Beth Falkenstein: It happened more than six years ago, but I will remember the moment for the rest of my life.
My mother had just been given the hideous news that there was nothing more they could do for her cancer. She seemed to take the news pretty well ... she even seemed to display a bit of relief. (It had been a hard fight for her.) I did some sort of favor for her for which she was grateful -- got her coffee or something (OK, I guess I don't remember every part of this moment, although I'm pretty sure I didn't get her a cigarette) -- and as I left the room, she looked at me and smiled and said (this is the unforgettable part), "I did something right with you."
My mother was obviously at a stage in her life where one would naturally evaluate her accomplishments here on Earth, and she was paying me a compliment. She was telling me I was a good daughter. She was also telling me she felt responsible for that.
I took the compliment, and tried to process the rest of it. Was I ... an accomplishment? Was I really the end result of choices my mother made during my "Wonder Years"? I have to confess that the statement rankled a bit. It was a little as if I had just been told I'd been assembled with leftover XB-500 parts from U-Rent a Maid ("Jetsons" fans are laughing). Furthermore, I could easily point to a few characteristics that I believed I had cultivated in an attempt to overcome some of the choices my mother had made.
I went home that night and looked at my daughters, who were then only 8 and 5 years old -- a little too young to know if they would be standing dutifully next to me on my deathbed ... in 75 years. I wondered: Was there anything I could do today that would guarantee that? Something other than threatening to cut them out of my will ...?
I didn't have the answer then. I still don't. Nobody does. The nature vs. nurture argument is as old as the mother vs. daughter argument.
But over the years, I have noticed a pattern: When my youngest daughter has trouble falling asleep, I am certain it is because I have not made her feel secure enough. When my teenager is sullen and detached at the dinner table, I am sure it is because I have alienated her with some offhand criticism. Is that so different from my mother thinking that my bedside manner was a direct result of all those times she rubbed my congested chest with Vicks VapoRub?
If I'm so willing to believe that the bad things are my fault, then it should only follow that the good things are also my doing. Or, conversely, if I think it would be presumptuous to take credit when my daughters succeed, then I should stop blaming myself when they fail. Or how about this: I do my best and accept the outcome, however they turn out. (Well, I could try.)
In the end, it doesn't matter if who I am today is because of (or in spite of) my mother. I am who I am. The important message my mother gave me that day -- the message I will remember for the rest of my life -- is that she was proud of me.