My Mom’s birthday is this week. I sent her a card shaped like a Matroyshka, otherwise known as a nesting doll. We had a small one in the house when I was a kid. It smelled faintly of varnish and wood. It was something to be careful with. Pieces could get lost.
Nothing looks more broken than a Matroyshka without one of her halves. I loved the doll so much, when I went to Poland as a teenager, I bought a bigger one for myself. I always thought of the Matroyshka as a Mama and her babies. They are all connected. The same but different.
I loved opening up the Mama in anticipation of unearthing the tiniest baby, not much larger than the size of a bean. How could something be so small, so delicately painted, a tiny replica of all those other shapes before it? It was both satisfying and frustrating to get to the last one. Surely it could get even smaller.
With that kind of Mother/daughter connection, it was the perfect card to send. But I came to look at the doll a little differently as I was trying to write a new chapter for my book.
Last week, I opened Word and stared at the blinking cursor. In about three seconds I knew; it was going to be hard to write about Mom. Words belly flopped on the page just as quickly as they sprung from my mind. No, that isn’t right. Backspace. Backspace. Backspace. I deleted them as quickly as I wrote them.
I had no previous homework nuggets to arrange. I had no perfect scene with tendrils of possibility waving me in. This time, I had to dive into a stark white page and produce new pages.
Of course, I’ve written about my Mom before—many times. But I knew I wanted to dig for something deeper. In other words, I needed to think of her as a human being and not just my mother. It occurred to me—aside from a spouse, mothers might be one of the most significant people we will have a complex relationship with. Dead or Alive. Involved or adrift. Our connections and conflicts are deep as they might be silent. To understand any of that, I had to stop thinking of how I related to my mother and ask instead, who is my mother independent of me? I had to get to the source.
But what is it exactly that I wanted to say about her? Yes, she’s funny and lovable and yet there is no one I can get into a row with quite like her. When she disapproves of something, it’s like a stink eye hovers above me. Despite it, I accomplish and fail. When I fail, it feels worse. On the flip side, her blessings are a magic swath of miracle light. With it, I accomplish and fail. When I fail, it feels better.
But where does all that love, expectation and disappointment come from?
I gave myself writing prompt: In order to understand my mother you would need to know…..
My mind dove easily into the page and the words started their long striding laps. Easy to see the ripple effect.
I started writing about her growing up in Poland during World War II. Germany invaded Poland just three weeks shy of her 1st birthday. No Barbie Doll themed party plates for her. No smashing her face into a sheet cake. There weren’t such things. There weren’t such things to even imagine.
She grew up poor in a small gray clapboard house. Sometimes they had money for shoes, sometimes not. When I was young she told me that my grandmother took the kids and hid in the woods when they knew Russian and Polish military factions were raiding houses for food and supplies. She stood in cow pee to warm her freezing feet. I’m pretty sure the first time Mom told me, I was fixated on the grossness of cow pee. With three meals on the table in our duplex house, I rode around on my banana seat bike in circles in the driveway not really understanding the concept of survival. I just wanted to shop at the Gap. Eat at McDonalds. Spray perfume.
I heard a million stories growing up. But hearing about the past from your parent is like hearing some forgotten children’s tale. Other worldly, filled with text book morals and values and filled with ancient methods and machinery. So removed from the life I lived, it’s almost as if it happened to an old facsimile version of my mother. In a way, it did.
My Mom has grown and changed with the times. But while current events keep changing her, there is no denying the past she came from. I wrote about how she liked to save things, how it’s in her blood to help people. That she took care of things in such a way that we didn’t live among the broken.
She taught me to make things last.
The more I unearthed my mother’s character, the more our own connection and discords made sense. Like how I couldn’t tell how much I spent on a pair of Tango shoes.
I called her yesterday and asked, “Did you ever not tell your mom something? Did you ever try to keep secrets? Like, what I’m saying is do you think your mother understood you?”
She laughed and said, “She never understand me.”
“Yeah, how so?”
“The older people could never understand the younger. No. Because they grow up difference than we are. That’s why.”
Babcia mowila,wy terez porwiecie, zepsujecie a jak zgubilismy igla to Mama kręcila za mięso . Your grandmother used to say to me, you kids rip things and break things but if I lost a sewing needle (when I was young), my mother used to “twist at the meat”.
At first I misunderstood my mother, I said what about the meat grinder?
“No. No. No meat grinder. Pinch.” My great-grandmother would twist the skin on top of my grandmother’s hands for losing a sewing needle.
Mom continued: “We used to laugh. Do you think a needle, you could just go buy one? No way! Needles were like Gold. Co to jest igła dzisiaj? What’s a needle today? Nothing.”
“Do you think you understood her more later?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Just like you. Now you understand me more than before.”
The metaphor of mother and child works pretty well with the Matroyshka. How we pass on things on to our children, yet still maintain our own sense of self. But after writing about Mom’s life I saw the Matroyshka as a symbol of just my Mom, filled with growing layers that started from a kernel.