spectacle. At the beauty of it. At the way, she knew, if she stared long enough, she would also be able to see, in addition to, not instead of, but along with the stunning shiny blackness of the surface and her reflection, along with them, superimposed on them, she would also see the bushes outside. Eventually she would see the gravel alley and the empty lot next door. The window would become a shadow box for everything in front of it and behind it. A shadow box holding all the world, all of its shiny, reflective, in-between blackness, all that came before and all after.
Her aunt and her grandmother, her grandpa and her uncle were asking her what she thought of her mother’s plan to take in a “foster child”. Her opinion, regarding the beauty of the darkened window and her own reflection therein was something of which, at not quite six years of age, she was much surer of than her answer to that particular question. She was, in fact, completely baffled and unsure altogether what to make of this plan of her mother’s.
If she had known the word impulsive she might have used it, but she didn’t. And if she had, known the word, she would have recognized its negative connotations. And therefore, she would never have applied it to her mother. The whole topic made her uncomfortable, so she was grateful it was asked while she was looking away, out — or rather, into, the dark window.
Her voice, delivered and projected, as if on cue, was clear and tinkly and brimming with over exaggerated and dramatic enthusiasm.
"I think it’s the magnificentist!" she nearly screamed. "I have always wanted a sibling to do battle with!" And upon completing this exclamation she gave the air directly in front of her a downward, underhanded cartoon punch, much like Popeye was so famous for delivering - for emphasis.
Her line delivered, she listened to the smiling chuckles of her relatives’ approval and felt, although she had no word for it, either, a surge of naturally satisfying chemicals and brain activity firing away in the core of her six-year-old head. Her eyes, just now beginning to pick up the outline of the giant oak tree across the street, stayed fixed and focused straight ahead. The approval felt good and it was a signal that she had behaved as she should. All was well and her view into the outside world was still mysterious and beautiful.
"Quit worrying about it, quit being upset." her mother said. "Being anxious doesn’t leave you any energy to put towards showing the other girls how much you like them. And that’s the trick. If you can just relax and let yourself enjoy their company," her mother insisted. "When they smile at you, smile back! It’s as simple as that! Reflect whatever they offer back to them. People very much like to see that - to see themselves reflected in you. You can do that! I know you can!”
Her mother had been a cheerleader. Her mother had been a cheerleader here in this same gym. It had been forever ago, she knew. Years ago, decades ago, in a time so far removed she couldn’t even fathom what it must have been like, but it had been in this exact gym. She was just in seventh grade now, but her mom and been in high school then. Her mom had been, not only a varisty cheerleader for four years, but team captian. Her mother was sure she would make the squad. Her mother, the ex-prom queen, was sure she would make the cut. Her mother was completely undaunted about the all-school try-out performance and the student-body voting that would follow. Her mother loved a good popularity contest. Her mother had never lost one.
She, on the other hand, was less certain. She had been doing a lot of smiling and a lot of saying yes and a lot of nodding and nodding and nodding her head. But no matter how friendly she was, no matter how closely she watched, tracked their eye contact, met each pupil with an unwavering iris, they never seemed to relax in her presence. They always seemed put off by her close attention. She found the whole thing exhausting. But her mother kept insisting she was on the verge of a social breakthrough, she just knew it. So what else was she supposed to do but go through with it.
The tryouts were excruciating. She did not make the team. Not in seventh grade nor again after the tortuous second round of tryouts in her eighth grade year. She thought maybe, at first, it might be a blessing. That, she might gain some standing among the other semi-popular girls who tried out but didn’t make the squad. It was an elite team, after all, only half a dozen girls and nearly five times that many tried out. But it didn’t work that way. If her social status was no worse after failing at tryouts, it certainly wasn’t any better afterward, either.
What she was beginning to notice, though, was her mother’s own suspectibility to the very social strategies she preached. She found that if she reflected her mother’s demeanor and mannerism back to her, her mother was pleased and delighted and flowed like a human fountain of approval. It made her feel good, it made her feel better, it was a comfort when the other girls behaved like they were some secret code she was never going to crack open. It was a process that happened very slowly, so slowly that, even if she had understood the concept of irony, she would never have applied the word to their situation. But it did happen. It happened that eventually, to become just like her mother became her highest aspiration.
"Remember, other people just want to be liked and fit in, too. If you like them and make them feel comfortable, if you go along with them and don’t be bossy or pushy or try to run things, everything will be fine. As long as you are nice and follow the rules. As long as you do, you can expect and demand that everyone else follows them, too. That’s how it works."
Her mother had set up the lunch. She was to meet the daughter of an old friend of her mothers, long since moved away. The girl, the young woman, had once been her friend when they were small, when they were children. They hadn’t stayed connected but her mother had arranged this meeting, this lunch.
It was awkward but she was lonely and her mother was just trying to do everything she could to help her make friends at college. She was so anxious. She was so lonely. She had no other options and so she felt she had to make this work. She had to make a good impression. She would reflect everything she saw in her new companion, and she would be sure to interject some of her own opinions into the conversation. This was something her mother did not directly suggest but she had watched her do it on so many occasions - she had even memorized many of her mother’s opinions.
She could tell the lunch was not the instant click of connection she had so longed and hoped for. But it didn’t seem to be going as bad as some of her worst interactions, where people were clearly, she couldn’t figure out why but she knew it nonetheless, put off by her eager desire to connect. She was sensitive enough to know that there was something off in her own social behavior, but she wasn’t able to figure out what it was. The dilemma burdened her with intense anxiety and she knew that sometimes, as a result, she came off sounding weird.
As they walked back toward the dorms on the southern edge of campus after salads and gyros, things seemed to be easing into a more relaxed flow. The other woman was talking about her boyfriend, she mentioned he was Jewish, but oddly, referred to him as “a Jew:. This seemed weird to her, especially because, at first it sounded like the girl had said, “Jap”. And “Jap” had sounded kind of like a racial slur (it was the eighties so it was still hard to tell in the midwest, back then). She wasn’t fond of racial slurs, but on the other hand, she wanted to reflect this new potential friend’s ideas back to her, she didn’t want to be challenging. She also knew that her mother was not fond of Asians — because her mother feared they were going to take over the engineering and design fields and interfere with American technology profits. The girl sensed they were at a potentially critical juncture in the interaction, she grew a bit flustered and then she just blurted out the first words she could shove through her mouth.
"Oh! Whew! He’s Jewish. I thought you said he was a Jap!"
The other woman’s eyes grew wide when she heard the term, and a veil of aghast and dark shock passed quickly over her face. The girl took this as more negative Asian sentiment and barreled on forward to reflect it back, again.
"I don’t have many prejudices, but I sure don’t like Japs!" She’d heard her mother say that exact line before.
The other woman stammered then. The mood between them immediatly shifting for the worse. Again, she felt that hideous sense of having blown it, but not exactly understanding how or why. She felt cheap and inauthentic and not at all like herself. She felt physically ill with loneliness and like she did not know who she was, nor have a friend in all the world.
All of which was pretty much an accurate description of the exact state of affairs.
A few short months later when she looked back on the interaction, after receiving only a semester and a half of liberal arts education, she realized how sickening her comments had been. Although she knew no words to describe the intensity of her shame, she failed to make the connection to the “social training” she had received from her mother. She merely felt baffled that she might have been such a horrid, horrible person. Indeed, even at the time of the realization, she had very little idea who she was. At that point, she was just beginning to figure out who she wasn’t. Who she would absolutely refuse to be.
"Rules are made to be followed," said her mother.
She discovered, again and again and again, over the course of the next two and half decades, that she was not meant to follow rules. Slowly, gradually, she stopped emulating her mother. She still loved her mother of course. But oh! how she rebelled against her. How she argued against those rules. Her mother remained as firm as she did, both of them, solid and stubborn in their now different positions.
"Rules are made to be followed," repeated her mother.
Until one day, she stopped fighting her. She set down her differences. She chose space and patience and understanding instead. She quit fighting her mother. She knew they were different. Clearly. There was no reason to go on battling her. It didn’t make any difference.
Her mother was, after all, mostly a very good hearted woman. She helped people, she made a difference. She was kind and considerate to everyone she encountered regardless of anything about them. Her judgments were largely reserved for those distant from her, and for abstractions. She spoke harshly but acted with softness.
At the age of seventy-five, her mother, who had retired from a long and respected career as a hospital and then as a school nurse, was now working twenty hours a week as a case worker at the local food pantry. Beyond coordinating and dispersing food donations, she worked closely with a variety of economically challenged clients to manage their access to public aid and resources. She did so effectively and in a manner fueled by what seemed infinite friendliness, in a manner that was almost uniformly appreciated by both the administration and the clients. She had been a good mother, she was a good person at heart.
"One of my clients called me a bitch today," her mother said. "I wanted to tell that old man to take a chill pill and choke on it! Not really. But a dog that bites the hand that feeds them, soon finds himself in the kill animal shelter."
She did not know how to reply when her mother said this. She found herself at a total loss. Her mother, sensitive enough to put a disclaimer on the choking joke, was completely clueless about the intensely degrading comparison she made immediately after. Her mother remained oblivious to the fact that she had just called the poor people she worked with stray dogs who, if not as infinitely friendly and grateful as she liked, deserved to be “put down”. This was the analogy. There was no way around it.
In that moment, it seemed there was no way to be authentic, no way for her to be herself, no way to be her own person. She could not reflect back the sentiment. There was just no way. But neither could she, intentionally, shame her mother.
She went home silent, feeling barely a hair’s breadth past the reach of shame herself. And even then, she wasn’t so sure. She didn’t have any words for it.