At the dentist the other day, I took note of one of the two receptionists. She looked about Mom’s age. Like Mom, she was bubbly and laughed often, sometimes out of nervousness, sometimes because humor was simply her most accessible emotion. She had a well-established rapport with her colleagues, referencing inside jokes and moving between Professional Service Mode and playful banter with ease. I watched her take instruction from the other, much younger receptionist; she seemed a bit sheepish about not fully grasping some aspect of their scheduling software, poking fun at her age and separateness from today’s all-digital world. She was liked by her coworkers, quickly recognized by most of the patients that came through the door. This could have been my mom if her brain were still functioning, if she’d left my stepdad long ago, if she’d fulfilled her destiny of following me wherever I ventured, living in an ornately furnished mother-in-law cottage/loft space/attic/basement and being full-time daycare to my son. That’s what we always envisioned for ourselves, before I had work or a husband or a kid. Part of the fantasy was that she’d hold some low-stakes part-time job where it didn’t much matter what she did as long as she was interacting with people, probably her greatest talent and skill.
She almost got to do this — the part-time job part, anyway — in 2004, the year I got engaged. Mom hadn’t worked or had her own car in 17 years. Independence was the casualty of her dysfunctional marriage. She’d fought this reality off and on over the years, never really resigning herself to it. My stepdad wanted her home — even outings to the mall and evenings at friends’ houses (well, her one friend’s house) were highly negotiated propositions. Sometimes my stepdad would wait until the last minute, while she was finishing her makeup or blow drying her hair, to tell her she couldn’t go. It was his car she’d have to borrow for these infrequent jaunts, after all. He did not share enough of his income to even afford her cab fare.
But my engagement lit a fire under Mom’s ass. She was going to contribute financially to her daughter’s wedding, goddammit. She wouldn’t hear my protests. For her, being so financially hobbled as to be unable to help pay for her daughter’s wedding was a concession too big, definitive proof that her situation really was as bad as it looked. Because my stepfather was the sole breadwinner, she told him that either he allow her to work and earn some money of her own or he’d have to pony up for the wedding, a ballsy move for a wife who had become pathologically averse to rocking the boat. She pulled it off — my stepfather relented. Mom and I spent the next year planning and pricing, brainstorming inexpensive tricks and workarounds to craft a low budget but classy affair. She loved it. She found part-time work at a Restoration Hardware, racking up a respectable sales record. Most of her coworkers were young 20-somethings, and the upper-class clientele preferred to buy their expensive pieces of furniture from a mature adult who seemed to know a thing or two about furniture. She was enjoying a degree of independence she hadn’t had in years, and I thought, with the naïveté and magnanimity of a new bride, that this could be her turning point. Maybe my wedding would give Mom her groove back, remind her that she could rely on herself, could survive and even thrive without a possessive, psychologically abusive spouse weighing her down.
It wasn’t until after the wedding that Mom’s bouts of forgetfulness became worrisome. The burst of confidence she felt at the start of her second working life waned under the pressure to understand the company’s computer-based checkout system. She couldn’t keep up with her younger, computer-savvy colleagues, who had cameras on their phones and did something called “texting.” We had one computer at home, and my stepfather made clear that no one but he could use it. He even kept a protective plastic cover on it. Mom was a ball of nerves around the work computer. My husband, Adam, and I created tutorials for her, tried convincing her that she wouldn’t break it, that it wasn’t made of glass. But our reassurances didn’t sink in. Work became a dreaded exercise in which all of her insecurities — all of the bullshit my stepdad had shoveled at her for years — were validated. Her once-friendly coworkers who had enjoyed chatting with her and hearing her maternal advice became irritated by her ineptitude, her seeming unwillingness to master one of her basic job requirements. So began Mom’s slow slide backward. Her second life kicked her back into her first one, where she felt more dependent than ever on my stepdad, the man who’d stooped so low as to be with her.
I like to imagine my Second Life Mom flashing her wide, warm smile from behind the reception desk at the dentist’s office, offering advice on grades of leather at the furniture boutique, or perhaps making small talk in the checkout line at the grocery store. I sometimes linger in front of the For Rent signs outside one-bedroom apartments in our neighborhood, envisioning her inside the blueprint layouts, getting crafty with furniture arrangement to determine the best flow for each room. I imagine her spoiling Henry, driving Adam and I nuts by not reinforcing our parenting rules, and Henry adoring her for it. It wouldn’t be the life she imagined for herself or hoped for when she took her second marriage vows. Leaving my stepdad wouldn’t have cured the deep-seated insecurities that drove her into a toxic relationship. And being a single middle-aged woman would surely present its own set of fears, including financial hardship and loneliness. But I’d have taken it, if only to witness her experiencing her own strength, the spark of her own possibility.