We Become Them

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I don't look like anyone in my family; when I was younger, this bothered me a lot. Of course, it didn't help that when I was in elementary school, a friend's mother insinuated that I might have been adopted. From there, I spent years agonizing over whether I was truly my parents' daughter, requiring my mother to show me photos of her while pregnant and with me in the hospital after my birth just to appease my fear that I was secretly someone else entirely. 

I don't look much more like my parents now than I did then, though my hair, blonde and stick-straight in my childhood, has now grown dark and wavy in my late 20s, which brings me a bit closer to looking like I may belong to my mother. My father passed away when I was nearly 11 and everyone else on his side of the family has either passed away or broken off ties, leaving me no real metric as to what looking like that part of my family might actually, well, look like. My mom, bless her, is just under 5' tall, with coarse hair and dark skin, neither of which I inherited; I also didn't get her broad nose or her deep-set hazel eyes.

Just before Mother's Day this year, my mom and I got into an argument. We didn't talk to one another for nearly 48 hours except to exchange some angry text messages; for an only child and a single parent with a relationship as close as ours, this was an eternity. I moped about my apartment for the sum of the time, periodically shouting exclamations on both sides of the spectrum, from "I'm so mad at my mom!" to "I just wish I could talk to my mom!" I was unsure whether I should call her on Mother's Day, whether she would want to hear from me, but ultimately, no mother should go unrecognized on the holiday meant to honor them, and so I called.

She was with my aunt and uncle, her only siblings, all gathered at my grandparents' house for the weekend. It was no happy occasion, though. My grandfather passed away in 2008, and in the wake of my grandmother's death last month, the three of them have spent nearly every other weekend there, sorting through her belongings, divvying up her art, settling her paperwork, and preparing to sell her house.

"I'm sorry," my mom said, almost immediately, when we connected. "I'm so sorry." And I was sorry, too, of course. From there, we discussed the incident that had stemmed the argument, born of my mother's concern for my health and weight. "I'm just so worried all the time," she told me. "It's like, as soon as Grandma died, all of her worry transferred onto me."

Needless to say, that's not exactly the sort of torch you hope to see passed down through the ages. 

It got me thinking, though. It got me thinking about all the many ways we become our parents, or versions of them, and of everyone who's ever influenced our lives in a meaningful way. Of how we take on their burdens, carry them as our own, and bear not only their positive traits but also their negative ones.

I am my mother's daughter. I may not have her stature or her eyes, but like her, I am resilient and adaptable. Like her, I enjoy solitude almost beyond being social, and I am more comfortable in a good book than a large crowd. Like my mother, too, I am sometimes messy and absent-minded, sometimes too emotionally fragile, sometimes unable to verbally express myself even when I most want to. 

I am my grandmother's granddaughter. I believe in social justice and dedicating myself to the causes that matter most to me. I believe in politics and staying educated, if only so that I can hold my own in an argument. I believe in talking to strangers, sometimes even when they'd rather I didn't. For better or for worse, I also believe in sometimes being a nag in order to get things done, in harping on my points until the subject of my harping gives in and does it my way.

So much of me can be attributed to my father and grandfather, too. My dad's sense of humor, but perhaps also his distance. My grandfather's charisma, but also his depression. Though our family pictures may not immediately belie my heritage, I am a product of these people who so lovingly made me their own, who ensured that I grew into a unique individual who also comprised the very best that they had to offer - along with some of the bad parts, too, because we are human, and that's how this works.

I never needed to look like anyone in my family. They've been within me all along.

(And Happy Mother's Day, Mom. You're my favorite person.)

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