When close friends tell me I am stylish — which doesn’t happen that often, trust me — my first instinct is to disagree. I am not being humble. I consider myself more style-conscious than stylish. I could live in sweatpants, quite frankly, but I am painfully aware of what I am wearing every time I leave the house. And that’s because I was raised by a mother with a highly critical eye.
Years ago, before Mom’s onset of dementia, she and I had a lot of watershed moments. When you both are fortunate to live long enough — and at this point she was in her early eighties and I was in my late forties — you get to apologize for unfortunate incidents. If you are lucky, they become water under the bridge.
“I’m sorry I was so critical of you and your clothes when you were growing up,” Mom told me one day to my surprise. “Years ago, Aunt Bernice told me that my criticism was making you a nervous person.”
I had to stifle an outburst. “And yet you haven’ really stopped!” I wanted to say. But really, is it kind to fly in the face of a sincere apology? I always have believed in room for individual improvement, and I hope I always will.
“It’s OK, ma,” I said. “I hardly remember it.”
In truth, I did hardly remember it. I had blocked those painful incidents from my mind, even though they obviously had lasting effects.
The water under the bridge came rushing back at me during a visit to my daughter Veronica in college over a year ago. My two high school besties Cindy and Di had made the trip with me, and during our lunch my daughter surprised me by asking them a question.
“Did my Grammy criticize my Mom a lot when she was growing up?” she asked. I stiffened for a moment, wondering if I had carried on my mother’s work by criticizing my own daughter overly much. But looking into Veronica’s eyes, I saw only concern. I relaxed, and realized that Veronica had witnessed many of my mother’s pronounced judgements about body shapes and clothing choices — many of them aimed at complete strangers, especially TV game show hosts and the network news anchors. Even the New York lottery announcers weren’t exempt.
As Di prepared to answer, I found myself intrigued. Yes, that’s how well I had put it all out of my head. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat as my wise friend formulated her usual measured response.
“Well, it wasn’t an outright criticism as much as ‘Mary Ann, are you shuah you want to weah that sweatah?'” Di said in perfect imitation of my mother.
“Oh gosh,” Veronica said, and I nodded in agreement. Di’s pronouncement had unlocked a flood of memories, none of them palatable.
“I actually recall her saying, ‘Have you evah thought about looking at yawself in a full-length mirra?'” I said, and we all laughed.
Which brings me to this current and terrific piece of irony. Mom is most “on” — and we are both happiest — when we are bantering and laughing. Our best and funniest conversations center on her thinly veiled, beat around the bush criticisms of you-know-who. I guess you never really DO forget how to ride a bicycle.
The other day I told Mom about our lease of a new car.
“What color is it?”
“I can’t guess. I don’t even know what day it is.”
“OK. I’ll give you three choices. White, red, or black.”
“It’s not blue?”
“No, that’s not one of the choices.”
“But blue is pretty.”
“I know, but I did not buy a blue car.” (A mistake, obviously. Strike one.)
“Ok, then it’s red.”
“No.” (Strike two.)
“No.” (Strike three.)
Mom went silent. She did not even want to consider the possibility that I would be foolish enough to buy a black car. She and Dad had always said they were too hard to keep clean. So I had to come clean myself.
“It’s a black car!”
“Well it looks nice.”
“Don’t you like black cars?”
“Well, I don’t have to drive it.”
I paused for a second, defeated. But if dementia doesn’t teach you how to make lemonade from lemons, then you’re not paying attention.
“You’re funny,” I told Mom, which began a dialogue very much like the one between Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in the movie “Goodfellas.”
“It’s good to be funny,” I finally said to Mom.
“Is it?” she said.
“Sure!” I said.
“How would you know?” she answered, and I literally erupted in surprised laughter. Whatever had been going awry with the neurons in her brain, they were presently doing a spectacular job of connecting at my expense. And frankly I was thrilled to still know that there was a spark.
“What’s going on up there?” John yelled, but I could tell by the unworried tone of his voice that he knew.
“Nothing that hasn’t been happening for years,” I wanted to say. But I kept laughing.
It just felt so good to laugh. And even better to have Mom laugh along with me.