So many times I had wished with David that I could behave more like my mother does in her marriage – independent, strong, self-sufficient. A self-feeder. Able to exist without regular doses of romance or flattery from my solitary farmer of a father. Able to cheerfully plant gardens of daisies among the inexplicable stone walls of silence that my dad sometimes builds up around himself. My dad is quite simply my favorite person in the world, but he is a bit of an odd case. An ex-boyfriend of mine once described him this way: “Your father only has one foot on this earth. And really, really long legs…”
What I grew up watching in my household was a mother who would receive her husband’s love and affection whenever he thought to offer it, but would then step aside and take care of herself whenever he drifted off into his own peculiar universe of low-grade oblivious neglect. This is how it looked to me, anyway, taking into account that nobody (and especially not the children) ever knows the secrets of a marriage. What I believed I grew up seeing was a mother who asked nothing of anybody. This was my mom, after all – a woman who had taught herself how to swim as an adolescent, alone in a cold Minnesota lake, with a book she’d borrow from the local library entitled How to Swim. To my eye, there was nothing this woman could not do on her own.
But then I’d had a revelatory conversation with my mother, not long before I’d left for Rome. She’d come into New York to have one last lunch with me, and she’d asked me frankly – breaking all the rules of communication in our family’s hitory – what had happened between me and David. Further disregarding the Gilbert Family Standard Communication Rulebook, I actually told her. I told her everything. I told her how much I loved David, but how lonely and heartsick it made me to be with this person who was always disappearing from the room, from the bed, from the planet.
“He sounds kind of like your father”, she said. A brave and generous admission.
“The problem is,” I said, “I’m not like my mother. I’m not as tough as you, Mom. There’s a constant level of closeness that I really need from the person I love. I wish I could be more like you, then I could have this love story with David. But it just destroys me to not be able to count on that affection when I need it.”
Then my mother shocked me. She said, “All those things that you want from your relationship, Liz? I have always wanted those things, too.”
In that moment, it was as if my strong mother reached across the table, opened her fist and finally showed me the handful of bullets she’d had to bite over the decades in order to stay happily married (and she is happily married, all considerations weighed) to my father. I had never seen this side of her before, not ever. I had never imagined what she might have wanted, what she might have been missing, what she might have decided not to fight for in the larger scheme of things. Seeing all this, I could feel my worldview start to make a radical shift.
If even she wants what I want, then…?
Continuing with this unprecedented string of intimacies, my mother said, “You have to understand how little I was raised to expect that I deserved in life, honey. Remember – I come from a different time and place than you do.”
I closed my eyes and saw my mother, ten years old on the family farm in Minnesota, working like a hired hand, raising her younger brothers, wearing the clothes of her older sisters, saving dimes to get herself out of there…
“And you have to understand how much I love your father,” she concluded.
My mother has made choices in her life, as we all must, and she is at peace with them. I can see her peace. She did not cop out on herself. The benefits of her choices are massive – a long, stable marriage to a man she still calls her best friend; a family that has extended now into grandchildren who adore her; a certainty in her own strength. Maybe some things were sacrificed, and my dad made his sacrificed, too – but who among us lives without sacrifice?
And the question now for me is, What are my choices to be? What do I believe that I deserve in this life? Where can I accept sacrifice, and where can I not?
– Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert