I have a distinct memory that occupies a very tender space in my reminiscence. It has a little bit to do with the idea of aging, but mostly it signifies a moment in my life when I first felt truly alone. It was my mother’s 32 birthday.
I walked into our bright, linoleumed kitchen in the home we had on the little cul-de-sac in sunny California. The same kitchen where my Mother would bake apple pies from scratch, peeling the apples in spirals and letting me chew on the skin and watch. The same kitchen where I was caught sticking a wet finger in the sugar bowl, in an effort to quickly and efficiently scoop as much sugar into my mouth, which I instinctively knew was a bad choice, though no one specifically told me. Until I was caught. And then I was told. Firmly.
I saw this Mother of mine – the symbol of love, the first person I thought of upon waking – leaning with her back against the countertop. She smiled. I smiled. She told me it was her birthday. The light angled in from the window over the sink, attempting to illuminate the moment.
I told her it was impossible – there was no way it was her birthday. My exact words, at age six, were probably something like “Nu-uh.”
“It is,” she said. “It’s my birthday, I’m 32 today.”
“No. Momma. Look. I don’t turn seven until December 9th. It’s not even past Halloween yet.” I looked around for a calendar, a clock, my flashcards, something to help me explain.
She sipped her tea. “We weren’t born on the same day, Honey.” She sipped again. I just stared, the sound of her voice sounded faraway and tinny – like she was speaking through the drain of the nearby stainless steel sink. The sink that she would scoot a chair up to, after she wrapped me in an apron and outfitted me with yellow, dusty, gloves, so that I could help with dishes. The sink that I would watch the leftover milk and too-mushy-to-eat Cheerios splash into, almost every morning.
“What?” I asked.
“I’ve been alive a lot longer than you. My birthday is on a different day.” Another sip of tea. Another smile.
My memory stops there. Black. Motionless. But a feeling remains – hovers over the end of the revery. A realization that my Mother, my love, my comfort, my hug-machine, was NOT an extension of my own body. Maybe I looked at my arm, maybe I just wandered back into my room, absorbing this instant moment of maturity. I don’t remember.
What I do remember was how that changed my outlook on the world around me. The world a little bigger, me a little smaller. Everything a little less safe.
Except when I would hear my Mother sing, while she sat on the livingroom floor, strumming the guitar on her lap. That same California light reaching across the shiny yellow wood, and warming my back as I lay upon my stomach watching her. I would feel safe.
Three days ago I turned 32.
I have no daughter to reassure that she can face the world alone. So I reassured myself.
In some ways, I am still that six-year-old, looking for meaning by belonging. And in some ways, I am 32. I now see the choice in where I belong. And I am grateful that I, alone, make that choice for my life.