Wednesday, May 28

Independent. Stubborn. Learning from my mother.

Independent. Stubborn. I've been thinking about these two words and what they represent. Rather, I've been thinking about how they are represented by an individual's behavior.

My mother was always an independent person. And stubborn. At least my perception of her when I was a child was that she was independent. Fearless. And yes, stubborn. I remember her seeming to blaze her own trail regardless of what others might think. I thought of her as being her own woman, not cowing to expected behaviors. Of course, I'm a child of the 60s and 70s so the rules were getting muddied and bent and broken anyway, but women of my mother's generation were brought up by women of her mother's generation.

My mother's mother. Her parents were born in Hungary; she was born in Pittsburgh. Steadfast people. Strong, peasant stock. Gypsy stock my grandmother claimed, and with some breathless whispered pride, I might add. My grandmother, we called her GranLaurie, was most definitely fearless and cared little about peoples' perceptions.

GranLaurie was married five times. Her first husband, my mother's father, was Lithuanian. And, like her, a Jew. He and his family fled Lithuania before the October Revolution, or so the story goes. He died when my mother was in her teens. I've seen a couple of pictures of him. He was a striking man. Jet black wavy hair. Handsome. The best picture of him is astride a horse. He is seated bareback and the horse was reared up. My mother claims he was in the czar's cavalry before he and his family escaped to the States. From the picture, it's clear he was a horseman.

Though my mother was born in New York, she grew up in California. It was there my grandparents divorced and it was there GranLaurie met and married her second husband, Joe. My mother tells of him coming from Spain, which is possibly true. I've done some research on Joe's family and there is a strong Mexican connection. I love that. I wish I'd met Joe.

When I was 9, my grandmother moved to Florida. She lived a few blocks from our house. I was able to stop at her house on my way home from school. I got a glimpse of independence vs. stubbornness over some cookies. My grandmother would give me cookies after school. Of course, she did! That's what grandmothers do. My mother would fuss that the cookies spoiled my appetite for supper. Yea, not really because this kid liked (and likes) to eat. I realized much later it was territorial. So my grandmother would leave the cupboard door open and if I happened to have a cookie or two, well, what can you do? Kids will be kids.

My grandmother worked into her late 80s. She had a part-time job. It was clerical, but she loved it and the people in the office loved her. It gave her, yes, independence. I remember visiting her. She insisted she borrow and move a rollaway bed to her apartment for me and my friend. She wouldn't wait until we got there to help. Independent? Yes. Stubborn? Absolutely.

"I can do it myself." It's a line I've used a lot. It's a line I heard a lot. And often with that grim clench of teeth. Independent? Yes. Stubborn. Probably.

My beloved grandmother is long gone. My mother is ill. Struggling with dementia. And because of the dementia she is struggling with wanting to be independent and yet not being able to be independent. She is stubbornly striving to be independent.

Over the years I've had cause to reflect on my life's intersections with my mother's. It's a much longer tale to explain why I skedaddled as soon as I could and had precious little to do with my mother even while seeking her approval and love until I at last gave up on either and realized I needed neither from her. Long ago I realized that her trail-blazing was, in fact, trail-blazing of her own kind but she was also pursued by her own demons of needing to be accepted, of wanting more even though I'm not sure she ever knew what she really thought she wanted.

Last week I broke down. After weeks of visiting with my mother and stepfather, trying to help care for them in some ways; trying to convince them, coax them, encourage them that a move to assisted living was the best move, my siblings and I were able to get them moved. Not without drama nor controversy. Last week, after the move, my mother was so angry at me she would not acknowledge me. In her eyes, I am the one taking away her independence.

Last week, after I got home, I came down with a wretched cold. I felt it starting on the day I was heading home on Wednesday. By Thursday I was feeling miserable. By Friday I was just sick. A friend offered to take care of me. Small things. Making tea. Bringing me some food. I said I could manage.

"I can do it myself."

And it struck me that I was being stubborn rather than independent.

There is no shame in accepting help. There is no shame in admitting one needs help. It does not mean one is weak.

But there is, I know, I can feel, a fine line between being independent and being stubborn.

There is a range of synonyms for the word "stubborn": obstinate, headstrong, strong-willed, pigheaded, contrary, recalcitrant (one of my favorite words), inflexible, uncompromising. In some situations, some of these words are positive.

When I broke down, it was from exhaustion and from being sick. But it was also from the realization that I don't want to be my mother. I don't want to be so proudly independent that I transition to a stubbornness that's unwilling to accept help, that's unwilling to acknowledge a need for help.

I know some will say that perhaps her behavior is because of her disease, and undoubtedly that's true. But she's always been stubborn and, I've begun to see, perhaps not yet clearly, that perhaps she's been more willful than independent.

I come from a line of strong women. I know that, and I'm proud of that. As I think of my grandmother and my mother, I think of their strengths and their weaknesses and how their characters have formed and informed my own.

Independence. Being self-reliant, self-sufficient can be a good thing. Being able to think for one's self is also a good thing. But I like my friends and I want to see more of my friends. I am challenged, encouraged, energized, supported, and more by my friends.

As I reflect on my mother's challenges just now, I think about how I can help her be as independent as she can possibly be and yet still be open to that support and encouragement that friends and family can offer, especially in times of need and difficulty. I think about the lessons I'm learning to be less stubborn, as I'm learning that I don't always have to do whatever it is myself.

I know I can rely on myself. I'm just glad I don't always have to.

No comments: