When my mother had been widowed about three years, we took her on a tour of a residential development for active seniors near where we lived in New York. She was visiting from her home in Michigan, and our plan was to get her to move. From our point of view, she was rattling around all alone in a three-bedroom house, and she rarely got a chance to see the grandchildren. We thought she'd jump at the opportunity to sell her property and not only settle into a community with people her own age but also be a short drive from her family.
Wrong. She politely but firmly refused and I couldn't understand why. Now, though, I totally get it. I'm a single ThirdAger myself, and although I adore my grandchildren, I don't want to uproot myself to move from New York to Phoenix. Looking back, I realize that my mother had roots of her own. Her routine then was very different from mine now, but only in the particulars. She belonged to church groups and a dating club called Mature Minglers. (Seriously!) I take ballet classes and get together with my friends for dinner or day trips to the country -- Manhattan-speak for the suburbs. My mom loved her multigenerational neighborhood with the little kids across the street and the young couple next door and the empty nesters down the block. I love my multigenerational apartment building with that same cast of characters plus others such as the live-in superintendent who takes care of my cats when I'm away, the Japanese family across the hall that invites me over for parties, and the charming centenarian who still walks her own dog and loves to chat.
Pondering those realizations, I started thinking about other ways in which, to my surprise, I now appreciate what my mother felt and did when she was the age I am now. She hardly cooked at all after so many years of making proper meals when she was bringing me up. Instead, she ate out a lot or popped a Lean Cuisine into the microwave. I do that these days, too. She became an opera buff and listened to Milton Cross faithfully on the radio. I walk to Lincoln Center to the opera. She read voraciously, all those books she had been meaning to read for so long. Mine are on my Kindle, but that's the only difference.
Also, she didn't want Christmas presents to lug back home in her suitcase and then clutter up her living space. I would pout because I liked picking out and wrapping presents for her and I hated the idea of her being the only one who wouldn't have something under the tree. One year I ignored her wishes and bought her an Elizabeth Taylor fragrance gift set because she had always been star struck. She thanked me graciously on Christmas morning but asked me the next day if I could return it. She said she'd rather donate the money to the church.
Guess what? I would currently rather give to a charity than receive a gift for myself. And my daughter is the one pouting because she doesn't get to pick out presents for me. She cheats a little – I got tiny, sparkly earrings and three restaurant certificates this year – but I don't imagine she'll fully comprehend until she reaches this stage herself.
What my daughter does understand, however, is who I was when she and her brother were very young. That's because she is the mother of two small children of her own. And so even as I am becoming more like my mother in her later years, my daughter is becoming more like me in my earlier years. Daniel J. Seigel, M.D., in his book "The Developing Mind," explains the phenomenon of becoming our mothers this way: "The psyches of those who have been an intimate part of our development live on within us in both the details and the structure of the ongoing story of our lives."
And so it is that I hear my daughter speak to her sons in a tone of voice that is eerily like mine: "Don't forget to wash your hands." "Sit up straight." "Can you ask for that nicely, please?" "Did you say 'thank you?'" "It's your brother's turn." She adds some modern admonitions, too, but she sounds like me nonetheless: "You can't ride your bike unless you put on your helmet." "Don't forget to use the hand sanitizer." "That's Daddy's cell phone, and it's not a toy."
On a deeper level, I hear her saying in one breath that she's exhausted and then in the next breath that it's going too fast and she wishes they would stay like this forever. Those were my exact words and emotions when she was growing up.
As I was saying good-bye to my daughter at the airport after my most recent visit, I started to mention something about how one day in hindsight she would know precisely why I don't want Christmas presents to cart home with me any more. But I bit my tongue. She'll find out in due time. There's no need to rush her.
I said it long ago, and I feel it still: It's going too fast and I wish she'd stay like this forever.
Sondra Forsyth is a Senior Editor at ThirdAge.com.